The UK may waive certification requirements for the three Rivet Joint aircraft it has purchased. Here, a Rivet Joint flies over Afghanistan. (US Air Force)
LONDON — Britain may waive its normal aircraft certification process to approve Royal Air Force operation of the RC-135W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) said in its 2013 annual report.
The move requires Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to rule on whether a proposed process change is acceptable, the report said.
The age of the Boeing 707-based airframe means Rivet Joint will not meet current or previous UK certification regulations in place before the MAA was formed in 2010.
“It is likely that the secretary of state will be approached to release Defence Equipment & Support [DE&S] from compliance with the Military Air Systems Certification Process,” the report said.
The likely change to RC-135W certification requirements is contained in a report warning that shortages of qualified and experienced safety staff at DE&S could undermine military air safety.
DE&S, the procurement arm of the Ministry of Defence, purchased three RC-135Ws in a 2010 deal with L-3 Communications worth nearly $1 billion. L-3 is converting 50-year-old KC-135 tankers into the Rivet Joint configuration at its Greenville, Texas, facility to replace Nimrod R1 aircraft taken out of service by the British.
The first of the aircraft was delivered ahead of schedule in November, but it has yet to fly again. The plane, known in British service as the Airseeker, is on track to enter service at the end of this year.
“Due to the age of the original Boeing 707 design and the unavailability of certain design and qualification evidence, it is unlikely that the full UK certification requirement will be satisfied and a waiver may be required,” one defense source said.
The source said there remains “high confidence that the excellent in-service record and extensive safety analysis that the UK is conducting will demonstrate that the aircraft is safe to operate.”
The MAA document said it had identified the risk posed by the age of the design at the time the program was approved by senior MoD officials. The report, which covers the 12 months to August 2013, said that it devised an alternative airworthiness strategy with DE&S to deal with the issue in late 2011.
“This alternative means of demonstrating safety of the aircraft based on a comprehensive safety argument will need to be shown by DE&S and the [release to service] authority,” the report said.
L-3 Communications in the UK did not respond to telephone calls.
The safety case for the Rivet Joint has been delivered to the MAA by DE&S, and a decision on how to proceed is expected soon.
The MAA was set up following a damning report into the cause of the 2006 crash of a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft in Afghanistan, killing all 14 people onboard.
A report for the government by barrister Charles Haddon-Cave blamed the MoD and industry for failures of leadership and safety culture and, among other things, recommended setting up the MAA.
Air Marshal Dick Garwood, the MAA’s director-general , said in the report that substantial safety performance improvements had been made in the year leading up to August 2013, but identified the lack of suitably qualified personnel as a major ongoing risk.
“While the shortfall persists, air safety is being undermined by safety work that is left incomplete; safety modification work not being progressed; poor supervision; latent risks that remain unqualified, and inappropriate normalisation of low standards and behaviours,” the report said.
“If I was writing a headmaster’s report on the MAA, it might have read a good effort, but could do better, ” an MoD source said.
DE&S is seeking as many as 1,300 recruits to fill critical posts, including engineering, program management and quality assurance. But well-paid civil aviation posts and shortages of qualified personnel are posing hurdles.
That situation may be eased soon, though. Limitations on what DE&S is allowed to pay recruits generally have been lifted by the government recently as part of a restructuring.
The personnel shortfalls, which are predominantly in management areas, contributed to delays in new platforms such as the Airbus A330 in-flight refueling plane and the Army’s Watchkeeper tactical UAV being cleared for service. ■