The Pentagon needs to do far better than the business-as-usual message it issued last week about jet safety for the 55th Wing.
In a letter to members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the Pentagon’s plans for the 55th Wing remain unchanged: The Air Force will postpone replacing all but four of the Wing’s 29 reconnaissance and surveillance jets until 2050.
The Air Force, in other words, expects these C-135s, all of which are already more than 50 years old, to remain in operation — under high-tempo, immensely stressful conditions — for a total of nine decades.
The Pentagon’s decision will continue to place enormous pressure on Offutt crews to keep up what’s rightly been called their miracle-working on the maintenance and operational fronts.
The World-Herald’s Steve Liewer, in the recent investigative series “In-Flight Emergency,” examined the wide-ranging mechanical challenges weighing on these aircraft. The series also highlighted the impressive professionalism and safety consciousness of 55th Wing personnel in keeping the planes flying.
During 2012-16, Liewer found, 55th Wing pilots were forced to cut short flights because of mechanical problems at a rate of 330 per 10,000 flights — 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.
Pentagon planners and congressional budget-setters need to break out of their status-quo mindset and address this ongoing problem. It’s enormously shortsighted and unfair that, instead, they place the full burden on Offutt personnel — for decades more — to keep forestalling a tragedy.