CAPE CANAVERAL -- A
bolt popped loose on an astronaut training plane last December,
causing a heavy chunk of one engine to plop into the Banana
River as a pilot practiced shuttle landings over Kennedy Space
Ignored repair procedures, skipped inspections, excessively long
work days and poorly designed bolts all were listed as possible
contributors to the Dec. 2 incident that led to a temporary
grounding of NASA's fleet of Shuttle Training Aircraft, space
agency investigators found.
The fleet is back in service, and NASA officials pledged
greater diligence in maintaining the custom-modified jets used
by shuttle commanders and pilots to practice landing the
"It scared us all because we don't want things like that to
happen," said Ken Bowersox, the former International Space
Station commander who recently was promoted to manage NASA's
astronaut corps. "It made a lot of people more sensitive. .
.There is plenty of life left in those airplanes, but we need to
watch them because they are getting old. It's something that
needs to be in the forefront of our minds."
The two trainers and astronaut pilot aboard the modified
Gulfstream 2 jet were not hurt. Nevertheless, less than a year
after the Columbia accident, the incident raised eyebrows.
FLORIDA TODAY first reported the incident in January, shortly
after the planes were restored to service.
NASA refused to release the statements of the crew or witnesses,
providing only a report summarizing the accident and
investigators' findings. The severity of the mishap remains
A piece of an
engine that dropped off a shuttle training plane is
recovered from the Banana River near the NASA Causeway
in December. Image © 2004, Steven Van Meter, for FLORIDA
The pilot, not identified in the investigation report or
other documents about the mishap, was making a final approach to
the three-mile long Kennedy Space Center landing strip on Dec. 2
as part of a series of simulated shuttle landings.
The plane was flying at 13,000 feet when a light flashed in
the cockpit. Something was wrong with one of the thrust
reversers, which are metal components that slide into place
behind the jet engines to slow the plane and put it into a steep
dive toward the runway.
The plane's computers ended the simulation and the training
pilot took over to land safely. During a post-landing
inspection, technicians noticed the thrust reverser and related
parts fell off.
All told, the metal package weighed 585 pounds. It was five
feet long and four feet wide. It plopped into the river a couple
hundred feet from a highway bridge. Divers found it weeks later.
Investigators found several problems with parts and
procedures as they delved into the accident, leaving the
training planes grounded until they were sure what had gone
First, just days before the fateful flight, a repair crew at
NASA's Ellington Field near Houston did not follow procedures
for installing and inspecting the thrust reverser. And the lack
of proper paperwork made it hard for investigators to trace the
parts that were used for the repair.
Second, the day before the incident, a support crew that came
with the aircraft to Florida worked a 19.5-hour day -- including
a series of landing simulations late on the evening of Dec. 1.
At the end of the workday, they apparently were too tired to
conduct the routine post-flight inspections and did not file
paperwork indicating the inspections were not done.
On Dec. 2, the crew preparing the jet for another round of
flights was not aware the inspections had not been done the
night before. So the plane flew without the engine area being
inspected, though investigators noted there is no way to know if
inspections would have caught the problem or prevented the
A crane lifts a
piece of a heavy engine that dropped off a shuttle
training plane and into the Banana River near the NASA
Causeway in a December accident. Image © 2004, Steven
Van Meter, for FLORIDA TODAY
The investigators were not able to determine if the bolt that
failed was installed properly. Inspections of other NASA
aircraft using similar assemblies found that the bolts might not
be long enough to be tightened securely enough to lock in place.
Changes were made to installation procedures to fix the
problem, but NASA has not decided whether to redesign the system
used to fasten the thrust reverser parts into place.
"It's possible the guys did everything right, but did not
document it exactly and that what really happened is the bolts
vibrated apart," Bowersox said. "Maybe what we should have done
is redesign the bolts six months earlier."
Overall, however, the incident prompted the agency to take a
closer look at its fleet of astronaut-flown aircraft. That
includes the jets used for landing simulations and the T-38 jets
flown by astronauts to maintain piloting skills.
The findings of the Shuttle Training Aircraft incident,
however, are strikingly similar to another mishap involving a
T-38 in 1999. Ground crews and an astronaut pilot, apparently
not following official maintenance and inspection checklists,
missed a small part that got stuck in one of the plane's
engines. No one was hurt, but safety officials issued a memo
imploring everyone who works on and flies astronaut aircraft to
follow procedures carefully to avoid accidents.