Fighter Flaws Warplane Costs Soar amid Mismanagment
Part 2: Errors and Carelessness
In a memorandum dated April 27, 2006, the company was forced to make the rueful confession that the problem was the result of production errors and carelessness. The incident had far-reaching consequences. Production had to be stopped, and all aircraft produced until then had to be inspected for similar assembly errors.
German taxpayers paid the costs of two employees' careless work. Not surprisingly, the EADS inspectors found no evidence of gross negligence. This saved their company a lot of money, because the Eurofighter contract stipulated that the manufacturer was only liable for production defects in such a case.
Relations between EADS and the Bundeswehr soured over time. The company complained to the Defense Ministry in Berlin about the fastidious inspectors at the Bundeswehr procurement office. The inspectors, for their part, complained that they had to inspect defective aircraft up to three times. Sometimes there were leaks in the tanks, and sometimes the aircraft behaved in unexpected ways, such as a cockpit canopy opening on its own while the plane was taxiing for takeoff.
An internal list from Austria reveals the poor quality of the Eurofighters at the time. Between 2007 and 2009, the Austrian Air Force took delivery of 15 first-generation Eurofighters, most of which had been intended for the Bundeswehr. By May 2011, an employee had chronicled 68 defects in the aircraft that had led to emergencies.
For example, it turned out that the altimeter was off by up to 60 meters (197 feet), which could be fatal for the pilot in an emergency. The Austrians requested an F-4 Phantom from the German Air Force, so that it could accompany two defective Eurofighters for a comparison of altimeter displays. But something happened before the test could be done: The electronic system of one of the Eurofighters was pumping kerosene incorrectly, throwing the plane dangerously off balance, which could have caused it to crash. When SPIEGEL contacted EADS, the company denied that it had found any quality defects in its own product.
On the Fringes of Legality
But the German inspectors are well aware of the reported defects in the Austrian planes, because the Defense Ministry in Berlin compelled them to handle routine testing for the Austrians.
Officials at the Bundeswehr procurement office gradually decided to bare their teeth to EADS for the first time. On Sept. 30, 2008, the Bundeswehr allowed the Manching plant's license as a recognized aviation operation to expire. In a March 2008 letter addressed to Bernhard Gerwert, the head of EADS Deutschland Military Air Systems, the Koblenz office cited "substantial mistakes and defects in the quality management system."
Speaking notes for the agency head contain concrete figures and state that "35 defects in the production process were discovered and documented during the final inspection." The documents also note that quality management found 49 defects within seven months.
This is why, in the letter to Gerwert, the Koblenz inspectors also noted: "From the standpoint of aviation, liability and licensing laws, the current state is no longer acceptable by the customer."
But by withdrawing the license, the inspectors also placed themselves in a delicate position, because they were acting on the fringes of legality. They had certified a number of Eurofighters for service in the Air Force, even though the manufacturer no longer held the necessary license.
The fighter jets were given regular registration numbers, like 30+45, 30+15 and 31+22. This allowed them to fly in German air space, and they were even sent to an air show in Hungary. Fortunately, there were no incidents, or else court judges would probably have taken a very close look at the circumstances of their licensing.
The inspectors at the Bundeswehr procurement office are aware of the sensitive legal situation. They are personally liable for the signatures on the documents after the final test of each Eurofighter. Some threatened to withhold their approval. There is also a significant risk for the government, because the Bundeswehr, unlike civil aviation authorities, has unlimited liability for losses resulting from an accident. Commenting on this in an internal memo, a concerned official wrote: "If a Bundeswehr plane crashes and causes substantial damage to third parties that can be attributed to the withdrawal of certification, the federal government will be fully liable."
The supervisors at the procurement office and the Defense Ministry ignored the memo, because the ministry was determined to get the plane no matter what. Pilots at German air bases were already waiting anxiously for the Eurofighter, which was supposed to replace the more than 30-year-old Phantom jets made by American defense contractor McDonnell Douglas.
Orders were given to inspect the aircraft somewhat more carefully and then approve them. According to the documents in SPIEGEL's possession, this condition lasted until April 6, 2011, which both the Bundeswehr and EADS deny.
The relationship between EADS and the German Defense Ministry is poisoned, partly because EADS knows how to circumvent the rules and provoke officials.
Some time ago, say officials in Koblenz, a potential foreign buyer paid a visit to the Manching plant. Unfortunately, there was only one Bundeswehr aircraft in the hangar on that day, and it also lacked the licensing stamp. When the Bundeswehr test pilots refused to fly the plane, an EADS pilot promptly took the plane out on a short demonstration flight.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Warplane Costs Soar amid Mismanagment
- Part 2: Errors and Carelessness