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Feds Say Air Force Employee Skipped Key Maintenance Ahead of 2017 Plane Crash that Killed 16 Troops

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A former Air Force civilian engineer who led maintenance at Robins Air Force Base removed a crucial inspection procedure that could have identified a worn propeller blade before it caused a KC-130 Hercules crash in 2017 that killed 16 troops, federal prosecutors allege in newly released court documents.

James Michael Fisher, 67, the former lead engineer responsible for C-130 propeller maintenance at the Georgia base, was arrested July 2 by federal authorities as part of the investigation into the crash in Mississippi. He faces two charges relating to false statements and two charges relating to obstruction of justice.

Federal prosecutors alleged in an indictment that Fisher allowed technicians to stop conducting a key inspection procedure on propeller bores, causing a defective propeller blade to be placed back into service even though “intergranular cracking was not detected and remediated at Robins.”

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“Fisher was also one of the key decision-makers who removed the critical inspection procedure in August 2011,” prosecutors allege.

Federal prosecutors say the propeller blade was placed back onto the Marine Corps KC-130, call sign “Yanky 72,” which was carrying 15 Marines and one Navy sailor when it suddenly crashed in a soybean field in Leflore County, Mississippi, on July 10, 2017.

The cause of the crash was determined to be a propeller blade that came loose. That “initiated the catastrophic sequence of events resulting in the midair breakup of the aircraft and its uncontrollable descent and ultimate destruction,” a Marine Corps crash investigation found.

The revelation of Fisher’s connection to the “Yanky 72 incident” comes on the 7th anniversary of the July 10 crash.

The crash investigation revealed “gross negligence” in the maintenance culture at Robins Air Force Base, but “Fisher and the System Program Office avoided scrutiny,” federal prosecutors said. A criminal investigation was opened in 2020.

During that criminal investigation, “federal agents learned that the earlier Marine Corps investigators were misled about what maintenance procedures were in place in the late summer of 2011,” adding that “in August 2011, engineers at Robins authorized the removal of a critical inspection procedure for detecting C-130 propeller blade defects,” the indictment states.

Investigators began zeroing in on Air Force Materiel Command Form 202, a document that must be filed when maintenance personnel need to request permission to deviate from technical manuals when making repairs. Fisher had allegedly signed off on such a request to remove a certain inspection designed to examine propeller cracking in August 2011 and denied doing so.

“Fisher’s statement that he would have never removed the penetrant inspections was false,” the indictment claims.

“Federal agents later uncovered the Aug. 19, 2011, email in which Fisher stated that he had ‘no problem’ removing the penetrant inspections and also discovered the other Blanket Form 202s in 2012 and 2013 in which Fisher, as the assigned engineer, had recommended removal of penetrant inspections.”

Fisher is accused of making false statements to investigators and hiding information regarding those forms from officials looking into the crash.

“Fisher attempted to obstruct the criminal investigation by intentionally withholding documents showing that he played a crucial role in removing the critical inspection procedure and providing false statements to federal agents in order to cover up his role in removing the critical inspection procedure,” the indictment alleges.

Fisher did not return a phone call and text messages Wednesday seeking comment on the latest information in the indictment.

Court records do not say what the next step for the case will be or when Fisher is next expected in court. However, records from the time of his arrest in Florida note that the 67-year-old is currently free on a $10,000 bond and had to surrender three U.S. passports. Fisher was living in Portugal leading up to the arrest, a Justice Department press release said.

Documents filed with the case say that Fisher faces up to 20 years in prison for concealing records, eight years for a charge of tampering with a witness, and five years for a charge of lying to investigators. All four of the charges also carry a potential fine of up to $250,000, though courts rarely impose the maximum penalty on defendants.

Related: Feds Arrest Former Air Force Base Engineer in Connection to Deadly Mississippi KC-130 Crash in 2017

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