Capstone team works to improve Air Force midflight refuelers’ comfort

Mar 18, 2024
Florida Poly capstone team standing in front of airplane
Florida Polytechnic University seniors Douglas Poole, Corey Kado, Ayden Larson, Sebastian Sage, and Dustin Fandetti are members of a capstone design team tasked with redesigning the boom pod seating of the military KC-135 aircraft. The group is standing with the plane at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

A team of senior students at Florida Polytechnic University is working to make it easier and more comfortable for a military KC-135 aircraft’s boom pod operator to refuel planes midflight.

The team is made up of four mechanical engineering majors and one engineering physics major, Sebastian Sage.

“The KC-135 is one of three models of aerial refueling tankers in service, and it’s the oldest, being built back in the 1950s,” said Corey Kado, a member of the team working on the capstone project sponsored by MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. “In the 1950s, they didn’t really care about ergonomics, and it caused a lot of issues for the people who did that job.”

The KC-135 includes a boom pod, which is a small, horizontal area where the operator responsible for transferring the fuel from one aircraft to another sits. Its existing design challenges include an awkward hump that causes discomfort around the stomach area, inadequate back arch support, and subpar chin rests resembling shin guards, team member Douglas Poole said.

“The current design is not really designed for the human body,” Poole said. “It makes you sit in an uncomfortable position where the back is not arched properly, and the chin rest isn’t the best.”

Sage added that the seat’s design, which requires the operator to lie flat on their stomach, places much of the person’s weight on their shins, rather than on a more natural place like their knees.

“The specific issue they have is the poor ergonomics causes a lot of back and shoulder pain for the operators because they have to be in an uncomfortable position for hours on end,” Sage said.

Dustin Fandetti experiences the boom pod chair
Florida Polytechnic University mechanical engineering major Dustin Fandetti experiences the boom pod chair inside a military KC-135 aircraft at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. This is part of his team’s senior capstone design project of redesigning the seat to improve its ergonomics and comfort. Fandetti is discussing his observations with teammate Douglas Poole.

The team's approach involves modifying existing features like adding armrests, footrests, and enhancing cushioning while optimizing ergonomics through new chair designs. Complicating matters is the fact that the operator must look through a small window utilizing mirrors to adequately see the aircraft and properly conduct the refueling.

“They have to arch their back on their stomach just to see out the window,” Sage said.

After spending the fall semester researching ergonomics, the team has spent the spring building and refining a workable prototype. At the core of the project is something that each of the students focused on time and again throughout their courses at Florida Poly: the engineering process.

“What we learned in almost every class is the engineering design process and our main takeaway from this is experiencing the trials and tribulations of that process,” team member Dustin Fandetti said.

But they also are gaining an extra career boost.

“I want to work in aerospace, so working on this aerospace-related project will help me build connections or at least boost my credibility in the industry,” he said.



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