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Investigators blame fatal military Mississippi plane crash on poor work at Robins AFB

AP

UPDATE -- THURSDAY 3:15 P.M.

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. -- Robins Air Force Base released a statement Thursday afternoon addressing a military investigation report alleging "bad maintenance practices" at RAFB led to the fatal KC-130T plane crash in July 2017 (READ ORIGINAL STORY BELOW).

Fifteen Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in the crash that occurred in Jackson, Mississippi.

One woman told WGXA News her fiance was on that plane, and said she's now reliving that loss over again.

"I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. Every time I shut my eyes, I saw that burning plane," said Morgan Zoufal remembering her fiance, Sgt. Dietrich Schmieman.

"The last text I got from him said, "I love you, I'll call you and eight hours'," Zoufal said. She never got that call though.

Air Logistics commander at RAFB Brig. Gen. John Kubinec sent this statement to WGXA on Thursday:

"We sincerely regret maintenance work performed on a propeller blade at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex in 2011 may have contributed to the KC-130T aircraft mishap on July 10, 2017. We mourn the loss of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps military members who died in West Central Mississippi. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with their families, coworkers and friends.

"Our focus is to ensure we have done everything we can to prevent this type of material failure from happening again, as well as increase the likelihood of earlier detection of defects which can lead to this type of failure.

"This mishap revealed a need to re-examine all aspects of our lifecycle sustainment for these C-130 propeller blades. While no one can say that mechanical failures can be completely prevented, I assure you that we are doing everything we can to prevent them in the future."

The statement also addressed changes made at RAFB following the incident and military findings:

"Since the mishap, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex and partners across the Air Force have worked with Navy and Marine officials to identify potential causes and to mitigate the risk of future mishaps. Our ongoing efforts include a complete review of the blade and propeller assembly overhaul processes, developing new inspection techniques at the depot and field level, and researching new technologies to enable earlier detection of potential issues in the field.

"Due to the nature of the incident and the unknown factors at the time, the Independent Review Team recommended all blade overhaul work at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex be halted pending a full review of the process. The IRT analyzed the production process and separated the inspection and overhaul process into 21 major steps to be completely reviewed before resuming C-130 propeller overhaul and assembly. The IRT decided to review each of the 21 steps along the following 9 categories: technical solutions; sufficiency of technical data; review of work control documents; the sequence of process operations; facilities; equipment; personnel training; personnel certification; and a full IRT review of each step."

Additionally, RAFB touched on its records policy and specifics of the 2011 workings:

"In accordance with Air Force policy at the time, depot-level work records were only maintained on file for two years, therefore maintenance records from 2011 are not available. As a result, we do not know who performed the maintenance on the mishap blade nor details on what maintenance was actually performed for this blade during the overhaul in 2011. In the short term all propeller overhaul records are being stored beyond the two year requirement, and in the long term the WR-ALC is looking into the use of electronic Work Control Documents that will be more easily archived and accessed. We are committed to a culture of accountability, quality, engaged supervision, and third-party verification of our compliance with technical and engineering guidance, written regulations and prescriptive publications, and safe industrial practices."


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ORIGINAL STORY -- THURSDAY 10 A.M.

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Military investigators say bad maintenance practices at Warner Robins Air Force Base missed a deteriorating propeller blade that broke off six years later as a U.S. Marine Corps transport plane cruised over Mississippi at 20,000 feet, causing the KC-130T to break into pieces and plunge into a soybean field, killing 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman.

The report on the causes of the July 10, 2017 crash, released Wednesday, slams "consistent production errors" at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex in Warner Robins, Georgia, saying evidence from the crashed plane shows employees missed growing corrosion on the key propeller blade during a 2011 overhaul. The report finds workers at the base did a poor job of following the Navy's specific procedure for its propellers, in part because the vast majority of blades overhauled at the base followed different procedures. The report indicates the Air Force has now agreed to adopt the Navy's more demanding overhaul procedures for all propellers.

Military officials have known of the problems since at least September 2017 and some family members had previously indicated they knew what had happened, although they declined to discuss details. In July, just before the anniversary of the crash, Anna Johnson, the widow of crew member Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Johnson told The Associated Press that "planes don't just fall out of the sky.

"It was a grave mistake, it was an accident that was most likely preventable," Johnson said then. "I don't want their deaths to be in vain. I want something good to come of it."

The report lays out 17 recommendations to prevent a recurrence.

The report says a corrosion pit eventually developed into a crack, breaking off from the propeller closest to the fuselage on the left-hand side of the plane. A number of other propeller blades on the four-engine aircraft were also found to have corrosion. The report said investigators found a protective coating had been painted over corrosion on some blades from the plane, proving that Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex workers "failed to detect, remove and repair corrosion infected blades they purported to have overhauled."

The report said inspectors visiting the base were dismayed to find workers relying on memory for how they should conduct propeller maintenance, even though they had laptops with the correct procedures at their work stations. They also said technicians did a poor job of tracking paperwork that said who a propeller belonged to, which determined whether they were supposed to use methods for the Air Force, the Navy or P-3 surveillance planes. Plus, quality inspections did not cover "the steps regarding identification and removal of corrosion."

The Air Force doesn't know which technicians inspected the blade in 2011, though, because its previous policy was to dispose of maintenance paperwork after two years. Although the Navy had the power to audit work done by the Air Force in Georgia, the report says there's no evidence any audit ever occurred since the Navy handed off the work to the Air Force in 2009.

The report also concludes that the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452 at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, didn't do enough to inspect propeller blades or track maintenance records. The squadron was supposed to perform an electrical current inspection on blades any time a plane didn't fly for more than eight weeks, but did not. However, investigators said that even if maintenance workers had conducted inspections they missed, they might not have found the problem.

"It cannot be concluded with any reasonable degree of certainty that the radial crack would or would not have been detected," investigators wrote.

The blade sliced through the fuselage where passengers were sitting, lodging into the interior of the right hand side of the skin. The impact affected the drive shaft of a propeller on the right side, causing that propeller to break loose, causing it to hit the fuselage and then knock part of the stabilizer off the plane. The plane, then basically uncontrollable, broke into pieces, and the area containing passengers "explosively disintegrated."

The report says all aboard suffered "shock, disorientation, inadvertent physical responses, rapid onset of below freezing conditions and near impossible crew communication." All the men died from blunt force trauma and contusions, investigators found.

Despite speculation at the time, the report found ""no evidence of inflight fire damage or ammunition discharge."

The Navy grounded its fleet of C-130Ts until propellers are replaced, with Congress appropriating $121 million to accelerate the work. However, the aging KC-130T models like the one that crashed are being phased out. C-130s have historically been one of the military's safest aircraft.

WGXA has reached out to Robins AFB for comment and is waiting to hear back.

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