Saturday, August 25, 2012

Problems can be a good thing

A recent discussion about early computers reminded me of the first computer I worked with.  The year was 1973, and I was a 19 year old computer tech in the USN.  The computer was called VAST – “Versatile Avionics Shop Test”. 

“VAST is a computer-controlled, integrated test system composed of independent, general-purpose stimulus and measurement instruments, referred to as Building Blocks (BBs). The use of interface devices (ID) enables the station to be adapted for the unique capabilities of the various components. VAST was a forerunner of modern automatic test equipment (ATE) such as Consolidated Automated Support System (CASS), Avionics Test Set (ATS), and Intermediate Avionics Test Set (IATS).”  Source

VAST was designed to support selected avionics from the F-14, the S-3, the A7-E and the E2-C, and entered the fleet in 1973.  After 32 years of service in the fleet, VAST was decommissioned in 2005.  The picture below was taken at that ceremony. About half of a VAST station is shown on the right.
I was in the first wave of VAST technicians in 1973/1974 that trained at VF-124 (NAS Miramar, CA), and was subsequently assigned to one of the first two F-14 squadrons on the east coast (NAS Oceana), and aboard the carrier USS Kennedy.

In theory, the line techs would remove and replace avionics components to keep the planes in the air, and send the bad “box” to the VAST shop for diagnostics and repair.  After connecting the box to VAST, the computerized diagnostic program would correctly identify the bad component.  The operator would replace the bad component, repeat the diagnostic program to insure the problem had been fixed, and return the box to the line for inventory.  At least, that was the plan.

As with all new systems, there were problems.  In this case, both the F-14 and VAST were new and untested in the fleet, and there were MANY problems, generally falling into these four categories:

1.       A component other than the one identified by the program was in fact the problem.
2.    The interconnecting devices were faulty.
3.    The program was faulty, or
4.    There was a problem with the VAST station itself.

Some troubleshooting was easy, e.g. if you thought that particular VAST station was bad, or the interconnecting device was bad, try another station or interconnecting device setup.

Some troubleshooting wasn’t so easy.  Countless hours were spent pouring over schematics, manually recreating program steps, re-writing code, and communicating real world results both to the vendor for future revisions, and to the fleet for the benefit of other installations.  Vendor field engineers were with us on the first cruise, but it was at all times very much a team effort.  To meet the challenge, everyone had to up their game.  Personally, although my military electronics training was very good, I still thought it worthwhile to obtain an AA in Computer Engineering Technology and to learn FORTRAN, which I did.

To be successful, we had to work smart, work together, and stick with each problem until it was solved.  Lessons learned early on that have served me well ever since. 

What are the characteristics of good problem solvers?  This list is as good as any.

Moral of the blog: Learning problem-solving skills always begins with a problem!

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