The stench of stale urine lingered in the air as 27 airmen from Offutt Air Force Base’s 55th Wing climbed aboard the RC-135V Rivet Joint jet late in the afternoon of April 30, 2015.
Most of the crew sat at consoles in the rear of the aircraft — call sign “Snoop 71” — trying to ignore the odor.
Soon they would have bigger problems than a broken toilet.
As the plane began to accelerate down the runway, flames erupted like a blowtorch near the ceiling in the aft galley. Excited shouts of “Fire! Fire!” filled the crew’s headsets.
The pilot — newly certified as an aircraft commander — pulled back on the throttles and slowed the aircraft to a smooth stop in less than a half minute. The crew scrambled out of the smoke-filled fuselage and dropped to the runway as Offutt firefighters rushed to the scene.
A deadly catastrophe, averted.
An Air Force investigative report — released to The World-Herald under the Freedom of Information Act — shows just how close Snoop 71 came to disaster. And it calls into question the repair practices of the military contractor that maintains the 55th Wing’s aged RC-135 fleet.
Even with the quick fire-rescue response, the fast-moving flames, fueled by an oxygen leak, burned through critical wiring just below the aircraft’s skin. The fire torched a 4-foot-wide hole in the top of the fuselage just in front of the tail. Repairing the damage will cost an estimated $62.4 million.
Robert Hopkins III, who flew RC-135s at Offutt in the 1980s and 1990s and has written a book on the aircraft type, said the plane very likely would have crashed if it had become airborne.
He compared it with ValuJet Flight 592, a commercial plane that caught fire on takeoff from Miami in 1996 and crashed in the Everglades. Everyone on board was killed.
“This event could have easily been that catastrophic, because of the intensity of the fire,” Hopkins said. “Had they taken off, it could easily have been fatal.”
The report attributed the mishap to a loose nut connecting a metal oxygen tube to a fitting that was poorly tightened by a civilian maintenance contractor, L-3 Communications, during a major overhaul of the 51-year-old aircraft. The flaw had gone undetected in the year since the jet was returned to the 55th Wing in the spring of 2014.
But the report also suggests that problems at L-3 go beyond a single nut.
Investigators found that only one of 11 nuts at junctions on the jet’s oxygen system had been properly tightened during the overhaul at L-3’s Greenville, Texas, maintenance base.
They also found evidence L-3 was using old, substandard parts in the oxygen system, and that some parts were the wrong size. And it criticized the standards L-3 mechanics followed in maintaining the oxygen systems on the 1960s-vintage aircraft as vague and contradictory.
The report, which totaled more than 1,300 pages, recommended inspection of all 16 of the 55th Wing’s other RC-135s. It also said other aircraft operators whose oxygen systems are refurbished in Greenville ought to be notified of the risk.
The company declined to answer the allegations or respond to questions about the report.
“Thank you for the opportunity, but we don’t have anything to add,” said Jennifer Barton, an L-3 spokeswoman.
Air Force officials cautioned that the report is intended to explore the factors that contributed to the incident, not to determine who is liable.
“Our immediate focus is to ensure the fleet is safe to operate, and we are confident that is the case,” said Capt. AJ Schrag, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Air Combat Command, which includes the 55th Wing.
The RC-135 airframe is similar to the Boeing 707. The Defense Department doesn’t disclose the cost of the aircraft, but Great Britain’s Royal Air Force purchased three of them for a reported $1 billion in 2013.
The Air Force declined to make Snoop 71’s crew available for interviews. But their story is told in vivid detail in the report through the statements crew members gave to investigators.
“I feel really lucky that we didn’t take off,” said one senior airman, a cryptologic operator who was seated near the burning galley. “A few more minutes stuck on the jet ... would have made it a lot different.”
Snoop 71’s crew belonged to the 55th Wing’s 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit gathers and distributes electronic intelligence using the plane’s eavesdropping and communications gear.
The April 30 mission was both routine and, as several crew members described it, “nonstandard.” Snoop 71 would be supporting a Special Operations training exercise off the southeastern U.S. coast.
After some briefings, the crew boarded a bus that took them to the aircraft about 4:30 p.m.
“We were making several jokes about it because we were about to go into an 8½-hour mission and our lavatory was broken,” said a technical sergeant, who occupied the Airborne Systems Engineer 4 (ASE 4) spot near the back of the plane. “Nobody seemed to think that would be a fun day.”
The aircraft, marked with tail number 64-14848, had been built in 1964, outfitted for its reconnaissance mission, and arrived at Offutt in 1967. It once was nicknamed “Smokey.” The plane had racked up nearly 40,000 flight hours — about four times as many as it had been built for, said Hopkins, author of “The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker — More Than Just a Tanker,” a history of the airframe.
The plane had already been flown once that day, and cleanup from the earlier mission slowed the preflight preparation. Then one of the jet’s four engines wouldn’t start. Calling ground mechanics to fire it up manually delayed the flight even more.
