A Basic Mistake That Trashed a JSTARS

Imagine flying, along with 20 or so fellow aircrew, in an Air Force E-8C Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System (JSTARS) jet for a mission to track down insurgents planting roadside bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan. You’ve just taken off from your base in Qatar but before you can go scan the ground for bad guys with the plane’s powerful AN/APY-7  radar, you’ve got to refuel from a waiting KC-135 tanker since the E-8’s ancient Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines burned way too much gas taking off on a hot Middle Eastern day.

The E-8 you’re flying in is a converted Boeing 707 passenger jet that was built in 1967 and flew in airline service for decades before being purchased by the Air Force and refurbished for military use in the 1990s.

Approaching the tanker, all is going smoothly until the two planes hook up and fuel starts flowing into the JSTARS. You hear a “loud bang throughout the midsection of the aircraft.” This freaks everyone out enough for the pilot to immediately stop the refueling to check the aircraft for damage or malfunctioning systems.  Finding none, the pilot brings the jet back into contact with the tanker and as soon as fuel starts flowing between the two jets, the E-8C begins to shudder as “another series of loud noises and vibrations” are “heard and felt throughout the aircraft.”

As this is happening, the KC-135’s boom operator, lying on his couch underneath the aft-belly of his jet, sees vapor and fuel pouring out of the JSTARS. Something is very wrong. The tanker crew tells the pilots of the JSTARS what they’re seeing and the E-8’s crew sees the same thing as they look out the windows in the aft of their jet; fuel is streaming out of “at least two holes in the left wing, just inboard of the number two engine.”

The pilot immediately brings the jet back to its base in Qatar. Once on the ground, mechanics find that the number two main fuel tank has been ruptured, “causing extensive damage to the wing of the aircraft.” How extensive? $25 million dollars worth of damage extensive.

What caused this potentially fatal and incredibly expensive accident to one of the United States’ biggest spy planes? A contractor accidentally left a plug in one of the fuel tank’s relief vents during routine maintenance.

This actually happened on March 13, 2009 and the story above is taken directly out of the Air Force accident investigative board’s report on the incident.

Yup, a civilian contractor inadvertently left the test plug inside the jet’s fuel tank when the plane went in for Programmed Depot Maintenance (PDM) — which may have been at the Air Force’s E-8 PDM depot, the Warner Robins Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center  — according to the accident report.

“The PDM subcontractor employed ineffective tool control measures,” reads the document. Tool control measures; you know, the absolutely basic practice of accounting for the exact location of every tool that is used to work on an airplane once that work is finished. Wow. Just, wow.

The contractor’s mistake caused a “near catastrophic fuel tank over-pressurization” and $25 million in damage during that aerial refueling session, the report states. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The report goes on to say, “The PDM subcontractor failed to follow Technical Order (TO) mandated procedures when employing the fuel vent test plug during PDM. Due to the relatively short period of time between take-off and [aerial refueling], the [mishap crew] did not have the opportunity to burn a substantial amount of fuel from the number two fuel tank which could have allowed the “dive flapper” valve to open after the tank’s excessive air pressure decreased to the point where the flapper valve would open. This explains why this mishap did not occur during [aerial refueling] conducted between the time the [mishap aircraft] left the PDM facility and the time of the mishap.

A colleague tells me that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said this morning that one JSTARS will be retired, it may well be this bird.

Here are some pictures of the damage to the wing. Note how it doesn’t look that bad from outside. Once you see the inside however, it’s another story. If that’s not enough to convince you that fuel tank over-pressurization caused by a forgotten plug is a big deal, check this out.






65 Comments on "A Basic Mistake That Trashed a JSTARS"

  1. Well someone got shit canned.

  2. irgendeiner | January 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |

    Here's the photo for the 2001 c-141 accident in Memphis: http://www.airliners.net/photo/USA—Air/Lockheed
    Looks pretty scary…

  3. BobSacamano | January 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm |

    Good grief, scrap it!!!

  4. Here's a question: why are flying planes with such ancient engines? Commercial airliners upgraded engines years ago, even on many older bodies, because the fuel efficiencies pay for themselves.

