A federal judge in Seattle yesterday sentenced a Defense Department supplier to three years in prison for shipping defective bolts that fasten the wings of B52 bombers to the fuselage.

Saying the loss of lives could have been "catastrophic," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert H. Westinghouse told the court that Lionel Rainman, owner of MHC Ltd., had altered inspection reports and provided Air Force inspectors with substitute bolts, concealing the fact that he was shipping the defective parts.

Rainman had pleaded guilty to defrauding the government.

While the foot-long, $2,500 bolts were never installed, they could have resulted in loss of the B52s in flight, according to tests of the replacement parts by Boeing Technology Services.

Westinghouse said some bolt threads were so faulty that nuts would fall off. In others, defects in the metal had been covered up by plating the bolts or grinding them.

Rainman's company shipped other defective aircraft parts to the Defense Department, Westinghouse said.

Since 1980, the Pentagon paid more than $300,000 for the bolts and other parts, most of which were defective, according to the prosecutor.

Duane Earlywine, an employe who packed the bolts, became aware that the company was substituting defective bolts that been been rejected by Air Force inspectors. He informed the Pentagon, which began an investigation with the FBI.

Earlywine, who said he feared that the bolts would lead to loss of lives, is now unemployed.