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The Military Technology

Mechanic's Mistake Trashes $244 Million Aircraft 428

Hugh Pickens writes "An accident report is finally out for the Air Force E-8C Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System that had started refueling with a KC-135 on on March 13, 2009 when the crew heard a 'loud bang throughout the midsection of the aircraft.' Vapor and fuel started pouring out of the JSTARS from 'at least two holes in the left wing just inboard of the number two engine.' The pilot immediately brought the jet back to its base in Qatar where mechanics found the number two main fuel tank had been ruptured, 'causing extensive damage to the wing of the aircraft.' How extensive? 25 million dollars worth of extensive. What caused this potentially fatal and incredibly expensive accident to one of the United States' biggest spy planes? According to the USAF accident report, a contractor accidentally left a plug in one of the fuel tank's relief vents (PDF) during routine maintenance. 'The PDM subcontractor employed ineffective tool control measures,' reads the report. Tool control measures? 'You know, the absolutely basic practice of accounting for the exact location of every tool that is used to work on an airplane once that work is finished.' Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz just told Congress, 'there is a JSTARS platform that was damaged beyond economical repair that we will not repair.' So, if this is the one Schwartz is talking about, then one mechanic's mistake has damaged a $244 million aircraft beyond repair."
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Mechanic's Mistake Trashes $244 Million Aircraft

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  • typically misleading (Score:5, Informative)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:26AM (#38876225)
    You lost an airframe. A significant fraction of that $244 million is payload and equipment that will be recovered and used as "spare parts" to maintain other JSTARS aircraft. The airframe is all that was lost. The airframe is a commercial 707 derivative. It's not an $244 million aircraft, it's a tricked out $5 million dollar aircraft. The issue, now, is replacing the system -- which means assembling another JSTARS. Given typical government contracting practices that will cost another $325 million (inflation adjusted from initial cost of $244 million in 1998).
  • Re:if in doubt.. (Score:4, Informative)

    by __aaltlg1547 ( 2541114 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:37AM (#38876323)

    blame "a contractor".

    Especially when the contractor WAS negligent.

  • by cptdondo ( 59460 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:40AM (#38876349) Journal

    None of the AWACS/JSTARS/etc planes are "made to be shot at". They're civilian airframes stuffed to the gills with super-secret electronics. They rely on fighters and ECM to stay up; they don't do any fighting themselves. Heck, they're unarmed.

  • Re:Even cheaper (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:46AM (#38876391)
    Simply weight the toolbox on the way out and again on the way back in.

    Wouldn't work. Consumables. Safety wire, cotter pins, packing material. Even small, any of those is enough to cause a major problem. And far too small to be noticed when weighing a 75lb toolbox.
    The way it is normally done is by foam cutout for each tool. A quick look can tell you if something is not in place. Of course, you have to have the brainpower to actually look when you are leaving the area.

    (anon to not screw up previous mods)
  • by ByOhTek ( 1181381 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:49AM (#38876413) Journal

    Of course they do. My problem is all the suggestions that Private industry does significantly better, ESPECIALLY when funded by the government. I think that's when we see the worst of the waste, private industry on the government's payroll.

  • Re:Shit Happens (Score:5, Informative)

    by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:49AM (#38876421) Homepage

    Not quite as simple as that. You've got to rip the gear out of the dead plane as salvage and then install it in a new one. Part of the $200 mil is not the gear itself but it's installation, calibration, etc.

  • Re:Shit Happens (Score:5, Informative)

    by Garybaldy ( 1233166 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @10:00AM (#38876515)

    I remember reading that as i have repeated the story many times. The women on the assembly line could not grasp why you would stick a bolt in upside down. Always being taught to put it in facing down. So if the nut ever came loose the bolt would not come out. Even though as you said the instructions said to put it in upside down.

    The reason being the head of the bolt was shorter and would not interfere with a control cable.

