A whistleblower who uncovered life-threatening fuel risks to Navy pilots and others was raising new safety complaints before managers fired him in early June.
Glenn Schwarz, a civilian aeronautical-engineering technician, says his civilian managers placed him in a highly technical job calibrating equipment used for testing weapons systems and equipment that support aircraft—a position for which he did not have the training or knowledge to perform. He also has asserted that the on-the-job training managers provided did not comply with Navy regulations.
"Glenn is unqualified, and thus not authorized by Navy regulation to conduct calibration activities," his lawyer said in an email to an attorney for the Navy's Fleet Readiness Center-East in Cherry Point, N.C., Schwarz's employer. "On-the-job training is not going to correct that deficiency."
Cheri Cannon, his attorney, said Schwarz's placement in a job for which he was unqualified reflects a larger problem with workers lacking credentials in violation of Navy regulations at the Metrology and Calibration (METCAL) laboratory and across the Fleet Readiness Center-East (FRC-E).
"Glenn is one of several employees at the METCAL lab who apparently lack either the proper education, training, or experience to properly do the job and this is an accident waiting to happen because of it," she said.
The lax training and qualification standards is part of a broader history of flouting of Navy safety standards at FRC-E, some of which Schwarz has already played a role in exposing, she said.
The Office of Special Counsel, an internal federal government watchdog, is investigating Schwarz's firing as an act of reprisal. Another quasi-judicial government agency for federal employees, the Merit Systems Protection, imposed a temporary 45-day halt to Schwarz's firing while the OSC investigates.
A spokesman for the FRC-E declined to comment on the agency’s reasons for firing Schwarz, citing privacy laws designed to protect personnel. The U.S. Navy's Air System Command public affairs office did not return calls seeking comment.
Safety concerns are running high across U.S. military communities in recent days after a Marine Corps KC-130 crashed in rural Mississippi a week ago, killing 16 people aboard and spreading debris for miles. The Marine Corps has officially said only that the aircraft "experienced a mishap" but provided no details on whether it was related to maintenance problems or pilot-error.
The KC-130 was coming from the Marine Corps Station in Cherry Point, the same location of the FRC-E maintenance and refueling facility at issue in Schwarz’s initial substantiated safety disclosures.
In addition, the Air Force temporarily grounded an F-35 fighter wing in Arizona last week after five incidents in which pilots suffered from oxygen-deprivation problems. Navy officials in recent months have described a rising rate of "physiological episodes" of those affecting pilots who fly all models of the F-18 aircraft, which is often described as the backbone of naval aviation.
Navy officials have categorized the episodes into two general groups: Those related to "pilot breathing gas" and those caused by "unscheduled pressure changes" in the cabin. A team of Navy investigators have assessed 382 cases so far, determining that 130 involved some form of oxygen contamination and 114 involved a failure of the jet’s system that maintains cabin pressure.
It remains a mystery whether the aging fleet or maintenance problems—or a combination of both—are leading to the sharp uptick in oxygen-related problems for pilots.
John Cochran, a professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Auburn University, said any decision by managers to disregard required qualifications for highly technical jobs such as fixing support systems troubles him.
Cochran has served as consultant and expert witness in the analysis and reconstruction of accidents involving more than 30 airplane and helicopter crashes, many of them military aircraft.
"The regulations are written for a purpose, of course, and the purpose is to maintain a certain level of safety," he said. "And if you have violations of those—any one little violation—the wrong type of violation at the wrong time—could cause an accident."
C-130 military cargo aircraft had problems in the late 1970s and 1980s in cases he worked on with throttle-cables breaking, and those caused accidents, he said. The cables, and other sensitive systems on the aircraft, require accurate servicing and maintenance to avoid calamities.
"I don't know all the regulations as far as what the Navy has on the books, but the smallest thing can sometimes cause a major problem—that’s the bottom line for aircraft," he said. "We've had some of these aircraft for a long time, and they're very reliable in most cases. But if you don't follow the regulations, then you're risking a lot."
Schwarz was fired June 8 for what his lawyer describes as "trumped up" attendance-procedure charges and other false allegations she said would not have been leveled if he were not a whistleblower whose complaints caused friction and new safety standards at the FRC-E facility.
A Navy Inspector General report in 2015 substantiated many of Schwarz's complaints about the improper testing of aircraft fueling equipment and the jet fuel itself, as well as the improper disposal of thousands of pounds of jet fuel.
The IG found that fuel hoses and the gauges on fuel trucks had not been tested in years, creating a possibility that contaminants could enter the fuel and pass by aircraft filtering systems, leading to potentially life-threatening engine performance issues and the deadly fire risks on the ground.
That Navy IG report was sent to then-President Obama and the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. The audit recommended more than a dozen steps to bring the FRC-E into compliance with Navy rules.
At the time of his initial fuel-safety complaints, Schwarz was responsible for administratively releasing aircraft for flight and ensuring all required maintenance and inspections were completed. After disagreements with his managers and legal action to try to mitigate what he says were threats of further reprisals, Schwarz agreed to accept a new aeronautical-engineering technician job in the hope of putting the issues behind him, his attorney said.
The settlement included a position description for a new job that Schwarz would accept that specified that his employers would continue to place him in an aeronautical engineering-technician job, according to his attorney. The new position’s description is classified as a "metrology-engineering technician."
That job deals with the highly technical equipment calibration for which he is unqualified, according to Navy manuals his lawyer cited in a letter to the FRC-E's attorney and Office of Special Counsel mediators.
According to Navy guidelines, known as "an instruction," "all calibration processes utilize metrological measurement techniques. To ensure accurate and reliable technical expertise, it is necessary to employ high-caliber technicians and enhance their technical capability through additional training."
The instruction goes on to say that civilian employees hired to perform calibration procedures and functions must have certain educational or training backgrounds, including a Bachelor of Science in engineering or physical science, completion of a METCAL apprentice training program of four years, an Associate of Science in physical science degree, vocational school or physical/mechanical background, or equivalent skills and four years of experience.
Specifically, the METCAL job description for his current role said applicants must have "extensive practical application experience in the field of metrology or calibration" including knowledge of all the "assigned platforms" relating to several aircraft and their "associated engines, test stands, peculiar/common support equipment and weapons systems, and operational plans to enable the incumbent to make technical decisions on problems and concerns."
Additionally, the job requires an "ability to recognize anomalies and determine if they are due to equipment, experimental or other errors" and "takes [sic] action to make changes to equipment calibration procedures to resolve problems."
""Mr. Schwarz has none of these educational credentials, experiences or formal training," Cannon said. "He is ill-equipped to meet the demands of the calibration lab, and using him is unauthorized."
"He must be put through school in order to comply with the [Navy regulation]," she said. "Simply put, putting an untrained, unqualified person like Glenn in a position required by NAVAIR instructions to have certain training and education that he does not have, is a safety hazard which can easily be avoided."
She also pointed out that placing Schwarz in the position exposes the FRC-E command "to some risk should something be missed or go awry with equipment Glenn is asked to work on."