Lawmakers Call for Safety Checks After C-135 Failures at Offutt

An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint sits on display outside the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility as the flagship aircraft of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., March 16, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jeff Gates)
An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint sits on display outside the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility as the flagship aircraft of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., March 16, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jeff Gates)

Nebraska lawmakers are asking the U.S. Air Force to provide a health and safety check on some of its oldest C-135 variants at Offutt Air Force Base following recent reports of mechanical failures and safety issues.

Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, along with Reps. Don Bacon, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, on Friday sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson requesting the service provide a fleet readiness assessment after it was revealed 29 C-135 aircraft from the 55th Wing have experienced interrupted flights, mechanical failures, engine problems and other setbacks since 2012. The Omaha World-Herald ran a series of stories interviewing former or retired pilots and crew regarding their experiences with the C-135 fleet, which has been in service since the 1960s.

The fleet at Offutt includes the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, RC-135S Cobra Ball, and RC-135U Combat Sent surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; WC-135 Constant Phoenix, also known as the "nuke sniffer" aircraft; the OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft; and TC-135 Rivet Joint trainers.

"... [T]he safety, security, and continued mission effectiveness of the 55th wing remains an issue of critical focus," the lawmakers said in the letter. "As such, we ask that you provide written responses to address the following issues within the 55th Wing's C-135 fleet."

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The officials are asking Wilson to provide an overall health assessment, with information on whether the Air Force has observed an increase in maintenance work for the aircraft and whether there may be an increased risk to the safety of pilots, aircrew and maintainers.

An Air Force spokesperson confirmed to Military.com on Monday the service had received the letter.

"In response to the Omaha World-Herald articles, I would say the facts are that we ensure our fleet is meticulously maintained and meet rigorous standards to accomplish our important worldwide mission in support of this great nation," Ryan Hansen, a spokesman for the 55th Wing, told Military.com in a statement. "The safety of our Airmen is paramount. They are without a doubt our most valued resource and we are fully confident in our aircraft maintainers, who take great pride in their work."

According to The Omaha World-Herald, there have been a number of close-call emergencies involving the C-135. In one such case last March, a WC-135 jet was on its way to Okinawa, Japan, to conduct an air particle assessment following a recent alleged North Korean nuclear test. (The last known nuclear test was in September 2017, but North Korea fired four ballistic missiles from the Tongchang-ri launch site that same month.)

During the flight, the aircraft's instruments informed the aircrew there was an engine fire, prompting them to dump fuel before calling for an emergency landing at a nearby civilian airport.

Following the series of articles, Bacon told the World-Herald he could attest to the maintenance situation plaguing not just the wing, but the force overall. Bacon, a former Air Force brigadier general who commanded the 55th Wing between 2011 and 2012, said years of constant deployment and a high operational tempo have taken a toll.

"I wish we could just replace the RCs," Bacon told the newspaper. "But it's going to take a while, because we had a 20-year, really, hiatus on a lot of modernization in the Air Force with the war in the Middle East and focus on counterterror."

Lawmakers in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act are seeking additional funding for some aircraft in the 55th Wing.

Roughly $208 million would be set aside to reconfigure three KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft into WC-135s. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told lawmakers in April the conversion will give the fleet "more longevity for that critical mission."

"It allows us to get more time to be able to continue to accomplish this mission," he said at the time. "Because our current airplanes are old. They're wearing out."

Senators are also looking to add roughly $222 million to procure two new OC-135 aircraft.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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