Men and women stationed at Offutt Air Force Base fly some of the country’s most important spy missions in 60-year-old planes that are often too busted to take off.
When they actually get into the sky, these crews’ key missions — like tracking enemies in war zones, watching Russia and sniffing out potential nuclear blasts — are often aborted when the giant plane breaks down in mid-air.
These spy planes are 100 times more likely than a commercial airliner to land early because of mechanical failure.
That sounds incredibly dangerous. It sounds unnecessarily risky.
To Lisa Kort-Butler, it sounds ... familiar.
“It’s this process that unfolds over time. You think, ‘It hasn’t happened to us. Maybe it’s not ever going to happen to us.’
“The level of acceptable risk slowly ratchets up, and you eventually get to a place where it becomes the new normal.”
Kort-Butler, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist, is talking about a theory known as “normalization of deviance.”
It’s a phrase coined in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, when NASA engineers knowingly allowed problems with a small part of the shuttle to persist for years.
It’s a term trotted out to explain how and why space shuttles sometimes explode and old bridges sometimes collapse and a levee known to be too weak to withstand a powerful hurricane is nevertheless allowed to protect New Orleans.
Disasters like these aren’t just the work of “a few bad apples,” the theory says. They aren’t simple incompetence or negligence or simply bad luck.
Often these high-profile tragedies are best explained as the end result of groups of people — often entire organizations — who gradually accept greater and greater levels of risk until it’s too late.
This may seem academic. It also seems particularly crucial in the Omaha area right now.
World-Herald military reporter Steve Liewer’s excellent three-part series recently chronicled all sorts of eyebrow-raising problems with Offutt’s C-135 fleet.
Engine fires. Galley fires. Fuel leaks. Broken windshields. Pressurization failures. (Read the entire investigative series here: Omaha.com/planes.)
But thanks to the heroics of individual crew members, and probably to some good fortune, the worst has not happened.
In fact, Offutt’s 55th Wing hasn’t lost an airplane in a crash since 1997.
That fact oddly gives Air Force leaders, politicians and anyone with the ability to call or email Washington, D.C., a golden opportunity.
Basically, we have the chance to stop this particular tragedy before it strikes.
“It takes people really standing up and screaming like a mashed cat that these things are unsafe,” says Professor Tyler White, a UNL expert on intelligence and security issues.
That mashed-cat screaming may have begun. A week ago, Nebraska’s two senators and three congressmen sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force. The letter referenced The World-Herald series and urged her to probe the aging fleet.
But there is also an obvious obstacle to change. It’s green.
Replacing just one of these surveillance planes can cost hundreds of millions, White says. And while the U.S. military has an enormous $700 billion budget, within that budget exist all sorts of “little knife fights” that decide what gets funded and what doesn’t.
“Try building a new aircraft carrier,” he says. “Try developing a laser that can shoot through a cloud. That’s really, really expensive, and they want that.
“These are all big-ticket items. What you don’t yet have with the (135) fleet is an advocate able to overcome these bureaucratic hurdles and get it fixed.”
The UNL professor has a depressing guess for when the aging planes will actually be replaced. One will likely go down, he says, and then the military and government will throw enormous fistfuls of money at the problem. He guesses we will end up spending way more money than if we systematically replaced the fleet over time.
And that waste of money would be only the second-most depressing thing that could happen. Robert Hopkins III, a former 55th Wing pilot and military historian, tidily summed up the most depressing possibility in military reporter Liewer’s original story.
“There are too many things going wrong here,” he said. “We’re going to fly these airplanes until somebody dies.”
Which brings us back to the normalization of deviance, and what it might mean to the 55th Wing’s aging spy planes.
Diane Vaughan, a sociologist, coined the “normalization” phrase after years spent studying the Challenger disaster. How and why had engineers knowingly allowed a small malfunctioning part to stay on the shuttle for years?
At first, like most outside experts, she believed it to be misconduct. And then, as she studied the O-ring flaw that led to the explosion — studied how that same flaw had shown up routinely with no repercussions — she changed her mind.
It wasn’t misconduct. It was a mistake. One made again and again, and eventually cemented into the very way NASA employees did their jobs. Into the very way that NASA viewed what was safe, and what wasn’t.
When this view cemented, it became much harder for individual engineers who still saw the flaw as dangerous to speak up — to disagree with their organization’s new belief system.
“They established a social normalization of the deviance, meaning once they accepted the first technical anomaly, they continued to accept more and more with each launch. It was not deviant to them,” Vaughan once said in an interview. (She declined a World-Herald interview request, citing a book deadline.)
It seems, to me, that the point of trying to understand the normalization of deviance isn’t to point fingers after the fact. Much the opposite, actually.
The point of trying to understand this normalization is to try to stop it from becoming oh-so tragically normal.
In-flight emergency: An investigation into flight safety at Offutt's 55th Wing
Despite periodic overhauls and “a lot of maintenance love,” the 55th Wing’s 29 planes average more than 80 emergencies and aborted flights per year. Some Air Force veterans fear for crews that take to the sky in the aged, overworked jets. Yet the Air Force plans to keep flying them for 30 more years. Click on links in captions to read individual stories. Or start here.