  5. Privatization wins again!

  6. In the early days of the F-86 – there was a mechanic on the line who installed a single bolt in upside down – because he did not believe the blueprints were correct. It caused the elevators on the tail to lock all the way down when the aircraft went into a dive. Several planes and pilots were lost before the problem was identified.

  7. There was a program underway to replace the engines at some point, but I have heard no news about it. It was probably unwisely cancelled at some point in the last several years.

  8. Bless the crew and the people who put the rivets into that a/c….

  9. Time to fire bad Crew Chiefs and who screwed up the plane.

  10. DockScience | January 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm |

    This crew should be on their knees thanking God for saving them.

  11. and that's why the USAF needs UAVs like the Global Hawk, you don't risk 20 human lives when something goes wrong

  12. 1967? For Pete's sake buy a new one fron Boeng. It could be the rust that cost it to fail. Metal rust on old age. Maybe Boeng can comeup with new fuel tank that will not rust.

  13. welcome to america

  14. Urban myth. The cost of air transport would never justify flying cattle, especially in India. What jet planes do transport is race horses, but due to quarantine arrangements would be extensively cleaned between trips.

  15. The Air Force fought tooth and Nail for the F-22 which cost a a baggillion dollars a piece.
    Yet everything else in the fleet needs a crank at the front to start…..
    The B-52 is so old it is a running joke.

  16. I imagine we're going to have one very sad contracting firm soon.

  17. 4FingerofBourbon | January 27, 2012 at 9:27 pm |

    Wow, busting Ribs and popping rivets is serious pressure. Good borescrope footage. My biggest suprise however is the author says the AF bought used jets. FFS.FFS.

  18. I did this job in the AF and I was the last one to look and close the tank. We were told we would go to jail of something like this happened. Also, I believe this was his personal tool so it wasn’t on the tool roster, also it should have been in the ac forms. Don’t mess with the vent system or boom boom.

  19. We should have started replacing the E-3s and E-8s ten years ago. We could have had E-767s and E-JSTARS by now.

  20. TSgt TPetty | January 28, 2012 at 2:09 am |

    Just remember, the government loves to go with the lowest bidder. You get what you pay for.

  21. AviationBuff | January 28, 2012 at 3:09 am |

    "Spy plane?" Why does the media continue to confuse electronic warfare aircraft, like the E-8 JSTARS and the EP-3 (the aircraft type involved in the collision with a Chinese fighter back in 2001), with spy planes? Spy planes, such as the SR-71 and U-2/TR-1, overfly the airspace of other countries in order to gather intelligence (hence, the "spy" in SPY plane). Such overflights usually involve photographic intelligence. Electronic warfare aircraft, on the other hand, usually DO NOT overfly foreign airspace (if involved strictly with intelligence gathering operations). The type of information gathered is usually electronic (such as communications traffic, or gathering information on radar frequencies used by the systems of a particular nation), and can often be gathered without violating another nation's sovereign airspace.

    If members of the press could at least get their basic facts in order, I would find it much easier to believe more of what was reported in the news today…

  22. So… yes?

  23. the crew might have been saved precisely because this is an ancient 707. Those first jetliners were massively over engineered, compared to say a 767.
    On a more modern plane the wing might have sheared off, instead of the gradual failure seen here.

  24. So when is Boeing’s P-8 AGS going replace this one? USAF has huge budget in it’s use, but they still choose to fly planes build in 60’s.

    Are they waiting Boeing to offer modified 787?

  25. The Military needs to build planes to last a good 40-60 years before they need replacing. It is much better to build a quality plane that lasts and keep doing modifications to avionics and air frames as the need arises. Look at c-130's, those things have been around since the 50's only because the line is still active and aircraft are being modified and produced as need be. The government needs to stop getting milked for every penny it gets by defense companies. Seems like now every weapon acquisition contract keeps going into cost overruns.

