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.






  • Kski

    Well someone got shit canned.

    • Nicky

      Looks like someone’s gona be on the unemployment line real shortly

      • TMB

        So who foots the $25 million bill?


      Depends union shop or non union shop. Union shop no one gets canned. Non union shop the idiot gets ****canned.

      • Guest A

        Or he gets promoted so he can’t screw up anymore aircraft…

  • irgendeiner

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

  • BobSacamano

    Good grief, scrap it!!!

    • a380

      It reminds me of the early 747s (see Plane Truth)

    • a380

      Bob do you think this what happened to T.W.A instead of the center tank exploding with fumes as it was sucsessful on tape only when PROPANE WAS ADDED as where karosine/pararfin need more than a spark to ignight it as i have had primus stoves for years and it only burns when turned into a gas by pressure and to start that prosess you need methalated sprit to genarate the heat on the burner to ignight the only time i have seen a tank expand on my primus was caused by back pressure and it was cured by the valve (see plane truth)

    • paul

      scrap this aircraft, when they can change the wing faster then repairing the damage.

  • SJE

    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.

    • Tom

      What commercial airliners have had their engines upgraded with all new engines? It is not common practice on commercial airliners, there just is not a business case for it for them. Military aircraft are different because the engines make up a smaller part of the total cost.

    • Anonymous

      That’s what happens when you pay for 2 wars and nationbuild 3rd world countries. Less money for new toys.

    • Sailorman

      I was working on the JSTARS program at MITRE when Congress (a powerful coalition of reps that had aircraft rework facilities in their states) instructed the Air Force to buy Boeing 707 airframes for JSTARS. The USAF wanted to use new McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 airframes. An analysis had shown it was more cost effective. US air carriers had sent their 707s to the “bone yards;” so the USAF had to buy 707 airframes from 3rd word countries and rework them for JSTARS. This event is the result of that decision 20 years later.

      • blight

        That’s pretty short term thinking, especially when they do handwaving about the “reduced costs” of using old airframes.

        We assume that parts support won’t evaporate like a can of ether. We assume..

      • cfabfreddy

        your absoulutely right, those airframes came from, all over the world, some from germany, some from the airforce, they got all of the airframes and the engines on the “cheap”. Everybody was getting rid of the noisey , fuel inefficent jt3d-3 and -7’s and airforce converted each aircraft to the E-8 configurations, note there are about 3 different strut configurations. some of blanked out windows some have remenants of large cargo doors near the front of the nose.

      • Robles

        Wrong This event was the result of the failure by contractor performing maintenance to account for tools. The decision to use the over engineered 707 saved the crew from a catastrophic failure that would have resulted if this problem occurred on any other airframe.

    • Crystal W.

      Also because military budgets keep getting cut! Liberal American citizens and Bureaucrats (whom most have never even visited a military instillation, much less have any working knowledge of what’s in the best interest financially and productively for the military, that they are making decisions for) don’t believe in spending money on military service members, much less infrastructure support of our military’s productive functionality!

    • Bud V.

      The JT3B engines on these jets have been refurbished to MIL SPEC, nothing was spared on the rebuilds. Additionally the JT3B engines (MIL TF33) have a low signature and do not hang down and interfere with the SLR. CFM 56 engines which are now hung on the similar KC-135 airframe, although have more thrust and are more efficient, have a much larger diameter and create a problem for the SLR.

    • Anonymous Guest

      Because the Gov’t isn’t willing to pay for it. MANY changes in air frame have been estimated over the years on this aircraft – all deemed too expensive and the idea canned.

    • jstars maintainer

      there was a contract and several test flights with new and upgraded engines on our test plane. The contract was scrapped because the new engines were so large they portruded and interfered with the sweep or the radar, limiting it’s effective capabilities.

  • Folsythe

    Privatization wins again!

  • Musson

    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.

    • kim

      That was the first thing I thought of too. It’s mentioned in Chuck Yeager’s biography.

    • Sumo

      What was Quality control doing ? Sleeping ?

  • William C.

    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.

  • jamesb

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

    • anonymous Guest

      Northrop Grumman did all the airframe upgrades, including rivets.

