Northrop Grumman changed leadership at its JSTARS sustainment facility after the US Air Force grounded almost a quarter of the E-8C fleet for inspection.

Last September, the USAF initiated an investigation for safety of flight issues on four of the 17 JSTARS delivered from depot maintenance at Northrop’s sustainment facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Northrop has since assigned new executive leadership and implemented operational improvements at Lake Charles, according to a Northrop spokesman.

The USAF’s investigation found some quality escapes and safety issues related to bolts improperly installed on the aircraft, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, told reporters 2 March at the annual Air Warfare Symposium. The air force found the bolts that needed to be corrected and Northrop retrained its workforce, she says.

“We did circle back and look at a few more of the fleet just to make sure the things we saw were not present elsewhere,” Pawlikowski says. “We have increased the amount of review before we accept another aircraft from the depot, as they’re coming out we have put a number of additional reviews and inspections.”

The USAF also modified the incentive structure on Northrop’s current JSTARS sustainment contract to focus on quality rather than speed, she adds. Part of the quality escapes on the JSTARS sustainment evolved out of the USAF’s changing strategy on the fleet’s recapitalisation. When the USAF planned to retire five jets from the E-8C in 2011, Northrop responded by scaling down its full-time depot workforce and hiring contract workers. But Congress thwarted those plans and the service continued flying the modified 707s. Demand for repairs on the legacy fleet increased over the years, causing a backlog at the depot.

“We went to a degree with that platform of having oversight, checkers checking checkers, then the program office doing oversight” Pawlikowski says. “As we backed off on some of that...we went from too many checkers to not enough people checking.”

Pawlikowski expected Northrop to respond to the USAF’s demand signal, but also notes the company has the ability to flex its workforce based on the need for depot maintenance.

“I don’t want to point the finger,” she says. “We made the decision to downsize and then go up.”