Trouble With Army Choppers?

000501_Air force Chinook Chopper
Whether it's on a peacekeeping mission or engaged in all-out war, the U.S. Army depends on helicopters to get where it's going.

But in an Eye on America investigation, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin learned of some big problems with an airborne workhorse: the Chinook helicopter.

The Chinook helicopter is not glamorous, but the U.S. Army depends on its fleet of 431 Chinooks to provide indispensable transportation for troops and equipment. Now the Justice Department is accusing Boeing, which makes the Chinook, of knowingly selling the Army helicopters with defective parts.

"I reported this because I was scared to death about these gears," says Brett Roby.

Roby was a quality control officer for a company named Speco which made gears that Boeing installed in the Chinook. The gears provide a vital link between the engines and the dual rotor blades.

"These gears drive huge machines that hold 30 or 40 young men and women. If they're not air worthy, the catastrophe that could follow is something that keeps you awake at night," says Roby.

The Chinook

Seats: 33 troops, two crew
Payload: Up to 25 tons
Speed: 140 mph
Cost: $30 million apiece
The first catastrophe occurred during the war against Iraq. As the U.S. Army was preparing to outflank Saddam Hussein's forces, a Chinook with 18 men aboard lost a Speco-made gear and was destroyed by the resulting fire.

Roby says, "The Saudi crash was a near disaster. Those young men were lucky to get out with their lives."

That Chinook was practically brand new and an investigation found that a Speco-made gear installed by Boeing had cracks in it.

Two years later another Speco-made gear failed at Fort Meade, Md. The Chinook was able to land safely and the helicopter was not a total loss. But an investigation found that once again Speco had manufactured and Boeing had installed a defective gear.

Roby said he thought it was a crime, not just sloppy work.

Workhorse Worries
Read Part II of David Martin’s investigation into the Chinook’s troubled record.
Roby went to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, triggering an investigation that resulted in the Justice Department filing a $400 million lawsuit against Boeing.

Among other things, the suit alleges that "despite having full knowledge of the lack of quality of the gears made by Speco, Boeing continued to procure the transmission gears . . . and recklessly insert them into Chinook helicopters."

Boeing denies the charge, saying it never installed a gear it knew was defective and points out that the Chinook has one of the best safety records of any military helicopter.

But for a former Chinook program manager, that's not good enough. "A good safety record does not excuse the installation of bad parts done willfully by the Boeing company," says Ron Williams, who is now retired from the Army.