By Mike McGraw

McClatchy Newspapers

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — Poor maintenance may be compromising the flight safety of reconnaissance aircraft carrying some of America’s most advanced electronic equipment, according to current and former aircraft mechanics.

The RC-135 aircraft are maintained at Offutt Air Force Base and fly global intelligence-gathering missions. While they are among the oldest in the Air Force’s aging fleet, the planes carry the latest equipment for detecting troop movements, enemy radio transmissions and nuclear emissions.

Top Air Force officials said that the 29 planes — called such names as "Rivet Joint" and "Open Skies" for the types of missions they fly — are properly maintained.

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But George Sarris, a senior civilian aircraft mechanic at Offutt with more than 30 years experience, told The Kansas City Star that he has been waging a years-long battle to bring maintenance concerns to light about the RC-135 fleet and became so frustrated that he decided to go public.

"I have found inspections that are 17 years past due, hydraulic and fuel hoses that should have been changed 15 years ago, and recently several emergency system hoses that were 30-plus years past time change," Sarris said, adding that he believes at least one landing gear assembly also was improperly installed.

Those concerns are backed by eight other current and former Offutt mechanics, and have sparked several congressional investigations into safety issues, plus an ongoing inquiry into whether Sarris was disciplined for speaking out.

Sarris and other aircraft experts told The Star that the maintenance issues are serious and could eventually lead to mechanical failures on the RC-135s, delaying critical missions or endangering crew members’ lives.

Air Force officials acknowledged that the age of the planes presents unique maintenance challenges, and that at least one recent in-flight incident caused a significant problem. But they said most of Sarris’ concerns have been addressed, are unfounded or were determined to be unsubstantiated.

Offutt officials insisted that the planes are meticulously maintained by highly trained civilian and military mechanics — an assertion they say is backed by tens of thousands of safe flying hours.

The RC-135s have an "outstanding flying safety record," said Air Force Brig. Gen. James J. Jones, commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt. He said he has total confidence in maintenance workers at Offutt.

However, Jones said he could not comment on some of Sarris’ concerns because those matters are "for official use only." As for landing gear assemblies, Jones said the questions "go into highly technical assertions and speculation."

"Without going into each specific question, I will tell you that in the cases you cite, we immediately corrected the problems after our maintenance experts identified them."

Sarris said, however, that the problems were only corrected after he complained to local congressmen or top Air Force brass and that, in the end, he was punished for speaking out.

While RC-135s do have a relatively safe flying record — only one has crashed in the last 27 years — documents obtained by The Star reflect troubling maintenance-related incidents.

For example, there was an engine malfunction during a training flight of one of the RC-135s this fall. The plane, an "Open Skies" aircraft, is used to help monitor an international arms treaty and often carries foreign military officers during observation flights over other countries.

The reverse thrusters on one of the plane’s engines malfunctioned and deployed in mid-flight, forcing the crew to take corrective action. The thrust reversers are only supposed to deploy during landings, to help slow the plane down. Sarris said he fears the problem resulted from rushed maintenance, and Air Force records show the thrust reverser was "incorrectly blocked out."

Jones said he could not discuss the thrust reverser incident because it is the subject of an Air Force safety investigation.

But Col. Terry Parsons, the Maintenance Group Commander at Offutt, acknowledged in an interview last week that "someone made a big mistake." Parsons insisted, however, that it was an isolated incident.

"Something special is going on here," Parsons said. "We are a model for the rest of the Air Force."

He and other top Offutt maintenance officials said workers have consistently received top Air Force ratings for having zero maintenance errors.

Air Force officials said many of the 150 civilian maintenance workers at the base are veterans and would never do anything to endanger pilots and crews.

Sarris said he is uncertain why aircraft maintenance has become a problem at the air base. But he speculated that, while supervisors would never knowingly endanger lives, they are reluctant to put up with the expense and mission delays that sometimes accompany the time needed for proper maintenance.

An Air Force employee survey in 2007 showed some military maintenance workers at Offutt who work with civilians such as Sarris also have concerns. Nearly two-thirds of about 300 military maintenance workers who participated in the anonymous survey said low morale is a problem. They also said stress and a poor work environment are taking a toll.

Four of Sarris’ civilian co-workers — all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals — backed up Sarris’ claims.

Former aircraft mechanics Ed Printz and Rick Kaarstadt also told The Star that Sarris’ concerns are legitimate. "George is an excellent mechanic. He’s very sharp," Kaarstadt added.

Another former machinist, Michael Butler, said "I’m afraid we’re going to put one of those things in the dirt" and cost lives.

And Timothy Newman, a former maintenance worker who left the air base four years ago, said, "They are trying to take shortcuts, but George is by the book ... ."

