Computers to replace paper technical orders on flightline Published Dec. 10, 2010 By Wayne Crenshaw 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Within the next four years, laptop computers will be as important to aircraft mechanics here as wrenches and screwdrivers. Many Robins mechanics are leading the way in the first test of "e-tools." That's the term used for the 300 laptops deployed on the flightline in the last 12 months to help replace paper technical orders, or TOs. TOs and other technical documents are an essential part of a mechanic's job. Mechanics have to follow the documents step by step for everything they do, even procedures they may have performed many times before. Previously, mechanics would go to a library to get a paper TO, use it to do the job at hand, and then return to get another one for the next job. With e-tools, mechanics have the laptop on the aircraft and can instantly look up any technical order. Among the advantages are mechanics can be assured they are using the most up-to-date TOs because updates are fed to the computers automatically. The mechanics here, and at several other bases in Air Force Materiel Command, are using a variety of e-tool models and filling out surveys of how they like each one. In the coming months, a decision will be made on the best models for long-term use. Starting next fiscal year, which begins in October, a three-year plan for full deployment will begin. Approximately 600 laptops a year will be purchased until every mechanic at Robins has one. It's an Air Force Materiel Command initiative, and Robins is taking the lead on the testing phase, and has been in contact with mechanics using e-tools at other AFMC bases, including Tinker AFB, Okla., Hill AFB, Utah and Edwards AFB, Calif. The idea is to see how the laptops work in different environments, and gauge such issues as battery power and how easily the screen can be read in sunlight. "We already know what the specs are going to be, so what we're looking at is what the maintainers prefer," said Gregg Kelley, Robins' e-tools program manager. Tim Reynolds, Robins' technical project lead for e-tools, said there have been some legitimate complaints, such as short battery life. But program officials are working to resolve those issues, he said. "As with any new program, you are going to have some hiccups along the way. But, for the most part, we feel like it's working," Reynolds said. E-tools are not new to Air Force maintenance. Field maintainers have been using laptops for years; it's just now coming to depot maintainers. Specially-designed cabinets were built not only to store the laptops securely in individually- locked drawers, but to make software updates and charge batteries while the laptops are in storage. F-15 aircraft mechanic Michael Osborne has been using an e-tool for several months and likes it. "The time it saves is pretty considerable, not just in doing the job but the time it takes to get off the plane and go get a TO," he said.