  • Lance

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

    • TMB

      A contracted maintenance tech screwed up, not the crew chief.

    • Thunder350

      Reading the articles your posting comments on is hard.

      • Lance

        Your stupidity is hard enough and you dont have to comment and read every comment if you don’t like it don’t read it pal.

        • Thunder350

          Stupidity is blaming the crew chiefs, when the article clearly states in black and white, that the problem was traced back to incompetent contractors. Our men and women have enough to worry about then to get slandered like that.

          • Lance

            Sorry they are the same any one who screws up and wreaks a plane should be fired if he enlisted or contracted if your so inflamed over little mistake proves your too incompetent to get the main message. I can tell your one who thinks no one in the service can do wrong well they can any person military or not makes mistakes some times negligence and this happen to military personnel too. I know of Navy deck crew who accidentally pushed a plane off the deck.

            Sorry Thunder50 Service men make mistakes too. So do contractors which you seem to hate with a passion.

    • Nadnerbus

      Damn Lance. I see your posting all over the mil blogs, and have to wonder, are you trolling? Sometimes the stuff you say makes sense, sometimes its wildly asserted opinion, sometimes it is stuff like this that could easily be avoided by reading the article you comment on.

      Not trying to be rude, just curious if that is your game.

    • Paul

      why do you think a Crew chief done this, more likely it was left in there from fuel maintenance, you must be a pilot

    • DTC

      It wasnt the crew chief. It was the civilian contractor.

    • shaun

      Dip shit, it was a civilian contractor and it was in Lake Charles La, not Georgia. The crew chiefs had nothing to do with the contract work done at depot. Northrup Grumman made the mistake and should have to pay big time or loss the contract. Friends, fathers, mothers son and daughters were on that plane. The Georgia guard pilot did a remarkable job of landing the plane and the maintenance guys work hard everyday trying to keep a 50 year old plane flying.

    • richard

      You don’t even know what you’re talking about. Crew Chiefs didn’t screw this up. You’re coming off stupid right now.

    • dan scott

      I was not the crew chiefs. This was caused by people not doing their job when they were inside the fuel tanks. I did this job on Tankers and bombers for most of my military service.

    • E3FE

      crew chiefs don’t do things like this. They are only glorified gas attendants. This would be depot work not from Tinker AFB like it shows in the article.

  • DockScience

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

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      ….and cool heads and piloting skill had nothing to do with it? Maybe, just maybe, the crew deserves a bit of the credit here?

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • blight

        Or the airframe itself, though old still fundamentally sound. If the tank was empty, the rupture would be less catastrophic, and thus not kill everyone.

    • “Whitey” White

      I do every night…….I was the MCC on that flight!

    • Andy H

      God had better paid attention when the mechanic was about to forget the plug. So much simpler.

  • Sanem

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

    • HawkMX

      That would be true, but the Global Hawk doesn’t fly… It just sits on the ground and breaks.

      • Sanem

        actually the Global Hawk has an impressive operational record of more than a decade, providing vital data better and cheaper then any other aircraft

        the block 30 is the one in trouble, because developement problems caused a cut in numbers which led to rising costs and finally cancelation. the USAF and USN are still operating older, proven models, the new BAMS, and plan on buying the future block 40 models

        compared to other cutting edge aircraft like the F-22, F-35 and V-22, the Global Hawk is a huge succes, be it in developement, cost or operational performance

      • ptitz

        ye, only nobody was complaining when it clocked 20k+ flight hours in Iraq.

    • TGR

      So what do we do when the UAVs/RPS/whatever new acronym is made up for an O-6 to make his/her star doesn’t work either?

    • Hootie Hoo

      UAV’s can’t cover the large scale that JSTARS can. One plane can see more than several UAV’s.

      • blight

        And if you’re processing large quantities of GMTI return data-then it has be piped back to a central facility for data analysis before going back up to the front lines. I imagine JSTARS would have people aboard to process the data on site and parse it for useful information, cutting down on time lag and broadband consumption.