  26. An E8 crewmember | January 28, 2012 at 11:52 am |

    1. The bad maintenance happened in Lake Charles Louisana.
    2. It was done by civilians not a crew chief.
    3. The main contractor Northrup Grumman has not compensated the USAF and does not intend to.
    4. This will liked result in the reduction in USAF assigned crews. This wing in one of the busiest in the Air Force. Longer more frequent deployments for the guard and remaining active squadrons.

  27. I live next to Robins AFB and know plenty of people that work out there. In one particular area on the base the Boss was not complying with regs and a family member of mine reported it along with some other people, needles to say, they cleaned house.

  28. You want cheap…you got cheap and ruined.

  29. Which Jet Tail # was this?

  30. Tail # 69

  31. Big Shocker – THE USAF IS CHEAP!!!!!! We use outdated equipment and leadership just keeps going with the flow so their precious careers keep on track. Of course the USAF is not going to get reimbursed – why would they ever think to write a contract that makes business sense. Of course the Wing King will allow crews to keep flying because its just business as usual for the UNION protected contractors. By the way, the 707 frames the JSTARS came from hauled cattle in South American before the USAF got their hands on them.

    The US Military – especially the USAF hopes the economy stays down- because if it picks up there will be a mass exodus. The reason for the exodus will not be the wars we have fought, but because of the leadership that is in charge.

  32. The Boom Operator was lying on his couch? This was one of the poorest written articles I've ever read.

  33. The article insinuates that a tank tiger (or whatever NG calls them) slipped out of the tank, slapped the access closed and signed off teh forms and the jet went to war… The failure goes much higher than the tech making $14 an hour that left the plugs in. His supervisor, Northrop's QA, the accepting DCAS rep, etc, etc… a long line of indifference and inattention that could have cost this crew their lives.

  34. Military personnel should be operating out of second-hand equipments, this aircraft is positively fifth-hand and unsafe and military professionals shouldn't fly and work in it in any event. Perhaps they are deemed expendable by the estabilshment.

  35. Mistakes like this have nothing to do with the age of the airframe.

  36. Does the Air Force do any math on refueling these beasts in the air? I read somewhere that they really don't.

    Jstars should have had a reasonably modern airframe- this is controlled obsolescence at its worst.

  37. None of you people know what you're talking about. The tankers fuel delivery system is designed to sense back pressure during the entire refueling process and should have automatically shut down before this rupture occurred. My guess is that the tankers auto shut off valve pressures were improperly set, as well as the tankers pump by-pass valve. The result is hydraulic hammer. The receiving aircraft fuel tanks would not have ruptured, even with a vent plug in place. It is surprising that the refueling booms hose did not rupture before the tanks did.

  38. Crew Member | January 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |

    You obviously have no clue about the military, nor how it operates. Anyone in the military knows there is a "HUGE" difference between a Crew Chief and a civilian contractor. Try telling any Crew Chief that they are the same and see where it gets you. Your comment is a slap in the face to all who wear the uniform.

  39. Those without sin cast the first stone…. Seems this "ANG" Wing forgot that they "Hard Landed" a couple of E-8C aircraft over the years and caused many $$$$ worth of damage. One hard landing was at this same deployed location. The same contractor temp fixed this air crew error and the jet was flown back to the states where "the contractor" repaird and returned this jet to service. This ANG wing are some of the best finger pointers you'll ever see when it's not them who make the mistakes. Much was learned from this event…for the better.

  40. Also this must not have been an authorized vent plug. Vent plugs normally have long red streamers hanging from them. Something a crew chief should pick up on pre flight inspection. I dont know what this guy used to cap the vent but his ass needs to fired and he should owe the af 25 million.

  41. Low Bid Contractors strike again! Geez!

  42. As Andrew Dice Clay would say: "Those STUPID, F____in' IDIOTS!!!!"

  43. Sgt Maintaner(E-8C) | February 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm |

    You are exactly right. This jet is still sitting out in Qatar broken and useless. NG is still trying their hardest not to pay for their mistake. It's a shame but at least this article is bringing some light onto the problem of this ancient airframe and it's less than stellar contractors. I personally think it's a conflict of interest that the NG company is allowed to conduct their own PDM maintenace. Not only can this lead to catastrophic damage that goes through years of litigation in order to be set straight, but also can lead to contractors blatantly ignoring major issues with the airframe in order to assure their "job security". If the PDM's were done by military workers, who knows what they might find?!

