Kirtland AFB in central New Mexico boasts an impressive array of special operations aircraft, 67 in all, ranging from MC-130J Commando IIs to HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to the unique CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors.
Surprising, then, that alongside these high-tech secret mission marvels, operators and support personnel alike agree that the base’s most used, most innovative training tool is a World War II-era hangar on the base’s west side. The airmen affectionately call it the “Monster Garage.”
Retired technicians known as “Hammerheads,” along with 58th Special Operations Wing personnel, have filled the hangar with unwanted and discarded military derelicts and refurbished them into training platforms used by thousands of airmen. These recycled hulks have saved USAF upward of $57 million.
The 58th SOW, besides its clandestine activities, trains more than 14,000 students a year to support eight systems, including the CV-22, HH-60G, MC-130, and UH-1N helicopter. Some 24 crew positions get trained through more than 120 courses, both at Kirtland and other training sites. The wing’s offsite activities include survival, evasion, resistance, and escape courses at Fairchild AFB, Wash., and Eielson AFB, Alaska.
It would be prohibitively expensive to train all those airmen on operational aircraft, and the aircraft would be tied up for coursework instead of flying. That inspired the Monster Garage idea.
Broken and unwanted
Hangar 482 was built in World War II to house B-24 Liberators. The massive building is now filled with aircraft mock-ups and partial aircraft the Air Force and other services had planned to discard. Most of the airframes were headed to the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. One is an old Marine Corps Huey helicopter that was condemned to be used for target practice.
“We take broken, unwanted things, and turn them into useful, cost-effective, and functional training aids,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth McAdams, then commander of the 58th Training Squadron, in a 2013 news release describing the garage.
Of the equipment in the garage, 85 percent came at no cost to the wing or was purchased for $1, said Anthony Tapia, a technician in the facility. The crew scours the Boneyard, Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services yards—even big-box stores—for low-cost equipment that can be used in training.
Among the denizens of the garage are full-scale C-130 fuselages and the “WarWagon”—a standard trailer that looks like it was used as a concession stand or to carry lawn equipment, now outfitted with a 7.62 mm minigun that the squadron uses to train gunners for Pave Hawks. A UH-1N Huey, set up on scaffolding, has a Walmart Christmas tree hanging from its tail to represent downwash and the dangerous area around a tail rotor that can affect hoist systems.
“It’s low cost—and much faster than we could it get it done anywhere else,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Lee, the operations officer for the 58th TRS.
Perhaps the most storied of the Monster Garage training systems is the full-size MC-130H Combat Talon II fuselage it uses for loadmaster instruction. Until 2012, the garage used an ancient C-130A fuselage for this purpose. The equipment was 50 years out of date and no longer really representative of the modern Hercules.
It was “similar to using a 1960s Corvette to teach a mechanic how to fix a 2013 Corvette,” said Col. Dagvin R. M. Anderson, then the 58th Special Operations Wing commander, in a news release about the garage’s new trainer.
The garage had heard about an MC-130E Combat Talon I airframe that Air Force Special Operations Command retired on Sept. 18, 2012, at Duke Field, Fla. After a few well-placed phone calls, the Monster Garage crew diverted the plane’s final flight from a trip to the Boneyard to Kirtland instead, where the fuselage was converted to a Combat Talon II.
The Monster Garage crew got to work, getting rid of all the fuel and other hazardous materials. They cut off the wings and clipped the propellers. They removed and replaced 81 cubic feet of wiring and modified the cargo bay for loadmaster training.
The cost of all this was about $265,000 and about three years of work—a bargain compared to a contractor’s estimate of $15 million to build a new trainer.
The updated trainer allows almost all loadmaster training to be done on the ground instead of on an operational aircraft that would cost $14,000 per student. During a recent Air Force Magazine visit, airmen demonstrated a simulated drop of a special operations team and their Humvee from the mock Talon.
In 2014, the Monster Garage team was recognized with an Air Force Productivity Excellence Award from Air Education and Training Command for the Talon build. The team hopes that the Talon modification can be replicated soon for an MC-130J.
A mythical beast
The crew’s decision to save the Talon I from the Boneyard didn’t just provide a cheap way to train airmen, it saved some Air Force history. The aircraft, tail No. 64-0567, is better known as “Wild Thing.”
During 47 years of service, it recorded more than 21,000 service hours, taking fire in Vietnam and participating in Operation Eagle Claw (the failed “Desert One” Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980), Urgent Fury in Granada in 1983, and Enduring Freedom in 2003. Wild Thing got around.
Its most famous mission, however, came in 1990. During Operation Just Cause, Wild Thing flew Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from Panama to Miami. The very seat the dictator sat in is still in the fuselage.
In much the same way, the Monster Garage crew decided to get creative to help train airmen on the UH-1N. In 2013, the crew found a Huey that had seen long service training marines at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. It was old, in disrepair, and faced the likely undignified fate of being used for target practice.
The team flew on an MC-130 to Pendleton to retrieve the aircraft. To get it back, they removed the main rotor and tail so it could be squeezed into the aircraft. A scant three inches of clearance separated the top of the chopper from the ceiling of the cargo bay inside the Hercules.
“It was the first time we know of [since the Vietnam War] that a Huey was put on a C-130,” said Maj. Rob Faith, assistant operations officer for the Trainer Development Flight, in a 2015 news release.
Marines had used the helicopter for years to train every UH-1 crew chief and had taken to calling it “The November.” It cost about $3,000 to get the Huey ready for training airmen, not including cost of transportation or man-hours of labor. In its new life, it’s used to train every UH-1N student in the Air Force, including mission pilots, instructor pilots, special mission aviators, and special mission aviator instructors. On average, each student gets six instruction hours—about 100 students per year. Previously, training costs were about $12,000 per student on a real helicopter. Monster Garage team members say it saves about $1 million per year.
The Monster Garage crew isn’t just using the equipment from yesterday; it’s also looking at new, high-tech ways to teach its airmen.
CV-22 Osprey training involves a Cabin Operational Flight Trainer featuring an “augmented reality” system that looks like night vision goggles affixed to headgear. Sensors on the airman’s body and cameras track movement. Blue screen technology, similar to that used in TV weather reports, surrounds the aircraft, and computer graphics create a realistic surrounding environment.
The system is able to simulate an airman working on an Osprey in darkness, or in a sandstorm, and is used for scenarios such as loading and unloading and working on the aircraft’s systems while on the ground.
An instructor can watch the student in a normal, fully lit environment while the student is working in simulated darkness.
Airmen become so familiar with the Osprey’s systems in the simulator that they are experts before moving on to an actual aircraft.
“If you think of training as ‘crawl, walk, then run,’ this is crawling and walking,” Faith said. “Running is the training in the actual aircraft.”
While this dedicated system has been shown to be effective, the Monster Garage team is looking for newer, more realistic ways to train. They are now doing a proof-of-concept of a commercial, off-the-shelf HTC Vive virtual reality system to simulate working on the aircraft. The system includes a headset and two handheld controllers—similar to those used in home gaming consoles—that are used as “virtual wrenches” and other equipment to work on a simulated Osprey.
Like everything in the garage, the virtual system isn’t a perfect replica of flying on a real aircraft, but it’s close enough.
“You know it’s fake, but it looks real,” Lee said. “It’s real enough for realistic training.”