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US Recon Planes Break Down at Sky-High Rates, Alarming Lawmakers

CC0 / / A Boeing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft - the type used in this week's US-Ukrainian overflight over Russia.
A Boeing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft - the type used in this week's US-Ukrainian overflight over Russia. - Sputnik International
The US Air Force’s C-135 reconnaissance aircraft are suffering mechanical issues at a significant pace, a new investigation has found.

"A C-135 military jet is about 110 times more likely than a commercial airliner to be forced to land early because of mechanical failure," the Omaha World-Herald revealed in an investigative series published June 24, citing newly unearthed data.

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The problems plaguing the aircraft are so severe, no commercial airline would consider putting passengers on them — a pretty remarkable statement, considering Boeing derived the C-135 from the same design it got the 707 airliner from. "An engine on fire at 31,000 feet. A pressurization failure that made the cabin feel like the summit of Mount Everest. A broken cockpit windshield over the ocean, hundreds of miles from land," the report says, listing some of the issues C-135 air crews have had to overcome to return to land safely.

Service members at the US Air Force Offutt Air Base in Nebraska have endured all of the above "and more," the report says.

Mechanical failures are responsible for the cancellation of one in 12 missions C-135s are supposed to fly, data cited by the newspaper show.

All five lawmakers representing Nebraska in Congress — three in the House and two in the Senate — penned a letter to US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson calling for responses to questions including, "What is you assessment of the health readiness, and overall safety of the 55th Wing?"

The Omaha World-Herald series "raised several questions of concern, and as such we respectfully request further clarification on the Air Force's efforts to maintain the fleet." The report indicates in no uncertain terms that issues impacting the C-135 airframes are impacting mission availability as well.

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Hundreds of millions of dollars have been requested by the Air Force for fiscal year 2019 to recapitalize C-135 airframes at the base, including funds to replace the OC-135B in support of "Open Skies" flights and provide support for RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, the RC-135S Cobra Ball and RC-135U Combat Sent aircraft stationed at the air base.

According to Defense News, lawmakers in House appropriation and authorization committees have removed funding for the C-135 planes at the air base from FY 2019 bills until Moscow returns to full compliance with the Open Skies Treaty, which they allege Russia has violated.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has said that the US accusations are unfounded.

Signed in 1992, the Treaty on Open Skies has been one of the key pillars for building confidence in post-Cold War Europe. The document enables signatories to openly gather information on one another's military forces and activities.

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The treaty's integrity appears to be in question, however. In September 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US blocked Russian observers from the airspace over the states of Alaska and Hawaii, apparently the White House's response to Moscow's restriction of US flights over Kaliningrad, Russia's western enclave between Poland and Lithuania.

In response to the White House decision to seal off the airspace above Hawaii and Alaska, Moscow moved to reduce the number of airfields available to US aircraft flying in Russian air space, Sputnik News reported. "This is a mirror step in response to the relevant US measures against Russia," a source familiar with Moscow's plans told Sputnik in January.

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