  • Re:Shit Happens (Score:5, Informative)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @10:11AM (#38876621)

    She knows clearance issues are why you install a shorter bolt Again, engineering design failed, miserably, so a way to blame the peon.

    If you insist on putting the brake pedal on the right foot and accelerator on the left, it doesn't matter how loudly you blame the driver, its still a design failure.

    This specific incident was hashed out in one of those freshman "intro to engineering ethics" classes I had to take a long time ago. Still remember it. It was a huge design failure, although you could claim it was also a huge management and PR success to put all the blame on some poor chick. Was used as an object lesson for how management picks the winner and loser, sometimes engineering gets it, sometimes operations/factory floor gets it, and part of being an engineer is "toughening up" that you're going to be involved in corporate BS like that, so get used to thinking about it.

  • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @10:41AM (#38876919)

    If you read the actual congressional testimony, you would have seen that Schwartz didn't say that it wasn't repairable for ~$25M, which is 10% of the cost of the whole system, he bemoaned his budget constraints, and said they wouldn't repair it as an example answer to the question "Is there any sacrifice you're seeing in ISR...?". Also note that they're only not repairing *the platform*.

    The title of the press release from the Public Affairs office more or less says it all: "Air Force Strategic Choices and Budget Priorities Brief at the Pentagon".

    -- Terry

  • by asylumx ( 881307 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @10:55AM (#38877127)
    The accident occurred March 13th 2009, but the news is the Air Force accident investigative board’s report on the incident, including photographs, which is only recently available.
  • Re:RFID (Score:4, Informative)

    by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @11:35AM (#38877511) Homepage Journal

    In the 70s, our tool kit was a canvas bag. We had to check it before we went to the flight line and both of us signed off that it was complete. Then before we LEFT the flight line, we counted again and signed off that it was complete. If the bird was scheduled to fly before we could get back to the tool crib, the crew chief also counted and signed off. Then we returned to the shop, checked the bag in and it was counted again before we could sign off on the work.

    If the tool crib did not get all the tools back, the bird would held until we found the tool or the bird was inspected inside and out. For 2 years I was there, we never lost a tool, and I never heard of anyone losing a tool from any other shop. In fact, my usual task was to lock a fixture, and I had the speed wrench on a wrist leash. Fortunately I never worked on a bird with engines running, which was a whole different protocol.

    It is not that hard to count. From the description of this process, I'm disappointed that the shop didn't have a tool board that would show an empty spot, nor any process to question a missing tool. In our shop back then, a missing tool for ANY reason would have been grounds for a complete inspection, evaluation, and questioning. I wasn't allowed to carry tools into the shop, even that teeny screwdriver we used for rotary switches. Absolute control within the shop system.

    Leaving something on equipment was just inexcusable. Shocking really.

  • Re:Sh*t Happens (Score:5, Informative)

    by FurtiveGlancer ( 1274746 ) <AdHocTechGuy.aol@com> on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:53PM (#38880131) Journal

    Since the Air Force has dozens of spares of this particular airframe, it is more economical to pull a newer one out of storage and move all the stuff that makes a JSTAR a JSTAR to a new plane.

    JSTARS is not built on the C-135 airframe, exactly, but they share a common ancestor. JSTARS aircraft were built on a number of different commercially available used Boeing 707 variants. Essentially, each one was a custom installation. Air Mobility Command could not spare any viable KC-135 airframes for JSTARS, as they needed every refueler they could manage to maintain the fleet to meet unified command requirements. The other special purpose EC/RC/OC-135s were not available either, as their missions took precedence over the JSTARS effort.

    The JSTARS program likely will not receive adequate funds to purchase another airframe and integrate the equipment. It's more likely that the JSTARS equipment and viable airframe parts form this aircraft will be salvaged for spares to extend the lives of the remaining JSTARS aircraft. Other platforms are more likely to be funded to absorb portions of the JSTARS capability. This decision will be driven by high and growing supportability costs for JSTARS.

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