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Flying nowhere
Crash of the Iranian military's C-130 does not come as a surprise


December 8, 2005

The other day I was in one of the Boeing buildings that houses the C-130 Avionics Modernization program for the fleet of C-130 “Hercules” that is in service around the world.  Boeing is under contract with Lockheed Martin to upgrade the analog displays to an all digital format for all the C-103C, J and E in operation with the US air force and ultimately to their other clients around the globe.

As I was looking at some of the data and the program’s technological advancement, it prompted me to think about the ageing and dilapidated state the 15 or so Hercules that are in service with the Iranian Air force are.  These legendary workhorses were purchased at the time of the Shah of Iran’s visionary approach to his modernization effort of the Royal Iranian Air force, and had been the backbone of the Air force’s troop and armament carrying needs. 

The airlift missions that these multi-mission aircraft performed for the Iranian Air force are legendary, both during Iran’s halcyon days, and the war with Iraq that was so devastating to the country under the misguided leadership of the Islamic clerics.   

The crash of the C-130 into a building near the Iranian International airport does not come as a surprise to those who have followed the Iranian Air force’s activities in the last few years and the engineers who work on these aircraft.  The average age of these air lifter’s are in some cases over 40 years.  However, the age of the airframe or the engine life by itself does not constitute an aircraft sudden demise.  It is usually a combination of more than one catastrophic event both in parts and processes that brings an airliner down, both in the commercial and military transports arena. 

Although in the case of the Iranian air disaster the catastrophic chain of events can be attributed to multiple failure points both inside the aircraft and the ground control and air traffic management systems. Initial reports indicate that the primary failure was one of the engines.  This is itself does not cause an airliner to crash.  The other engines act as a redundant power source to the airframe.  All western built airliners are equipped with either two or four engines. 

In the case of a four engine aircraft, such as Boeing 747 or airbus 340 and 380, two can fail and the other two will still keep the machine aloft, literally until it runs out of fuel.  The two engine variants, such as Boeing 737, 777, 767 and various airbus models, all will operate with one engine dead.  In fact a fully loaded aircraft or “heavy” plane can take off and land with one or two engines inoperable.  So, an engine malfunction is unlikely to be the sole cause of downing an aircraft. 

An aircraft airframe and other internal “organs” such avionics, weather display systems, collision detection systems and pretty much all computer operated displays are as also usually on a redundant system as well.  Redundancies are also built into the processes that keep an aircraft aloft.  Reports indicate the Mehrabab International Air traffic Control tower was either unwilling or ill prepared to call the aircraft back to the runway and execute their emergency response plans. 

Together the mechanical failure(s) and the breakdown in processes came together at the right time to cause the aircraft to loose control.  Only a through neutral investigation will determine the cause of this accident.  This investigation must be lead by a team of experts from an accredited Western aviation agency, preferably with the representatives of US Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB (National Transportation Safety board) present.

Manufacturers usually build the airframes to last for well over 40 years, case in point the ageing but still flying B-52’s.  However several times during the life of an airliner (military and commercial variants differ), usually at or near 20,000 hours of flight, an aircraft is completely stripped, down to the rivets and bolts, and then assembled back together.  At this stage any ageing in the airframe or other parts can be detected and corrected.  

Since the US embargo of parts, the C-130 air lifters have been severely hampered for their replacement and service parts.  It is doubtful that the Iranian air force has any qualified mechanics left from purges of the early days of the revolution that are capable of performing some of the mundane yet complex  tasks required to keep these old birds in flying condition.  Iran has resorted to creating a domestic version of a Military Industrial Complex, by many accounts with no better than early 20th century manufacturing techniques that are capable of only making simple parts with questionable quality processes, if any, in place.

When the Shah of Iran embarked on modernizing it’s air force, he had the foresight to create the infrastructure that would not only keep the myriad of aircraft in its arsenal in flying condition but also create the underlying industries that would contribute to job creation and ultimately in making the air force one of the premier defense/fighting forces in the globe. 

Case in point was a contract signed with Lockheed Martin, that after a certain number of F-16 purchases, the manufacturer would turn over the production of these fighting “Falcons” to their Iranian counterparts to not only meet the domestic requirements, but to meet the demand for the rest of the world.  This forward looking idea, of course never materialized for Iran, but almost twenty years after signing this memorandum of understanding, Turkey became the first country in the world to take over the production and marketing of these aircraft on behalf of the Lockheed Corporation. It is ironic how a powerful country has been relegated to such a low standard governed under a cesspool of a regime called The Islamic Republic.

This will not be the last of the Iranian air disasters we are to hear about.  In the last 5 years alone, there have been a score of such accidents, few which have been reported in the western media.  The most notable was the downing of an Illyushin-76 military transport in South Eastern Iran, carrying regime henchmen and terrorists to and from their mission engagement points. 

Iran has undergone travesties far beyond that what any nation has to endure; preventable event such as the crash, which brought along the unforgivable loss of so many innocent lives, will and should not go unanswered.  The Iranian psyche is much too resilient to forget this event and will someday hold the regime technocrats to task.

For letters section
To Mahmoud Ghaffari

Mahmoud Ghaffari


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