The RC-135 taxied up Offutt’s lone runway a little after 6 p.m., then waited at a holding area on the north end of the airfield. Takeoff was delayed while another plane executed a missed approach.
Finally cleared at 6:23 p.m., the flight crew released the brakes, pushed the throttles forward and began to roll.
Within seconds, several crewmen in the back spotted flames.
“I was just looking around and then, like, out of nowhere there was a fire,” said the cryptologic operator, sitting a few feet away.
Another crewman compared it to a flamethrower, shooting out above a microwave oven in the galley.
“It was a very bright orange, vivid,” said the ASE 4.
Shouts and screams filled the aircraft’s cabin.
“On my right ear I hear all the radios going crazy, shouting ‘Fire! Fire! There’s smoke!’ ” said a tactical coordinator, called a “Raven,” near the front of the plane. “It just got really chaotic.”
In the cockpit, the pilot heard the shouting through his headphones and at first thought it was coming from another plane on the radio.
But as the jet’s speed reached 45 knots, or about 52 mph, the words “fire” and “microwave” registered and the pilot realized he was hearing his own crew. He said later he figured someone had just left a chicken sandwich smoking in the oven, but he quickly decided to abort the takeoff anyway.
As the plane slowed, crew members scrambled for oxygen masks. White smoke billowed from the galley as the fire burned through bundles of wires and the cabin’s ceiling.
“The entire back end of the jet was so clouded with smoke that I couldn’t see (the other ASE), and he was a foot and a half in front of me,” said the ASE 4.
The job of the ASEs includes fighting onboard fires. They struggled to grab the extinguishers in the blinding smoke. But as soon as the plane stopped, the pilot ordered everyone out through a hatch in the floor near the front of the plane.
The evacuation was quick, but not so smooth. Bottlenecks built up in the crowded cabin as the airmen felt their way forward.
“It’s not like how they briefed, nice and orderly. No, everyone’s freaking out,” said one of the aircraft’s Ravens, a captain. “(We) were shouting at people, ‘Hurry up, get off the plane, get off the plane!’ ”
The crew assembled in a grassy area next to the runway, all of them safe. Offutt firefighters arrived within three minutes and eventually subdued the stubborn flames — but not before the fire had burned through the roof.
Paramedics took four crew members to the hospital because they had inhaled smoke. All were treated and released the same night.
“Successful evacuation, no fatalities — it’s an amazing accomplishment for a baby aircraft commander on his first flight,” Hopkins said.
For several weeks after, investigators combed through the back of the plane. They couldn’t determine what had sparked the fire because the blaze had destroyed many of the clues. They examined the wiring that led to appliances in the galley but found no conclusive evidence of an ignition source.
What quickly became clear, though, was that the fire had been fed by a leak in the oxygen system near the galley. The loose nut that fed the fire had melted and fallen off its fitting, the report said. Several of the other nuts were only finger-tight, though they were supposed to be torqued with a wrench to certain specifications.
Some parts in the system had been manufactured as long ago as 2003, the report said, indicating they had been reused in at least one previous overhaul. And some parts were reused even though they were “significantly damaged,” according to the report.
“The analysis found the root cause was a leaking oxygen system, caused by poor assembly practices,” the report stated.
And it laid the problems at the feet of L-3 Communications. The company specializes in upgrading aircraft with sophisticated communications, intelligence and surveillance gear. Its website says it has modified 15,000 aircraft of more than 120 models, including a wide array of U.S. military platforms.
“There has always been a very strong bond between L-3 and the 55th (Wing),” Hopkins said. “You might say they are extended family.”
While day-to-day maintenance on RC-135s is performed at Offutt by a combination of military and civilian mechanics, Hopkins said contractors such as L-3 handle periodic major overhauls.
“Pretty much every airplane in the military undergoes depot-level maintenance by civilians,” he said. “These people have worked there for 20 or 25 years. They can replace a flap or a landing gear in their sleep.”
In fact, Hopkins said, a number of L-3 employees are former 55th Wing pilots and mechanics.
L-3 wouldn’t say whether it agrees with the report or has addressed the issues raised.
The Air Force also wouldn’t reveal whether the remaining RC-135s — or any other aircraft maintained by L-3 — have been inspected for problems with the oxygen system. But Schrag, the Air Force spokesman, indicated unsafe jets wouldn’t be flying.
“We have taken the necessary steps to ensure all aircraft systems are properly maintained and are functioning as required,” he said in a statement.
The damaged plane was patched at Offutt and flown Wednesday to Texas for repairs. Schrag said it is expected to return to the fleet in mid-2016.
He said it is “premature” to determine who will foot the bill for repairs.
Hopkins said the Air Force has committed to squeezing at least 20 more years of life out of the RC-135. He believes the military will work with L-3 to keep the Offutt incident from being repeated.
“Every airplane will be inspected to death to look for any possible contributor,” he said. “Crew confidence hinges on this stuff, especially for an airplane this old.”
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Full investigation report