The B1 bomber is the most expensive airplane ever produced. Each one costs $283 million. Unfortunately, the B1's big price tag has been no guarantee against mechanical problems; its critics have dubbed it the "Flying Edsel."
Now we've learned of yet another problem with the problem-prone B1: The manufacturer, Rockwell International, has violated its own quality-control standards for vital electrical wiring on the controversial bomber.
A Rockwell spokesman admitted that certain procedures "may have been omitted." In fact, Rockwell's investigators found that senior maintenance mechanics at the company's B1 assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., regularly failed to conduct one of two tests designed to ensure the quality of electrical wiring for the bomber. According to Rockwell, the supposed lapses occurred between November 1983 and April 1984.
According to an earlier Rockwell "quality engineering report," the automated machines that crimp the B1's wiring are supposed to be calibrated regularly by mechanics, using "go/no-go gauges." But Rockwell's mechanics apparently ignored instructions and didn't use the gauges during the five-month period.
A senior Rockwell maintenance mechanic, Robert Semans, discovered the lack of quality control on the B1's wiring, which is critical to the bomber's performance. On April 11, 1984, Semans submitted an employe suggestion that gauges be used to calibrate the automated machines. Incredibly, this reasonable suggestion was rejected a month later -- after Rockwell said the lapses had ended.
Semans then took his suggestion to the Air Force and to congressional investigators. His whistle-blowing resulted in two investigations.
The congressional investigators concluded that Rockwell had indeed violated its own quality-control standards. One investigator also criticized Rockwell for using harsh tactics in its internal investigation of the matter.
The Air Force investigators said that the B1s' electrical wiring had not been compromised. A laboratory analysis of B1 wiring samples, conducted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, stated that "all crimped contacts examined were found to be acceptable."
Semans doesn't buy the Air Force investigators' conclusion. "The investigation was unbelievable," he told our reporter Mike Rosenfelt. "They only tested a few wires, and even those had been substituted by Rockwell."
Semans wasn't exactly clapped on the back when he brought his quality-control complaint to his supervisors' attention. Instead, he was transferred out of Rockwell's B1 bomber assembly area.
In fact, since his first disclosure of the company's acknowledged failures, Rockwell has tried on four occasions to fire Semans on charges like tardiness and excessive absenteeism. Each time, when his supervisors fired him, Semans was reinstated after he made telephone calls to corporate headquarters.