Offutt recon planes are 'safe and effective,' Air Force Secretary tells Sen. Deb Fischer

An RC-135 V is parked at Offutt Air Force Base in 2015 during a 55th Wing media day. 

The Air Force has no plans to speed up development of new reconnaissance aircraft for the 55th Wing in spite of revelations by The World-Herald of hundreds of aborted flights and emergencies among the Wing’s aged fleet of C-135 jets.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson described the C-135 fleet of aircraft — all of which were built in the early 1960s — as “a safe and effective weapon system” in a letter and meeting Wednesday with Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She also wrote that the fleet is well-maintained and its condition closely monitored.

The letter addressed concerns raised by Nebraska’s congressional delegation in the wake of a World-Herald investigation published last month. Titled ”In-Flight Emergency,” the World-Herald series documented numerous problems with the Wing’s fleet. The 29 planes have experienced more than 500 in-flight mechanical breakdowns since 2012, including at least 216 declared in-flight emergencies.

The series showed that some jets have experienced repeated failures in a short period of time. The planes are particularly prone to dangerous electrical failures, in part because of the large amount of electronic surveillance equipment they carry. The aging aircraft also suffer from hydraulic problems.

Wilson’s letter was the Air Force’s first official response to the World-Herald series.

Fischer and the four other members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation wrote to Wilson asking questions about the integrity of the fleet. Their letter asked Wilson to assess the health, readiness and safety of the fleet and sought information about maintenance trends and risks to 55th Wing air crews. The delegation asked about the Air Force’s plans to keep up the C-135s, and eventually to replace them.

Wilson offered reassurance that the Air Force pays close attention to maintenance and safety of the C-135s. She said the fleet’s “Mission Capable rate” — percentage of aircraft able to fly on a given day — has been 75.5 percent over the past three years, close to the Air Force’s standard of 76 percent. She acknowledged that one in four of the 55th Wing’s planes returned from missions too broken to fly again without repairs but said that’s “expected for the age of this fleet,” according to the letter.

“Based on historical safety reports and current safety trends, there is no increased risk to the safety of C-135 air crew,” Wilson said in the letter.

Veterans of the 55th Wing who voiced concerns in The World-Herald’s series said they didn’t find Wilson’s comments reassuring.

“It is spin. It’s ludicrous. It’s ridiculous. It ignores the facts,” said retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler of Bellevue, who commanded the Wing in the early 1980s. “The figures do not lie.”

The Air Force has proposed spending $430 million in 2019 to replace the four Offutt jets with the worst maintenance records, including break rates as high as 40 percent. Two are WC-135 Constant Phoenix jets, used for detecting and monitoring radiation in the atmosphere. Two are OC-135 aerial photography jets, assigned to fly missions in compliance with the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

The plans to replace the two Constant Phoenix planes with three converted KC-135R tankers — also of early ’60s vintage — at a cost of $209 million next year haven’t been controversial. The House and Senate have split, though, over whether to spend $222 million to buy two new small jets for the Open Skies mission.

In her letter, Wilson reaffirmed that the Air Force plans to continue flying the 55th Wing’s other 25 C-135 reconnaissance jets until 2050.

Fischer and 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon — a retired Air Force brigadier general who commanded the Wing in 2011 and ’12 — both are on the conference committee working out differences between the House and Senate defense authorization bills. Both want to keep funding for the new jets in the final version.

Fischer said in a statement that the meeting with Wilson addressed some of her concerns.

“There remains work to be done to ensure the C-135 airframes at Offutt continue to be properly supported, maintained and upgraded,” she said. “That starts with working as a member of the conference committee ... to upgrade the critical planes of the 55th Wing.”

Bacon said it’s true that the rest of the Wing’s reconnaissance fleet also needs to be replaced. But he said the aging aircraft problems at Offutt are occurring all across the Air Force because so few new planes were purchased during the 1990s and 2000s.

“We have a 20-year hole of modernization. It’s going to take a long time to dig out of it,” Bacon said. “If we had an endless budget, we’d fix this tomorrow. But there’s not.”

Author and aviation historian Robert Hopkins III, a veteran pilot from the Persian Gulf War, said he’s concerned that his former unit has accepted frequent emergencies and aborted flights as normal, a condition called ”normalization of deviance.” He wants the Pentagon to establish a blue ribbon panel to investigate military aviation safety.

Until then, Hopkins said, “unit commanders will continue to tell senior officials that ‘nothing is wrong.’ Those senior officials will repeat these self-serving claims, needlessly risking lives.”

Urschler of Bellevue, a member of the Wing’s Hall of Fame, said he is “dumbfounded” by Wilson’s letter and what he views as the Air Force’s complacency.

“I don’t think I would ask my son or daughter to fly on one of these airplanes,” Urschler said. “I hope the Secretary of the Air Force and the Secretary of Defense can sleep at night.”

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