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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — For airmen in Europe, innovation can pay off, literally.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe–Air Forces Africa’s second annual Innovation Madness contest will earn one of its eight wings $175,000.

But this year, the command is spreading the wealth and giving away $250,000 in six categories, including $50,000 to the runner-up. Last year’s winner, the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein, walked away with the entire $250,000 prize.

The idea behind the contest is to foster innovation while creating some friendly competition among the wings, said Capt. Liya Smolina, a command personnel analyst with the USAFE-AFAFRICA Innovation and Transformation Office.

“We have some great airmen” who have resourceful ideas “on how to save time and money,” she said. The contest “is one way on how to promote that in our command.”

Wings submit their innovations throughout the year. Come March, they are matched up in a bracket-style format and a group of judges decides who will go on to the next round.

Judging is based on several factors, including how well the wing’s innovative ideas enhanced the mission, saved time and money, and how the wing promotes an overall culture of innovation, Smolina said.

“We try to keep it as objective as possible,” she said, using hard numbers for financial benefits and time savings, which are validated by the command’s manpower and finance offices.

This year, 378 innovations were submitted with an estimated savings of $15 million and 174,000 man-hours, Smolina said.

The overall champion will be announced Thursday. The contest kicked off in early March. Those now vying for the top prize are the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem and the 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath.

The wings tout their ideas with often quirky videos created by their public affairs shops and posted to social media. Spangdahlem’s video parodies a Key and Peele “anger translator” sketch and includes an awkwardly dancing public affairs officer and wing commander. It’s garnered about 75,000 views so far. The wing with the most Facebook “likes” can notch $6,000.

The prize money comes from existing command funding, said USAFE-AFAFRICA spokesman Capt. Tom Barger.

Spangdahlem estimates one of its innovations this year saved $66,000. The wing sent dental professionals to its remote units four times a year rather than paying travel and lodging costs for patients to visit Spangdahlem.

At Lakenheath, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began using a device in the base’s bioenvironmental engineering flight instead of an off-base lab to test samples for suspicious substances. Wait time was reduced from 10 days to one hour, costs went from $3,100 per test to zero, according to USAFE.

One of the ideas that earned the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein the top prize last year was adjusting local nationals’ schedules to avoid weekend and holiday work, a change that saved more than $700,000 annually.

Base officials said Ramstein is spending its $250,000 prize to improve 14 athletic fields on Ramstein, Vogelweh and Kapaun. Depending on the field, goalie boxes will be re-sodded, infield grass replaced, fencing repaired and drainage fixed, among other improvements.


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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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