  44. thunderbird84 | February 2, 2012 at 12:17 am |

    They are very lucky the wings didnt explode in flight from the pressure. Not a fireball, just blow completely apart! They are all VERY lucky they got her back to base!

  45. Umm, isn't this the one that got broke due to a hard landing (dropped from like 25 feet) in zero visibility fog (landing with only a Category 1 ILS)? Where did this vent plug story come from? If you ask me, I'd say the pilot in command (PIC) owes the USAF $25 Million, he should have diverted to another airfield due to lack of a Category 3 ILS given the extremely limited visibility. Category 1 ILS (Instrument Landing System) service ends about a quarter mile from touchdown. The vent plug story is probably protecting someones flying career. Also, wouldn't this aircraft in-flight refuel from it's home base to Qatar? Do the tanks use a different vent when a fuel truck is refueling them on the ground prior to a mission? I was there on the night in question, had to drive less than 10 mph the entire way home because the fog was so dense. Maybe it's just me, but the fuel plug story is awfully fishy.

  46. Hmmm, same thing happened to a KC-135A at Pease AFB in the mid '70's. A bird left fuel cell maintenance hanger with the test plug still installed. With a fuel truck still hooked up, the bottom of the right wing blew out. I was in A/R at the time…had to rush out to the acft and seat jacks until it could be cleared…The maintenance said the wing would come "pre-wired" so we cut all the wire bundles at the cannon plugs….needless to say, when we go the new wing…it was bare of any wires…Needless to say…shouldn't there be a "Caution" in the T.O.'s for the test plug, besides accountability on a shadow board or CTK?

  47. Some of the “facts” being discussed need to be corrected. In 1988, I was the Operational Test and Evaluation Pilot for the E-6A (TACAMO) aircraft. The E-6 was the last new B-707 produced; however, when the program began it was setup to produce both the E-6 and the E-8 JSTARS. In the early summer of 1988, a design flaw caused an incident during a test flight that resulted in Air Force E-8 officials deciding to cancel the E-8 order with Boeing. The E-6 aircraft were still built and continue to operate very well today. The E-8 program shifted gears and began looking for a different airframe for the JSTARS mission. I never heard discussions of using MD-80 airframes but the airfame mentioned most often were former commercial DC-10 and MD-11 aircraft. When the used airframes could not be obtained in sufficient quantities, E-8 Program officials re-approached Boeing to inquire about purchasing new B-707 aircraft. However, the final E-6 had been built and the production line was dismantled, just as Boeing warned the Air Force it would do. At this point, the Air Force decided to purchase used B-707 commercial airframes and refurbish them. I don’t know the exact reason for keeping the old engines (possibly due to refurb costs and wing strength).

    Finally, the new B-707 with CFM engines sold for about $63.5 million while some of the refurbs exceeded $80 million per aircraft. Many of us were shaking our heads in disbelief in when these numbers began floating around.

  48. I flew on the AWACS and one of the reasons that we were using the older aircraft is the need to have a certain number of electrical generators to run the equipment. Each engine had two generators on it at that time about 20 years ago and the systems required most of the eight to work. The newer jets today only have two engines and the number of electrical generators may not be powerful enough to properly power everything needed for the mission of the aircraft. Of course I retired 16 years ago and I don't know what modifications and upgrades have occurred since then.

  49. Curmudgeon10 | February 2, 2012 at 2:55 pm |

    I'm not sure why it's important to focus on whether the error was made by a civilian contractor or an active duty person. The fact is that PEOPLE have been making errors in the maintenance of aircraft since the Wright Flyer. You can compile Best Practices and Lessons Learned until you are blue in the face and PEOPLE will continue to mess up.

    Supposedly, Quality Control functions are there to find and correct mistakes like these before they evolve into catastrophic accidents. Where were those functions in this case?