    • Flyjinx

      You have GOT to be kidding me! I have yet to hear any good reason for taking the crews off the jet and replacing them with RPAs. Putting the aircrews lives at risk is what we do. Did you forget this is the military?? That’s why it all-volunteer. So, what happens when the Chinese kill our satellite links and the RPA can’t get its information back to the ground station? How do we save lives then? The crew on the aircraft right there overhead of our bros on the ground will still get the info they need via good old fashioned UHF/VHF radios. No satellites needed!

  • RCDC

    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.

    • Scotty

      I know someone that flies in the jstars. He said that some airplanes were bought from oversees and that he can still smell the manure from when the plans were used for animal transports in india.

      • quest

        OH please!!

      • Terry32579

        I have actually seen manure in the JSTARS planes as I am one who worked on JSTARS in 1994 in Melbourne Florida. It is true these planes were used to transport livestock. It was our congress who tried to make points by getting people jobs in Louisiana that was more technical. If you looked at the politics congress is to blame for building JSATRS on a horrible platform. Taxpayers spent more money than buying new aircraft that can lift more weight for less fuel.

      • Stoo

        I worked on the aircraft just before it became a JSTARS aircraft, Anglo Cargo G-EOCO and yes it was used to transport livestock around the world, the bilges were full of what they left behind, but the Grumman technician I spoke to said it was one of the best 338c airframes he had seen and arranged to have it flown back to the states straight away. The aircraft was built in 1996 and flew for Qantas for 10 years http://www.aussieairliners.org/b-707q/vh-ebu/vheb

    • b murray

      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.

      • Mark

        No. The wing has it’s own vent valves and piping that is not tied into the refuel system. Try again. The tank stops filling when the fill level control valves are closed.

        • Mark

          Also, the refuelers pressure would decrease to about 50psi with the issue in the #2 CW, but not stop.

          Since the climb vent was blocked, only the dive vent was available to vent the tank. On rotation, the fuel level in main tank #2 and the increased attitude of the MA caused the dive vent valve to close (as designed). With the climb vent blocked, the existing air in the tank at takeoff (14.7 psi — the standard sea level atmospheric pressure) was trapped and left the tank with no means of venting excess pressure.

          • Craig H.

            I’m sure they could come up with a gauge or overpressure alarm to keep this from happening again. When I worked avionics in the Corps in the 80’s, we had a problem with the AN/ARC-51 radios. The new pilots kept blowing fuses because they couldn’t believe these radios had tubes in them that needed to be warmed up first. So we installed 4 minute timed relays that disabled the transmit button. I don’t know if they were ever adopted fleet wide, but our CO loved the improvement in our availability rate.

    • Paul

      airframes do not rust sure theres corrosion, but the AF tears these aircraft apart every year from nose to tail. that airframe is a lifetime airframe, strongest built. anything will burst and crack open when there no ventilation, the gas tank on your car is vented if not it would burst open. mistakes happen all the time, thank God they returned to base all alive.

    • j.roberts

      that’s not rust , it’s sealant , were you ever arou
      nd an aircraft before……………….

    • Sumo

      If it’s not Boeing I’am not going.

    • Razer

      Rust is not an issue in aircraft. The fuselage and support structures are ALUMINUM!
      But fuel tank over-pressure is.

    • mike

      That would be corrosion inhibiting compound jackass, not rust. Stick to what you know.

    • crew chief

      That’s not rust dip stick, its sealant.

    • “Whitey” White

      I was the MCC on this flight, therefore in charge of the entire crew. These jets were initially built in the late ’60s in some cases. In EACH case of getting a jet, Northrup Grumman would go through extensively and “rebuild” it so that we essentially received a new jet. The life span is expected to be a few more decades for them at this pace.

      This crew was saved due to it being a “Guard” crew……the Pilot was a DELTA pilot on military leave to serve. His experience, along with the other pilot (Sr. Instructor at the training squadron and the Nav (former B-1 and B-52 nav)) saved the jet and 18 lives……..

    • dan scott

      That is not rust. That is the coating u see.

  • asdf

    welcome to america

  • dukeofurl

    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.

    • Andy

      Apparently you’ve never heard of the middle east where prize breeding cattle and sheep are regularly flown. I’ve carried more than my share of cows and sheep in DC-8’s and 747’s and it still goes on.

