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​An Air Force Materiel Command Accident Investigation Board determined a contractor maintenance error during depot maintenance caused damage to the radar system of an E-8C JSTARS, like the one shown here. Air Force photo.

Contract maintainers left drain holes covered during depot maintenance of an E-8C JSTARS between March 2015 to July 2016, which let water accumulate and cause about $7.35 million in damage to the aircraft, according to an Air Force Materiel Command investigation released Friday. The E-8C, assigned to the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins AFB, Ga., was in depot maintenance at a Northrop Grumman facility in Lake Charles, La. During the maintenance, contractor personnel covered three holes in the radome on the belly of the aircraft. Water from washings and rain collected in the radome, damaging the antenna and other electrical components, including 240 circuit cards, according to AFMC. The AFMC Accident Investigation Board determined that Northrop personnel did not ensure the drain holes were uncovered during an inspection after a washing, and during four pre-flight inspections. “Northrop maintenance quality assurance inspectors were required to ensure all drain holes were free from obstructions after being washed, but failed to do so,” the report states. “The accumulated water, and subsequent cycling of the antenna which produced an electrical current, damaged the antenna’s electrical components.” Air Force maintenance personnel at Robins found the damage during a routine inspection. The Air Force has not determined if Northrop will incur a financial penalty for the incident, however, the maintenance contract lets the service evaluate if the contractor’s performance merits the payment of an award fee, according to AFMC. (Read the report.)

AFMC commander Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium earlier this month that the indecision as to whether the service would retire its JSTARS fleet likely put added pressure on the depots. In addition, the service went from having too much oversight to not enough, she added. “Northrop made some leadership changes, improved their focus on quality. They’ve looked at how they’re doing training. We have modified the incentive structure on the contract to make sure we have a good balance between quality and capacity,” said Pawlikowski. “What you incentivize is what gets focused on. It was never the intention on the part of any of us to sacrifice quality for speed, but unfortunately I think we saw some of that.” Pawlikowski said the service did “circle back” to look at the last four aircraft to leave the depot to make sure there were no other issues and the service also has “increased the amount of review by the program office and DCMA [Defense Contract Management Agency] before we accept another aircraft from the depot,” she added.