By Susan L. FollettJune 1, 2017
COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Product Manager for Force Sustainment Systems, Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support
TITLE: Supervisory mechanical engineer, cargo aerial delivery team leader
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 39
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in engineering
EDUCATION: B.S. in mechanical engineering and bachelor of engineering technology in mechanical engineering, Northeastern University
AWARDS: Top Ten U.S. Army Materiel Command Personnel of the Year; Commander's Award for Civilian Service; Association of the U.S. Army Citation for Exceptional Service; U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Technical Director's Silver Pin for Development and Engineering; American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Theodor W. Knacke Aerodynamic Decelerator Systems Award
Part of Gary Thibault's career is looking up
Gary Thibault has spent a lot of time waiting for things to fall out of the sky. But he's no Chicken Little: With nearly 40 years in aerial delivery systems development, he has played an important role in making sure that Soldiers at forward operating bases and on humanitarian missions get the supplies and equipment they need.
Thibault is a supervisory mechanical engineer and cargo aerial delivery (CAD) team leader within Product Manager for Force Sustainment Systems, part of the Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS). He is part of U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) and assigned to PEO CS&CSS, and he works with the assistant product manager for CAD in leading a team of Army acquisition professionals in advancing CAD capabilities for the Army and DOD--systems for deploying, stabilizing and decelerating a payload so that it lands in a fully mission-capable condition at the correct location.
"Our CAD team's job is to manage the development of the most capable and advanced cargo aerial delivery systems and equipment in the world, and to manage the fielding of that equipment to the most capable fighting force in the world," said Thibault. "We can only accomplish that mission with close and constant collaboration with our many acquisition partners." Those include the group's combat developer, the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command; joint service users; the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, which provides essential test and evaluation services; the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command, which provides expert flight test support; and the Defense Logistics Agency and the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command's Integrated Logistics Support Center, which provide logistics and sustainment support.
Thibault has spent his entire career as an engineer in the airdrop field at NSRDEC, and has had a hand in replacing much of the portfolio of Korean War- and Vietnam War-era airdrop equipment with more advanced equipment--improvements necessitated and facilitated by engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the peak of Operation Enduring Freedom, 85 million pounds of cargo were dropped in Afghanistan in one year. The increase in aerial deliveries provided more opportunity for Thibault and the CAD team to collect feedback from Soldiers in theater. That feedback informed improvements to two key systems: the Low-Cost Aerial Delivery System (LCADS) and the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS). LCADS is a one-time-use ballistic system that delivers supplies from low altitudes, while JPADS releases at high altitudes and uses airborne guidance units for precision drops.
Legacy Army cargo supply parachutes are made from nylon and have to be packed by hand by a trained rigger and recovered after each use, and it was difficult to keep up with demand created by engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new system was developed by the NSRDEC that uses a prepacked polypropylene chute. Those changes reduced the cost of the system by 50 percent and eliminated the need for a rigger to pack each parachute. "The biggest challenge we face now is remaining relevant and agile in the current environment of financial uncertainty and changing priorities," Thibault said. "The best way to address that is to anticipate change and stay in touch with our ultimate customer, the Soldier and the combatant commanders. If we get too far removed from that, we won't do well."
Thibault was hired in 1978 as a co-op engineering intern student at what was then the U.S. Army Natick Laboratories, and started in the Aero-Mechanical Engineering Directorate. Maurice P. Gionfriddo, an aerospace engineer from MIT and Airdrop Systems Integration Branch chief, hired Thibault and remained his technical and acquisition mentor for a good portion of his early career. "He made sure I was given demanding and challenging assignments in a team-centric environment, which allowed me to work with and learn from many other seasoned engineers on a wide range of equipment and systems." Those early years also exposed him to the Army research, development, testing and engineering process and the importance of forming a cohesive integrated product team with all of the acquisition stakeholders.
He has been a member of the Army Acquisition Workforce (AAW) since its inception. "Shortly after the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act became public law in 1990, and about 10 years into my career, my supervisor encouraged me to join the AAW and become certified in what was then systems planning research, development and engineering," said Thibault. "It was a great opportunity to participate in the newly structured AAW training and certification program."
Structured training is essential to understand the framework that guides defense acquisition, he added, "but it's the interactions with users that have given me a better understanding of their airdrop needs, a broader knowledge of the airdrop equipment and a much deeper appreciation of the highly dynamic environment we need to design the equipment for."
What sticks out most as he looks back over his career are "the experiences where I observed, firsthand, warfighters relying on airdrop equipment. There's nothing like the feeling of standing on a desolate drop zone with warfighters or being on the delivering aircraft with the crew, waiting for that new or improved airdrop system or piece of equipment to safely come out of that aircraft." Thibault has been on the ground for testing and training drops in locations around the U.S., including Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Edwards Air Force Base, California. He also had the chance to take part in a humanitarian aid drop in what was then Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Drop teams were having problems with the parachute systems used for large deliveries of food and clothing, and Thibault was part of a joint Army and Air Force team that observed the drops to try to identify and resolve the problem.
That hands-on experience is a vital part of career development, he said. "Get as much hands-on experience and functional knowledge as you can early on in your career, with the types of equipment and acquisition processes that interest you the most," he said. "Immerse yourself wherever and whenever possible with warfighters who rely on and use the equipment or processes that spark your interest. In the words of former PEO Kevin Fahey, work like your life depends on it, because someone else's does."
This article is scheduled to be published in the July -- September issue Army AL&T magazine.
"Faces of the Force" is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please contact 703-664-5635.