    • SMSgt Mac

      You are mistaken.
      Volume I April 1997 WL-TR-97-3093
      Pg 2-1. “Each of the aircraft assigned to the Joint STARS program was used as a cargo aircraft, and many hauled livestock during their lives.”
      Pg 4-22. “ZONES 2-4 OF P-4 The elevated corrosion levels in zones 2-2 and 2-4 on the P-4 aircraft may be attributed to leakage experienced in the crown skins and the cargo carried by the aircraft. The aircraft experienced leakage in the aft fuselage crown skins The moisture introduced through this leak resulted in elevated corrosion in zone 2-2. The aircraft was used, in part, to carry livestock. The higher corrosion levels in the floor structures is believed to be the result of animal waste products in addition to the leakage from the crown skins.”
      …handily copy/pasted from a comment by me on an earlier thread: http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/2011/02/18/usaf-eyes-busin
      I can’t believe people are still rehashing airframe selection/history. What I want to know” was the contractor mistake one that should have been caught by the AF before the event? Accidents have a ‘chain’ of causes.

    • Sky

      Dukeeofurl – In 1991 I was a supplier (Cargo Systems) involved with Northwest Airlines. They we’re on the verge of backruptcy and the only real money they were making at this time was from hauling LIVE CATTLE to Singapore on there 747 cargo plane. It was very profitable for them as well.

    • I cleaned the inside of the cattle haulers… it was nasty full hazmat

  • 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.

    • Razer

      The Boeing B-52 has been a Combat Mainstay since the 1950’s. The F-22 can keep from being GROUNDED! How do you explain that?!?

    • david

      The B-52 is a joke until you see a few of them overheard, because by that them you will be just a memory.

  • Jacob

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

    • Andy

      As long as the government higher-ups believe it’s better to contract the maintenance than to have trained technicians and mechanics in uniform we’ll be going to war with more unknown faults than I care to fly with.

    • blight

      Contractor calls lobbyist.

      Lobbyist calls Congressmen on house and senate ASC.

      All is forgiven.

  • 4FingerofBourbon

    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.

    • Mark

      Borescope? This isn’t a engine, this is a fuel tank which people (I used to be one), crawl through.

  • 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.

  • Ben

    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.

    • NoFear

      Agree, but there is even a more compelling reason to upgrade now that the 767 has won the tanker contest, standardization. It’s so difficult for the Air Force brass to pull the trigger on it because of a complete fear it would take $ away from the F-35. Thereby jeopardizing the entire F-35. They won’t make a decision until the F-35 line is well into production

  • TSgt TPetty

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

  • AviationBuff

    “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…

    • Cthel

      I believe part of the problem was the shift from actual overflights to being-really-high-up-just-on-the-international-side-of-the-border-and-looking-sideways as the mission profile for the U-2. Actual overflight is illegal and lets your enemy shoot at legally; sitting just the other side of the border makes the decision harder for them, especially if you can monitor the spy-planes position to prove it didn’t violate airspace.

      The current rule for the media is pretty much “looks at (either visually/radar) another country without their permission/listens into another countries EM emmisions” = ” spy plane”

    • Mach1

      Are you serious? Weather your flying inside or outside the country, taking photographs with a camera or radar imaging, your still SPYING! Get a clue

    • I Know

      By your definition the J-Star is a Spy Plane.

      • AviationBuff

        I Know, by the definition I just gave, JSTARS (which does NOT normally overfly hostile airspace) is NOT a spy plane, but, as I pointed out, an ELECTRONICS WARFARE AIRCRAFT.

    • SMSgt Mac

      AviationBuff is correct. The JSTARS is NOT a ‘spyplane’ but a Battle Management asset. To quote the AF Fact Sheet:
      “The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or Joint STARS, is an airborne battle management, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. Its primary mission is to provide theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces”.
      It is not a ‘spyplane’ in any more sense than a combat recon foot patrol looking for Taliban movement are ‘spies’.

      ‘Spyplane’ simply makes a better headline hook than ‘Battle Management Plane’, Gotta scare the women and children.

      • AviationBuff

        Thank you, SMSgt.

