C-17 may be taking taxpayers for ride, tests show

March 29, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force's troubled C-17 jet transport has failed its initial operational tests so badly that if the airplane were in service today, it could not parachute troops or supplies into Bosnia nor be maintained by Air Force personnel.

In an early operational assessment of the C-17 involving 50 hours of flight tests, the Pentagon's top test official heaps more criticism onto a beleaguered program that is coming under ever more skeptical congressional scrutiny and facing the possibility of being canceled.

The test official, Robert Duncan, said in his report that if major deficiencies in aircraft performance are not fixed, the C-17 will be unable to meet Air Force requirements.

More than $8 billion has been spent on the program, which is now experiencing at least a $1.7 billion cost overrun, and Defense Secretary Les Aspin's fiscal 1994 budget, which requests money to build six more of the planes at a cost of more than $400 million apiece, could further erode congressional support for the C-17 program.

Cost and quality problems head the mounting list of C-17 woes.

The first plane was delivered to the Air Force with 98 pages of waivers, exemptions and deviations from the contract specifications. It was missing such items as on-board urinals and wing-tip navigation lights.

The fifth production aircraft was delivered to the Air Force on Dec. 9 with 56 pages of missing items and waivers to the contract specifications.

Mr. Duncan's internal report, dated Dec. 16 and obtained last week by the Tribune, adds to the litany of unrelenting bad news ever since the C-17's wings broke in a key stress test Oct. 1.

The airplane has so many shortcomings, Duncan said, that "there have been no missions conducted using personnel or procedures that can be considered truly representative of planned airlift operations."

The advanced flaps needed to land on short airstrips melt in the engine exhausts, his report said. The plane shakes on landing, but the proposed fix will likely aggravate the tendency of the landing gear to "toe in," preventing the plane from backing up and turning around in confined areas, which was one of its major selling points, Mr. Duncan's report added.

The C-17 has an unrefueled maximum range that is 1,700 miles shorter than the less expensive C-5 jet. The aircraft is therefore more dependent on in-flight refueling in order to live up to its "Globemaster" nickname, yet flight test personnel can only refuel the C-17 from an airborne tanker using an emergency procedure, according to Mr. Duncan's report.

The plane's computer software must be improved to test the airplane's ability to air drop cargo, and the seats and exit doors for paratrooper operations must be redesigned, his report said.

In addition, the Air Force has rejected over a third of the maintenance documents as unsuitable, and contractor personnel continue to perform most of the maintenance on the plane, the report said.

In fact, the maintenance and cargo-handling workloads appear to be much higher than expected, according to Mr. Duncan's report, which means the Air Force will not realize the huge manpower savings that were a key part of the Air Force claim that the C-17 would be more cost-effective than the C-5 transport.

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