Omaha World Herald: Congress, Pentagon need to wake up and replace Offutt's aging reconnaissance jets

Jul 2, 2018
In The News

Memo to Congress and the Pentagon: Wake up.

Your failure to replace the Air Force’s decades-old reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering aircraft is putting crew members’ lives at risk.

The 55th Wing’s maintenance and flight crews at Offutt Air Base are doing heroic work to keep their decades-old reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering aircraft flying so that vital national security missions can be completed overseas. But the Wing’s C-135s are all more than 50 years old and operating under enormous stress, raising major concerns about potential risks to their crews.

Yet the Pentagon appears content to keep patching up these aged aircraft for another three decades.

A three-day investigative series “In-Flight Emergency” by The World-Herald’s Steve Liewer provided extensive detail about the wide-ranging mechanical challenges the 55th Wing’s 29 jets face due to their advanced age:

» In the past six years, 55th Wing flights have been cut short by mechanical problems or marked by emergency at least 505 times. Since 2015, the 55th Wing has had to scrub nearly one out of every 12 missions due to mechanical concerns.

» During 2012-16, 55th Wing pilots were forced to cut short flights because of mechanical problems at a rate of 330 per 10,000 flights. That’s 110 times the rate of commercial airlines generally.

» On more than one in four flights, the Wing’s planes came back too broken to fly. That’s among the worst rates in the Air Force.

» In at least 216 of the 505 problem-related incidents, the pilot declared an in-flight emergency, giving the flight clearance and priority over every other aircraft in the sky. The declaration also summons firetrucks and rescue crews to meet the plane when it lands.

» Hundreds more C-135 flights were “redballed” — scrubbed before they began — because of mechanical problems discovered by the flight crew. It’s unclear how many of the missions are flown by other jets.

The series showed the impressive capabilities — and vulnerabilities — of a C-135, a metallic cylinder with enormous amounts of electrical wiring and potentially flammable liquid oxygen and jet fuel surrounding the crew. “In more than a few cases,” Liewer wrote, “the jets have returned home safely only because of heroic efforts by their flight crews.”

A dramatic example of the potential danger came in April 2015, when a liquid oxygen leak on an RC-135V Rivet Joint triggered a fire that seared a 4-foot hole in the skin of the jet. Its 27 crew members fortunately were all safe, in part because the plane was still on the Offutt runway and the crew was able to evacuate. Total damage exceeded $13 million, and repairs took more than two years.

Reporting found that the plane had undergone a complete overhaul and upgrade at a Texas facility 10 months earlier, but afterward the plane nonetheless “was dogged by chronic mechanical problems. The left pressurization pack malfunctioned at least seven times in early 2015, including three times in the four weeks before the fire. It also experienced repeated electrical failures and problems with its onboard weather radar.”

“There are too many things going wrong here,” says Robert Hopkins III, a former 55th Wing pilot who chronicled the reconnaissance jets’ history in a new book. “We’re going to fly these airplanes until somebody dies.”

World-Herald reporting showed the impressive professionalism and safety consciousness of the maintenance crews and flight crews in working to keep mechanical challenges from jeopardizing missions or safety. These responsibilities are immense.

Unfortunately there’s no letup. Hopkins, the former pilot, raises the right question: “What more miracles can the folks at Offutt do to keep these planes flying?”

One day, Offutt’s miracle-working might not be enough to prevent a tragedy. If that loss of life ever occurs, the public will rightly ask: Why didn’t Congress and the Pentagon address this problem when the dangers were so clear and so demanding of action?

U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse and U.S. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Don Bacon (a retired brigadier general who recently commanded the 55th Wing) need to slap The World-Herald’s findings on the desk of every major figure in Congress and the Pentagon and demand that Washington take long-overdue action to fix this troubling problem.

It’s time for a wakeup call.

Click here to read the entire article.