  50. Like it or not, politics always plays a role in aircraft procurement. Multiple sources of production lines is another, just like with Navy ships. The selection process is always a series of compromises.

  51. Shades of Palomares! We lost a B52 AND a KC135 there, and nukes. Google it.


  52. If fuel cell maintenance was done that required a vent plug, then a 4 hour leak check would have been required prior to flying. That tank would have to be fueled on the ground before the forms could be cleared. How did it get airborne with a vent plug installed?

  53. John Montana | February 5, 2012 at 7:59 pm |

    The airplanes were purchased from Africa. The crooks from Northrop Grumman did that to make tat big money out of Air force contract. I remember them, P1 up to P7. They put in charge as supervisors that had nothing to do with aviation. They were craw fish farmers believe me. I read one of them resume that was a Taco Manager and know his name too. I called Pentagon to report and because was more than 2 yrs they did not consider taking action. Lake Charles J Starr program was a big rip off taxpayers money and not from Grumman but Northrop Grumman after take of

  54. I was at Robins from 2003-2010 and remember a few stories about the aircraft being used to ship cattle. The first time I heard it mentioned was during training. I could never smell anything but from what I was told it was just one of the aircraft that smelled funny.

  55. One who knows | March 6, 2012 at 2:25 pm |

    I have worked on A/C for 31 years, including the JSTARS. This accident was due to one thing, failure to perform REQUIRED tool procedures. I have read many of the comments on this subject, but the most astonishing is the ones about Contractors, other than Boeing being the reason for such failures. This is absurd. Boeing cost the taxpayers of the USA billions each year. They are one of, if not the worst maintenance facilities in the country. Their costs are more than most of their competitors, yet they keep winning the Contracts. Those guys do know one thing, how to staff with the best retired military they can hire. This ensures future work.

  56. The reason they have not upgraded the engines is very simple. All money goes to the back end equipment not the airframe and engines. True with AWACS also.

  57. Going from a bladder type fuel cell to a structural type fuel leads to many unusual incidents of failures???? Internal Corrusion is one of the most feared types of metal failing the Air Force faces. The C-130 is famous for that major interanl problem…..

  58. So is the contractor covering the repair bill?

  59. Thank you MaintGuy! When this happened at Tinker a number of years ago, we had a B-1 #2 Main open up like a can of sardines, on the GROUND. After all the dust settled, folks were moved out of B-1's, supervision was demoted, time off w/OUT pay was handed out and Rock-OH-Well (before "mother Boeing swallowed em up) got handed major $$$ to fix it. 83-066, Ole Puss, had many a flight hour on her after we fixed her up. Fuel troops, your job is MORE important than 'Lazyonics', PMEL or Crew Chiefs. Bottom line, these contractors are NOT saving the tax payers any $$$!!

  60. This incident still proves the viability and survivability of Boeing airframes. My father-in-law was a crew chief in WW2 and always had high praise for Boeing and the ability to more often bring the crews home even after tremendous damage. There needs to be criminal charges brought against the problem contractor, but that will likely never happen.

  61. I used to guard these aircraft while I was on active duty. I had to fly on them a couple of times. These things break down all the time. You have Air Force personnel and civilians working on them. Would it had been different if the contractor was an Airman? No the same results! The thing is you can’t think we can maintain these aircraft with the budget being constantly cut. These planes contribute greatly to the mission and it makes no sense for the budget to have such an affect on them. They are old and need to replaced!

  62. Following this fiasco, we had to inspect every fuel tank on every aircraft. Wasn’t fun. But, it was definitely a good precaution to prevent it from happening again. We even had to pressurize each tank and test the vent system while they were trying to figure out what the world happened. Love my job (sarcasm).

