NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, Patuxent River, Md. – Early in her career, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jerin Raby had so many bruises on her shoulders and legs, a shipmate expressed his concerns about her health and well-being.
It was that experience as an aviation maintainer on an aircraft carrier lugging a 65-pound toolbox up and down steep stairwells to get to the flight deck and repair an aircraft—and coming up with a better solution—that helped Raby win the Athena Project DC 2.0 challenge April 3 at the recent Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland. Her idea was simple: Take the 35 pounds of tools out of the 30-pound box, put them in a specially-made backpack and get to work.
“I was always told that if your idea was too simple and too smart, the Navy would never go for it,” Raby said. That axiom may change if her idea is adopted.
Pitching innovative is what the Athena Project challenge is about, and Raby is the second consecutive Sailor from Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic Detachment Patuxent River (FRCMA Det Pax) to win Athena DC and secure the Adm. Sims Award for Intellectual Courage. Last year’s winner, Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pecota, was a mentor this year and convinced Raby to pitch her idea this year.
“We encourage our Sailors to brainstorm and come up with ideas to make things better,” said Lt. Iain Dunkle, FRCMA Det Pax innovation officer. Detachment leadership challenges thought through a pair of think tanks: the Junior Innovation Think Tank for petty officers 2nd class and below, and a corresponding Senior Innovation Think Tank for petty officers 1st class and above. Members of the think tanks are given an hour a week away from their normal duties to come up with innovative solutions.
“We look at a wide range of ideas to make something better or improve efficiency. Then, we take the best ideas to the leadership team to see how we can implement them,” Dunkle said.
Raby faced a similar scenario as she talked about her idea during Athena DC 2.0, where several Sailors pitched their idea in a “shark tank”-type format to a panel of judges and audience members.
Held at various locations around the Navy, each Sailor had just a few minutes to talk about their idea and answer questions. At the end of the session, a winner was selected.
“I remember hearing a couple of pitches that included high technology,” she said. “My idea didn’t involve any technology; I was just talking about a backpack.”
Once it was Raby’s turn, she was nervous. After starting to read from her notecards, she took a deep breath and put her cards in her pocket.
“Can I just talk to you?” she asked the panel. As she started telling her story, the words flowed, and she painted a picture the judges could identify with and understand.
That heavy toolbox was Raby’s arch-nemesis on the ship.
“I remember reporting to my first duty station in April 2010 as a brand new maintainer with Strike Fighter Squadron 83 deployed with USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69),” Raby said. “I was told if I could carry my own toolbox, I could work on the flight deck. I’d like to think that first time I lifted it an inch off the deck.”
Raby didn’t want special treatment because she was the only female maintainer in her work center; she wanted to work on the flight deck like everyone else. After working to lift and carry her toolbox, she came up with an idea to strap the box to her back. While still heavy, she was able to get up and down the steep, narrow staircases.
“I dropped my box a few times,” Raby said. “I know one female maintainer who dropped her box, stumbled off the stairs and hit her back on her box. She’s now on disability for life. It’s not a female issue, because I’ve seen smaller men struggle with the box as well.”
One might think maintainers could just grab a couple of tools and run up to the flight deck, but the odds are against selecting the correct tools.
“By the time you run up and down the stairwells three or four times to get the right tool, it’s just easier to bring them all up to the flight deck,” Raby said. After having some success strapping her box to her back, she began to put serious thought into her idea. Fast forward to 2016 and her assignment to FRCMA Det Pax, where Raby started working on her idea again. After talking with Pecota and others, she found a potential solution in a commercially-available tool backpack that has slots and compartments to hold the same number of tools as her box.
The box weighs 30 pounds, minus tools, and costs approximately $300, while the backpack weighs approximately six pounds and retails for approximately $100.
“You drop 25 pounds immediately, and you have both of your hands free to safely go up and down the stairwells,” she said.
“After I told my story, some of the judges asked why we weren’t already doing this,” she said. “Afterward, I had several people give me their card and ask if we could talk more. It felt good.”
Lt. Cmdr. Kacey Bowman, FRCMA Det. Pax maintenance officer, said she is proud of the innovation coming from the detachment.
“I am humbled, amazed and proud of our team who go above and beyond their daily tasks searching for innovative and creative ideas to serve the fleet,” Bowman said. “Pecota and Raby are two Sailors who spend a lot of their time thinking of ways to serve the fleet the best way possible. I am so proud of them and their accomplishment at Athena Project 2.0. I am inspired by their talent and the practicality of their ideas.”
The next step for Raby is to find a sponsor to purchase the equipment and test her idea.
“I hope this is something I can do for the maintenance community,” she said.
The Athena Project, named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, creates a platform for Sailors to pitch innovative ideas to improve their command or the Navy in an open forum surrounded by fellow Sailors and leaders of industry, academia and government.
The award is named after Adm. William Sims, a World War I innovator who improved the accuracy of Naval gunnery.