    • nkawtg

      Because the E-8 can be used to collect intel, therefore that makes it a “Spy Plane”

    • Edep12

      I am a former JSTARS crewmember and your premise that JSTARS doesn’t overfly the airspace of other countries in order to gather intelligence is ridiculous (and I have multiple Air Medals to disprove it). The RADAR has a standoff capability to keep it from having to fly too close to the FLOT, but this is a self preservation method to help protect a $300 million asset. Again, I assure you however, that every single combat sortie I have ever flown was done over enemy airspace.

  • Nadnerbus

    So… yes?

    • Lance

      I read all blogs and sorry I made a mistake BUT you seem to take comments too seriously and some of you and your bodies here are too hoped up on owning this site but your opinion is crap sorry mine is too there no way your opinions make decisions.

  • jkm

    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.

  • Armored

    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?

    • Nick

      The AF uses alot of fuel, more than anyone. It costs alot too. Contiuous work is done on these structures/fuel tanks.

    • mekong68

      That program was canx due to $$. They will continue to fly the E-6, another 707. They are currently undergoing Service life extension program at Tinker

    • oldboyjettoys

      Generals in the AF who used to be fighter pilots run the AF…they prefer F-22s and F-35s over spending $$$ on heavies…

    • Flyjinx

      Never. The P-8 as it is currently desgined will not meet the AF requirements for GMTI, nor will it meet the requirements for the Army, which drove the original decision to put the type of radar that was designed for that mission on the Boeing 707-300 series aircraft.

  • yoohoo

    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.

    • Andy

      The Air Force flies their planes less than 20% of the hours the airlines do. The highest time KC-10 is barely into the 30K hour range while FEDEX’s youngest planes have well over 110K hours on them. If the AF keeps up on the corrosion control there’s no reason they shouldn’t last 40+ years I have to say, though, I’m surprised they haven’t put CFM56’s on the rest of the 707/720 fleet they’re still flying.

  • An E8 crewmember

    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.

  • Nick V

    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.

    • cards11

      One person took the hit to prevent the airforce from persuing the company.

  • Chris Alf

    You want cheap…you got cheap and ruined.

  • steve

    Which Jet Tail # was this?

    • reader


  • olebiker

    Tail # 69

  • AF1

    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.

  • Alex

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

  • jumper

    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.


    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.

  • Tom

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

  • Mastro

    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.

  • b murray

    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.

    • John D.

      B Murray as a former fueler @ SFO my knowledge is limited to ground op’s. You bring up an important question.Fuel pressure /ground operations we were limited to approx 50 PSI and once a tank fill to capacity you are locked out of that tank! So how much pressure was being used during this operation?
      These kind of things usually include more than 1 thing to go wrong.As you have pointed out.

    • BobG

      The cutouts are set to 30-50psig depending on aircraft. That’s more than 2 tons of pressure on a single square foot of tank! Putting that much pressure into a fuel tank is certain to rupture it.

      The cutouts are to prevent damage to the boom couplings if the aircraft release values close early or fail to open. They don’t protect the tanks.

    • cards11

      All components were doing thier job, on both aircrafts. The Problem is the the “air” in the tank had no where to vent

  • Crew Member

    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.

    • A CC


    • Paul

      Thank you I agree, I was a Crew Chief for 22 years in the AF. he must be a pilot or a AF acadamy Grad. and those airframes are lifetime airframes best in the world. I help build the first Open Skies at WPAFB.

      • buffnav

        ok Paul… Lance is ignorant when in comes to aircraft maintenance for sure not knowing who does what in the AF vs who doesn’t do what at depot… Your comment about pilots or graduates of the wayward school for boys (and now girls) is nearly as bad! Crew Chiefs are an aircrews best friend!

        and no, I am not a pilot or Academy grad

  • The Truth

    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.

  • Zack F

    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.

  • Daryl

    Low Bid Contractors strike again! Geez!

  • Rick

    As Andrew Dice Clay would say: “Those STUPID, F____in’ IDIOTS!!!!”

  • Sgt Maintaner(E-8C)

    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?!

  • thunderbird84

    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!

  • bashace

    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.

