Navy Jets Improperly Repaired for Years, Reports Confirm

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - A Naval facility in San Diego, Calif., has wrongly assembled the part that supplies electricity to fighter jets being used by the U.S. Navy and sold to ally-countries since 2001 - and possibly since as early as 1981. But government officials found no urgency to recall the planes.

Meanwhile, a government mechanic who exposed the maintenance problem - a complaint substantiated by investigations from both the Navy last year and by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in April of this year - was retaliated against by his supervisors, according to a whistleblower complaint.

Richard Conrad, the mechanic, reported to the Navy's waste, fraud, and abuse hotline in summer 2005 that the wrong tools were used when installing Generator Control Units (GCUs), which essentially work as the plane's battery and supply all electrical power to F/A-18 fighter aircraft.

F/A-18s are twin-engine, tactical aircraft that can run air-to-air and air-to-ground strike missions, according to their manufacturer, Boeing Company. This type of fighter jet is currently used by the armed services of eight nations.

While the seriousness of the tool misuse and GCU maintenance is in dispute, a 2005 report by the Navy Product Enterprise Team (PET), which evaluates the cost and readiness of individual equipment, determined the following: that GCUs were the parts most costly and the parts that were most likely to prevent a mission from taking place.

On a related matter, in a Pentagon budget request sent to Congress in February 2006, the Navy cited GCU failure and dual GCU failure in a Navy helicopter as "an urgent safety problem that must be alleviated to eliminate loss of aircraft and life."

On the other hand, the government investigations into the matter, as well as Conrad's former supervisors, point out there have been no known cases of crashes resulting from using the wrong tools to assemble the GCUs.

After Conrad retired from a two-decade Navy career, he continued working for the branch as a mechanic at the North Island Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP) in San Diego, Calif., now called Fleet Readiness Center Southwest.

"A malfunctioning GCU could cause an F/A-18 to lose electric power, which could lead to catastrophic failure of the aircraft," Conrad said in his initial complaint to the Navy inspector general's office.

After an investigation, the Navy Air Inspector General report of June 5, 2006 substantiated Conrad's complaint - that the GCU program used electric screwdrivers instead of the proper torque tools required by Navy policy manuals to repair the batteries in the planes.

It also instructed the Naval maintenance facility to use proper tools in the future, which it began doing shortly after the initial complaint. However, the IG saw no need to repair existing repaired parts.

"A catastrophic failure of GCU, where the GCU loses containment is an unlikely event," read the Navy investigation report.

"The aircraft is configured with two GCUs, each of which is capable of powering the aircraft. In the event that one GCU fails for any reason, the aircraft electrical distribution system is configured to immediately transfer that GCU bus to the opposite GCU, at which point the pilot would return to the base as soon as possible," the report added.

In Conrad's view, this shows you can't discount the importance of GCUs. Further, he said the Navy IG report looked only at the possibility of crashes, while the PET evaluation of the F/A-18s said GCU problems can prevent a mission from happening.

"Our F/A-18s are unreliable, and they can be fixed," Conrad told Cybercast News Service . "My main concern has always been the safety of the aircraft. It's the only strike aircraft the Navy has. We're supposed to take care of it."

The facility in San Diego receives about 25 GCUs per month to overhaul and return to the fleet, said Steve Fiebing, spokesman for the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest.

The Fleet Readiness Center "failed to obtain the proper tools when repair capability was established on this item approximately 19 years prior," Fiebing said. "When discovered, the error was corrected, the tools were immediately placed on order and production was halted until the proper tools could be obtained."

It is protocol to review the need for a recall, Fiebing said.

"The engineering investigation into 19 years of historical usage and maintenance data found no malfunctions or failures associated with this issue," Fiebing said. "The recall assessment concluded that this situation did not present risk to 'safety of flight' or threaten 'mission accomplishment.'"

In November 2005, after Conrad took his complaints up the chain of command in the Navy, his direct supervisors issued a letter of reprimand to him and transferred him from the GCU unit to the Micro Min Soldiering unit.

He said he was essentially placed in a job doing nothing with no potential for overtime pay and which resulted in a 22 percent pay cut from previous years.

In January 2006, Conrad filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and alleged "gross mismanagement of the GCU program and a substantial and specific threat to public safety resulting from the improper repairs of GCUs."

"I have been given an average of less than 10 minutes of work per eight-hour shift. I read books for the majority of the time I am at work," he said in a letter to the OSC.

The retaliation could have a chilling effect, which could cause danger for the fleet if other problems occur, Conrad said.

"I was made an example of," said Conrad. "They stuck me in the corner with no work and left me there. Other employees, they got the message. When managers make a bad decision, they can't admit to it."

Conrad said others have complained about the lack of proper tools but that he was the first to go beyond the dismissive supervisors.

According to the Navy report, investigators interviewed staff from the quality assurance division and artisans that work on repairs, who all affirmed the torque tools were not used. However, supervisors at the San Diego Navy repair shop told investigators the appropriate tools were used.

Though the Navy report determined "NADEP NI knew of the lack of required torque tools before the complainant made the disclosure," investigators determined that "no disciplinary action should be taken against anyone associated with this would be appropriate ... would be punitive in nature."

Yet the separate OSC investigation, released April 10, 2007, disagreed.

"We have found that the agency's decision to refrain from disciplining any of the GCU shop managers is unreasonable," the OSC report said.

Fiebing declined to comment on the whistleblower-retaliation complaint, which is still pending with the OSC. But he concurred with the Navy report that no discipline was needed.

"Disciplinary action is designed to correct misconduct or performance deficiencies," Fiebing said. "The original error occurred approximately 19 years ago and had been perpetuated over time."

Asked if he could explain why the supervisor's accounts differed from the findings of two investigations, he answered, "no."

The Government Accountability Project (GAP), a government watchdog group, is representing Conrad in his retaliation complaint. Like Conrad, the GAP has less than full confidence in the Navy investigation's conclusion regarding the danger posed.

"It may not have been a total whitewash, at least on this issue," GAP legislative Adam Miles told Cybercast News Service . "But given the Navy's findings, there is no way that they can determine with 100 percent confidence that the reliability issues posed by improperly repaired GCUs has no impact on safety."

Even if F/A-18s are not likely to crash because of the maintenance problems, that doesn't mean safety can't be enhanced by fixing the remaining improperly repaired GCUs in the fleet, Miles said.

"The Navy's assurances about safety rely on a back-up system, second GCU, that the Navy already has determined requires improvements in reliability," Miles said. "It is inherently unreasonable to conclude that there is no potential safety problem when one unreliable component is backed up by another unreliable system."

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