A Pentagon investigation has found serious defects in the wings of the McDonnell Douglas C-17 cargo jet, which could result in premature cracks--potentially the most severe problem yet in the long-troubled program.
The flaws, which were revealed in a report obtained Wednesday by The Times, have prompted questions about the safety of the aircraft. Remedying the problem also would significantly boost the program's cost and further delay its production, according to congressional sources.
The investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general means more bad news for the company's Douglas Aircraft unit in Long Beach, which has been struggling with defense industry cutbacks and production problems on its commercial programs. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs in recent years.
The Air Force plans to buy 120 C-17s for an estimated $40 billion, making it the firm's largest program in Long Beach. The program is already about $1 billion over budget--a cost borne so far by McDonnell--and development of the C-17 is more than a year behind schedule.
A McDonnell spokesman said the company "could not comment on a report that we haven't seen." McDonnell officials have previously said that some wing rivets did not meet specifications but that the problem has been corrected and the existing wings are more than adequate.
Potential safety risks from the wing flaws and the cost to remedy the defects are not known, but the government is "not protected" financially and needs urgently to conduct testing to determine the extent of the problem, according to a memorandum to Air Force officials included with the inspector general's report.
The investigation found that the quality standards for the C-17 did not comply with government requirements and that manufacturing procedures were "not followed and in some instances confusing or nonexistent." It also found that quality control data was "missing or incomplete."
Thousands of rivets that hold each wing together were improperly installed by Douglas with automated machines, the report found. After they were inserted into the wings, the rivets expanded twice as much as the company's specifications called for, the report said.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who requested the Pentagon probe, said the findings raise "serious doubts about the safety of the aircraft" and asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to ground the four existing cargo jets undergoing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base.
But Air Force officials said McDonnell's riveting procedures do not pose any flight safety or durability problems, though the officials had not examined the inspector general's findings as of Wednesday.
In addition to the rivet problem, the inspector general report found that McDonnell had improperly installed two-piece fasteners or nuts and bolts in the wings, which were partly responsible for fuel leaks that forced the aircraft to be grounded three times in the last year.
The report found that the government is not protected either financially by the C-17 contract warranty or technically by durability tests on a specially built aircraft. Indeed, the special aircraft's wings are not the same as the rest of the planes, the report found.
Despite the fuel leaks, McDonnell has asserted in recent weeks that the flight program is going well and is meeting many of the objectives set by the Air Force. So far, four of the jets have flown about 500 hours at Edwards Air Force Base.
"We believe remarkable progress has been made in the C-17 program during the past 12 months, both in production and flight testing," David O. Swain, McDonnell senior vice president, said in a recent company news release.
But Conyers asserted in his letter to Cheney that the C-17 program amounts to a "procurement disaster" and asked Cheney to take urgent action to protect flight crews. The investigation report said that it appears that 26% of the wing rivets were overexpanded--meaning that the rivets tested fit too tightly inside the holes drilled in the wing. Each wing contains more than 100,000 rivets, according to a McDonnell source.
The allegations that McDonnell had improperly installed rivets surfaced in March, 1991, when The Times reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into whether the rivets had been improperly installed and the problem covered up by McDonnell officials.
That investigation was later dropped by the Department of Justice, but congressional investigations of the problem continued and last year Conyers asked the inspector general to conduct a thorough investigation.
"It sounds like the same old news we heard some time ago," Col. Larry Greer, an Air Force spokesman, said about the inspector general's report.
The inspector general did not examine any rivets on the aircraft before concluding that they had been overexpanded. Instead, the conclusion was reached after reviewing quality control records that showed the automated riveting machines had used improper tolerances on sample runs, known as test coupons.
The coupon records were originally reported lost or destroyed by McDonnell in the FBI's investigation, Conyers said. He termed the misplacement a possible cover-up of the problem and on Wednesday asked Atty. Gen. William P. Barr to reopen his investigation.