Meanwhile, federal officials are investigating whether Sarris has been illegally punished by the Air Force for blowing the whistle on maintenance issues.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, where Sarris lives, also is looking into his allegations.

In a statement, Grassley said: "The safety of our men and women in uniform must be a top concern for our Defense Department. Mr. Sarris’ allegations raise serious questions, not only with the safety of some flights out of Offutt, but also with ongoing problems for whistleblowers who bring forward potential problems within the Defense Department.

"I’ve asked the Inspector General’s office to ensure that the Air Force addresses the allegations head-on, instead of sweeping them under the rug as alleged."

But one top maintenance official, Maj. Dana McCown, said complaints from a few "cranky pants" should not raise questions about the entire operation.

"Aircraft maintenance is a difficult and emotional job," McCown said, adding that not everybody is cut out for it.

The planes Sarris is concerned about are modified Boeing 135s, which were built during the 1960s. The RC-135s have been used in every major conflict since the Vietnam War.

They are in the same family as the civilian Boeing 707, which has long since been retired by U.S. passenger and cargo airlines.

At an average age of 45 years, they are among the oldest aircraft in the Air Force fleet, yet the Pentagon hopes to continue flying them until 2040.

While the planes are well engineered and undergo constant upgrades, even top Air Force officials are concerned about the heavy toll that constant usage — including simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — is taking on the aging fleet.

Former Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper noted in a 2005 interview with Inside the Air Force magazine that older planes are forcing maintenance workers to deal with "issues that we have never had to deal with before in corrosion, in skin replacement, in frayed electrical wiring, in unanticipated component failures."

In fact, Jumper said some Air Force tankers — another version of the RC-135s — are so old, you can walk up to the plane and "peel the skin and the layers apart and powder comes out the middle."

Jumper told The Star that not enough has been spent recently on upgrading the Air Force’s aging fleet.

Maintenance documents on the RC-135s obtained by The Star were reviewed by two independent aircraft maintenance experts. Both said some of Sarris’ concerns appear to present legitimate flight safety problems.

"Aircraft maintenance is so complex that you will find some mistakes and missed inspections in any organization," said Graeme Shelford, a private consultant with 43 years experience in large aircraft maintenance.

But Shelford added: "By the standards that commercial overhaul agencies have to abide by, it would appear that the Air Force could use some tightening up... ."

Shelford said Sarris raised legitimate flight safety issues, such as his concerns about fuel leaks and high pressure air bottles.

"A bottle failure is potentially catastrophic," Shelford said.

Proof of what such a failure can do, he said, can be found in the explosion of an oxygen bottle on a Qantas 747 in July this year while flying over the South China Sea. The explosion blew through part of the fuselage and forced the jet to make an emergency landing.

Even uniformed maintenance crews at Offutt have complained in official Air Force surveys that planes sometimes fly whether equipment gets repaired or not, and that "there have been a few jets turned back over to (civilian) maintenance with tons of write ups still left over."

What’s more, several military maintenance workers said their equipment and technical manuals are outdated and that they felt they were poorly trained for the jobs they do. One said "it amazes me that these jets have been around for 40-plus years and we still have the wrong tools for the job."

Offutt officials declined to discuss details of the climate survey but said it was the one chance maintenance workers have to let off steam about their jobs. They said complaints in the survey should not be interpreted to mean there are serious maintenance issues at Offutt.

According to co-workers, Sarris has a passion for safety.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics and in 2005 won a Meritorious Service Award from the Kansas Air National Guard for his maintenance work, and was lauded by the guard for his "critical skills" and "keen attention to detail."

But Sarris said at Offutt he got tired of going up the chain of command with his concerns and getting nowhere. He began going over his supervisors’ heads to Air Force brass.

The Air Force eventually investigated some of Sarris’ complaints and corrected several problems. As a result, he said, reprisals against him grew serious, including a 10-day suspension without pay and verbal and written reprimands. He said his experience at Offutt has left him bitter and disillusioned.

The government’s Office of Special Counsel is investigating a complaint from Sarris that he was punished for blowing the whistle on safety issues. Jones, a commander at the base, said in a letter that "the Air Force absolutely does not tolerate retaliation against employees who raise safety issues and neither do I."

Sarris said that his commitment to safety is based in part on a 1995 incident that is well-known among Air Force mechanics.

An F-15 fighter mechanic named Thomas Mueller committed suicide after he was charged with negligent homicide following a crash that killed pilot Donald Grey Lowry Jr.

The error Mueller made — reversing the fighter’s control rods — had been identified years earlier, and the Air Force eventually acknowledged that it had failed to distribute that information to mechanics or highlight the easy-to-make mistake in technical manuals.

"The culture at Offutt is to talk about safety," Sarris said, "but don’t act on it, or you will end up like me."