Nebraska’s leaders in Congress press Air Force for answers on Offutt’s aging recon planes

Nebraska’s leaders in Congress press Air Force for answers on Offutt’s aging recon planes
An RC-135 Rivet Joint returns to its desert base in the Persian Gulf following a mission over Iraq in 2006. The planes are in high demand all over the world and have been deployed continuously since 1990. They're not scheduled to be retired until 2050. (U.S. AIR FORCE)

Nebraska’s congressional delegation has asked the secretary of the Air Force to investigate issues of safety and maintenance in the 55th Wing reconnaissance fleet.

The letter sent Thursday follows a World-Herald investigative report into the fleet earlier this week.

In a letter signed by both the state’s U.S. senators and all three House members, the delegation asked Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson for written answers to several questions involving the 29 C-135 jets based at Offutt Air Force base near Bellevue. The planes carry out critical missions from operating bases in England, Greece, Japan and Qatar. The delegation’s questions:

» What is your assessment of the health, readiness and overall safety of the 55th Wing?

» Has the Air Force observed any changes to the average monthly “health of the fleet” aggregation for the 55th Wing?

» Is there any trend toward an increase in maintenance issues or safety problems?

» Do you assess that there is any increase in risk to the safety of pilots and aircrews due to current maintenance issues within the C-135 airframes of the 55th Wing?

» What is the Air Force’s long term plan to sustain and recapitalize this critical capability?

“Overall, the series raised several questions of concern, and as such we respectfully request further clarification on the Air Force’s efforts to maintain the fleet,” said the letter. It was signed by Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, and Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Don Bacon and Adrian Smith.

All 29 of the 55th Wing’s C-135 jets were built between 1961 and 1964. The Air Force has said it plans to continue to fly most of the planes until 2050.

The World-Herald series noted that more than 500 C-135 sorties had been cut short because of mechanical failure since the beginning of fiscal year 2012. In at least 216 of those cases, the pilot declared an in-flight emergency.

Many of those aborted missions resulted from causes associated with aging aircraft, such as hydraulic leaks and landing-gear problems. Numerous flights were stopped because of electrical failures, or because of electrical smoke and fumes in the cabin.

Bacon, a retired brigadier general who commanded the 55th Wing in 2011-12, said the World-Herald series accurately portrayed the dire state of maintenance in the Air Force, especially since the 2012 budget sequester.

“(The stories) described the reality we face every day,” Bacon said. “I lived it.”

The letter cited $617 million that had been requested in the 2019 defense authorization bill to address some of the issues. The requested spending includes $209 million to outfit three KC-135 jets with radiation-detection equipment for the Wing’s Constant Phoenix program. The planned replacement jets were also built in the early 1960s, but they would be upgraded with modern engines and avionics.

It also includes $222 million for two new aerial photography jets used to fly missions under the Open Skies treaty. Signed in 1992, the treaty allows the U.S., Russia, and 32 other signatory nations to conduct supervised aerial reconnaissance over one another’s borders.

However, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, deleted the funding from the House version of the authorization as a way to punish Russia. Fischer has worked to keep the funding in the Senate version of the bill, which means a conference committee will resolve the difference.

The remainder of the funding is for upgrades primarily to the mission equipment for the Wing’s other planes.