    • soontobecivilian

      i am a maintainer at robins on jstars the hard landing is a complete different incident separated by two years of this incident. i can promise you the story is not made up ive seen the pics of the vent plugs still in the tank and these pictures are taken w in minutes or hours of incidents happening. the only ppl being protected are the civilian mechanics and their lack of tool accountability. the PSI during in flight refuel is amazingly high. on the ground maintainers usually have to wait over an hour for refueling 100k+ in the air its done in minutes the volume of flow is also a lot larger. so it may be the same vent but on the ground the 7 or so psi is vented easily by a different set of vents but in the air facing upwards of 50 psi and faster flow of fuel it was too much for one vent to handle. i love to blame pilots when they brake my stuff on my jet but the blame goes only to grummen and depot….the pilots saved lives not risked them

    • Matt

      This is an entirely different aircraft. The hard landing aircraft has been repaired and is flying again.

      I was on the hard landing aircraft when it happened (in the back). The weather was called ABOVE minimums.

    • Jstarspilot

      Ummm no, you don’t know what you are talking about and you are speaking of things which you are demonstrating an extreme lack of knowledge.

  • robsarge

    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?

  • Dave

    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.

  • Tom J

    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.

  • Curmudgeon10

    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?

  • Craig H

    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.

  • Dan Moore

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


  • Charles G.

    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?

  • John Montana

    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

  • gary

    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.

    • Tom

      My first hand experience was with 3290. It used to stink like old urine on hot days back in the late 90’s.

  • One who knows

    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.

  • yoda

    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.

  • Steve

    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…..

  • Hoot

    So is the contractor covering the repair bill?

  • PMELDick

    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 $$$ to fix it. 83-066, Ole Puss, had many a flight hour on her after we fixed her up. Fuel troops, your job is MORE important than ‘Lazyonics’, PMEL or Crew Chiefs. Bottom line, these contractors are NOT saving the tax payers any $$$!!

  • Nathan

    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.

  • Marcus

    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!

  • Chris

    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).

  • LTC. Chuck Miller

    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!

    • KC135A,E,R,WC,EC

      At least part of your “story” is untrue and I suspect most of it is.
      KC-135Es were not built on a 707 airframe, none of the KC-135s were. The E-3 and E8 are built on 707 airframes.

      • LTC Chuck Miller

        You mis-interpreted my comments, if you understood me to contend that “KC-135E’s were built on a 707 airframe”. When American Airlines VP approached my office (me) with a project proposal to buy a fleet of retiring 707-100s and 707-300s for conversion to tankers, I informed him that the KC-135 structure and systems were far too different from the 707 to make this feasible. But the 707 system components were more readily usable as cannibalized parts and systems to use on “existing KC-135 airframes”. The KC-135E conversion was thus using 161 used Boeing 707 airframes from various configurations and airlines as sources for cannibalized, JT3D engined. struts, nacelles, thrust-reversers, cockpit throttle quadrants and rigging, plus numerous other systems and components, which were applied to existing KC135A airframes to derive the KC-135E configuration. As part of this used airframe procurement, a greater number of used commercial 707 assets were obtained which were used for the other requirements including the JSTARS platforms. The USAF & NATO AWACS aircraft were new production 707-300 series “militarized” TF-33-PW-100 (JT3D variant) airframes and the USN E-6 was a similar new production “militarized” 707-300 series CFM-57 commercial engine powered variant. The first JSTARS prototype was planned to be a variant of the USN E-6 production aircraft, but due to new airframe costs and Boeing’s strong desire to discontinue further 707 “obsolete” production, was ultimately cancelled. The CFM65 powered JSTARS prototype platform with CFM56 engines was purchased off the Navy assembly line and was ultimately sold to Saudi Arabia and used for Royal service. The JSTARS (E-8) fallback position was to revert to outfitting the initial fleet using the used 707 assets that were acquired as part of the KC-135E conversion acquisition program.
        One final correction… KC-135s were the original aircraft produced. Commercial Boeing 707 aircraft were initially produced for the most part on USAF owned tooling and fixtures, however the commercial aircraft had lesser maximum weight capabilities and structure than the military tankers. If you are going to call someone a liar, you should review your history and get the facts first!

  • Denwd

    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.

  • William Dollarhide

    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!!