  63. LTC. Chuck Miller | March 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm |

    Why did the USAF use an old 707 used commercial airframe for JSTARS? I can shed some light. I am an aeronautical engineer and was the USAF Weapon System Manager at Tinker AFB (1976-1981) that started this chain of events. I had been a KC-135 aircraft commander and Instructor Pilot for 5-years with the SR-71 inflight refueling program, then developed and implemented the inflight tanker program with the Canadian Armed Forces as a USAF Exchange Program pilot/instructor (1973-1976), using modified (new) Boeing 707-347C airframes — all prior to becoming the C/KC-135 System Manager (1976-1981).
    During my 5-year tenure as System Manager, the 750 aircraft fleet of C/KC-135s underwent major modifications to extend its useful life (25th year in service, at that point) including structural wing re-skin mods, CFM56 re-engining and dozens more. The tanker fleet had a critical shortfall in capability to meet mission requirements in wartime due to number of airframes combined with low operating efficiency of the non-fan, straight turbo-jet engines. But the new CFM-56 engine, and all the related/required airframe and system upgrades drove the pre-aircraft modification cost up to over $25 Million each, and required upwards of a year for each in modification. Meanwhile, the tanker mission capability was degraded even further, with so many aircraft undergoing modification. As a solution, my extensive operational and mechanical experience created the KC-135E re-engining program concept and I "sold it" to the Pentagon's Air Council, which involved the acquisition of large fleets of FAA forced-retirement commercial B-707 aircraft as resources for the later vintage fan-jet engines that they contained, along with struts, nacelles, thrust-reversers and other system components to be used as cannibalized and refurbished assets for modification of over 130 KC-135A airframes. This KC-135E modification would ultimately prove to provide over 90% of the efficiency (fuel savings, and increased fuel offload capability, thus requiring fewer tanker sorties) of the modified KC-135R (CFM-56 re-engined tankers) at about 20% of the cost and modification time. It also provided an established acquisition program and database of potential used B-707 airframe assets. A dozen or more pristine used B-707s were acquired, intact under this program for use as additions to the Presidential fleet of VIP -707s, R&D airframes for prototypes, and other special mission categories, including initial JSTARS prototypes.
    The JSTARS program needed a new airframe for its electronics suite. Had there been no C/KC-135 shortages, the fanjet equipped B-model C-135s would have been the likely candidate for this mission. But most of those had already been converted to critical mission RC and EC-135 variants, with a small few remaining as R&D test bed aircraft. The Navy E-6 program had an open assembly-line making new airplanes on the B-707 airframe with the CFM-56 power-plant and ample electrical generation capacity. One airframe was diverted from that assembly line and purchased by the USAF for the JSTARS first-production prototype. However, JSTARS was experiencing typical developmental cost overruns and their focus was on electronics systems issues, not airframe. And there happened to be an available acquisition where good B-707 airframes had been purchased for typical complete airframe costs of $2 million vs $60 million for the similar new E-6 airframe with upgraded CFM-56s. The choice was obvious, especially when the focus was not placed on long-term maintenance cost considerations, nor proof of concept for JSTARS yet concluded. How could anyone make a wiser choice without looking at the 30 year life cycle cost differences?? And the KC-135E program had already acquired the "best of the best" in used 707 airframes!
    Finally, I totally agree with previous comments. The quality and viability of the airframes played a minimal (if any) part in this incident. The failure of quality control, experience of contract technicians, and the sloppiness of following technical procedures, was the apparent cause of this incident! And lack of appropriate resources (budget) to do the job right, continues to play a strong role in the unintended (ignorant) consequences causing the destruction of the aircraft and jeopardizing of life and limb of the operators!

  64. To bad our E- 8 , EP-3 and not as p resting as Air Force one I love my couture but if you ware the scars you not ware the stars. We need good engineer in leadership for our military not politicians.

  65. William Dollarhide | April 18, 2015 at 1:48 am |

    Bottom line is that complaisance is a huge factor. I've been an aircraft mechanic for a long time. I've seen it all to many times while on active duty. When it comes to human factor it's always either not following the T.O., becoming to rushed to meet the mission or just plane out complacent! We as mechanics all have become complacent from time to time while doing our jobs. Heck, people every day are complacent in every day life. Until robots are take over a human as a aircraft mechanic A/C accidents will always continue to happen. I've always said. If God wanted us to fly we would have been born with wings!!

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