Air Force Pressed to Make L-3 Pay for Fire Tied to Loose Nut

  • `Dark hole burnt through the center' of plane, lawmaker says
  • Representative Speier says damages may reach $62 million

A lawmaker is pressing the U.S. Air Force to make L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. pay as much as $62 million in damages from an aircraft fire that investigators linked to a loose nut that company maintenance workers failed to tighten in the plane’s oxygen system.

The rear cabin fire on an RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence aircraft during takeoff on April 30 at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska aborted the training mission, risking the lives of 27 personnel. A picture in the official Air Force report on its accident investigation showed “a dark hole burnt through the center of the aircraft,” according to the lawmaker, Representative Jackie Speier of California.

Speier, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services oversight and investigations subcommittee, said in a letter Wednesday to Air Force Secretary Deborah James that her concern stemmed from Air Force documents about L-3’s “mishandling of the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft maintenance, which caused” the fire.

“Who will pay for the damage caused by this accident and any remedial actions taken as a result of it?” she asked. “Has the Air Force made any effort to recoup the cost” of the accident from L-3? the lawmaker asked.

Depot Maintenance

L-3 Communications provides the RC-135, a specialized electronics intelligence aircraft, with depot maintenance including inspection, cleaning and re-installation of its oxygen system. The company worked on the plane in question in August 2013, according to Air Force accident investigators.

 “L-3 has cooperated fully with the Air Force Air Combat Accident Investigation Board in the investigation,” L-3 spokeswoman Jennifer Barton said in an e-mailed statement. “Questions regarding this matter should be directed to the U.S. Air Force.”

Major Rob Leese, an Air Force spokesman, said in an e-mail that “we are aware of the letter and will be providing a response to Congress.” The Air Force said in a recent statement about the RC-135 fire that “contractor liability is a complex subject that doesn’t have a simple answer.”

The service said the investigative report “does not suggest or recommend any actions, to include assigning accountability or liability.” The Air Force said its immediate focus was “to partner with our civilian contractors to ensure the fleet is safe to operate, and we are confident that is the case. ”

The accident board said in its report that the “preponderance of evidence” showed a “failure by L-3 Communications depot maintenance personnel to tighten a retaining nut connecting a metal oxygen tube to a junction fitting above the galley,” allowing oxygen to leak.

‘Oxygen-Rich Environment’

The leak “created a highly flammable, oxygen-rich environment that ignited,” according to the report. “The resulting fire melted the retaining nut causing the tubing to become detached from the junction fitting, feeding more oxygen to the fire, increasing its size, and causing severe damage to the airframe, galley, and mission equipment onboard the aircraft,” it said.

“Even more alarming” were other maintenance failures “much more serious than one loose nut,” Speier wrote. The accident investigation “found that L-3 had been using antiquated, substandard parts in the oxygen system, that some parts L-3 used were the wrong size, that only one of 11 nuts in that aircraft’s oxygen system was property tightened and that L-3’s mechanics were following vague and contradictory standards for maintenance of RC-135 oxygen systems,” she said.

Speier said these details “are a cause for grave concern because other aircraft and crews’ lives could still be at risk from this gross maintenance negligence.”

L-3 was the U.S. government’s eighth-biggest contractor in fiscal 2014, according to Bloomberg Government data, with $5.7 billion in contract orders. The Air Force alone has put more than $2 billion under contract with L-3 every year since fiscal year 2008, according to the data.

The Air Force spending includes more than $1 billion a year since fiscal 2013 on L-3’s biggest federal contract, for the “Big Safari” program, which sustains and modernize specialized mission aircraft including the RC-135 Rivet Joint, according to Air Force documents.

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