Defense Agency Says Quality Of Sikorsky Helicopters Deteriorating

Defense Contract Management Agency says "management oversight is out of control."

STRATFORD, Conn. (AP) - A federal overseer is accusing Sikorsky Aircraft of failing to address repeated complaints about delays and quality issues in its production of U.S. military helicopters, according to a report published Friday.

The company officials said Friday they have addressed those concerns and stepped up inspections on its production lines.

In a letter last month to Sikorsky President Jeffrey Pino, the Defense Contract Management Agency demanded ''immediate action'' to mitigate ''mounting risk,'' and gave the company 30 days to produce a plan for addressing its failures.

''The bottom line is that quality is deteriorating, schedule is not getting better in the short term, and the seriousness of the errors that are occurring ... are becoming untenable,'' wrote Navy Capt. Dorothy J. Freer, commander of the agency's office in Stratford, the Hartford Courant reported Friday.

Ann Jensis-Dale, spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment Friday to The Associated Press.

Freer's letter does not cite specific examples of errors, defects or delays. But it assails the numerous and shifting ''homes'' for production and assembly of some Black Hawk helicopters. It recommends Sikorsky suspend activity at a Florida subcontractor.

The letter criticizes Sikorsky's heavy reliance on subcontractors and its pursuit of additional business in the U.S. and abroad.

''I am concerned what impact the increase in volume will have on military aircraft quality, schedule and cost,'' Freer wrote.

Freer further condemned ''the culture at Sikorsky'' as a root cause of quality defects. She criticizes the company for failing to satisfy concerns she expressed in a June 23 letter.

''It appears that management oversight is out of control and is driving quality escapes that are mounting in seriousness,'' Freer said.

A spokesman for Sikorsky said Friday the company has sent its plan of corrective action to the agency and expects a quick resolution. Spokesman Edward Stedham said most of the concerns focused on Sikorsky subcontractor Crestview-Aerospace in Florida. As government contracts increased, the Stratford-based company has had to expand its production to alternate sites, such as Crestview, Stedham said.

He said Sikorsky has already increased the number of its quality control inspectors at the plant from six to 15. The company is also inspecting the work more often, Stedham said.

''That (inspection) team will stay in place until Crestview familiarizes themselves with the production system,'' Stedham said.

The first helicopter built at the plant passed inspection Friday by the federal overseer and is ready to move on to flight testing, Stedham said.

''At Sikorsky, safety is our top priority as demonstrated by Sikorsky's Black Hawk fleet of more than 1,700 aircraft that has flown for nearly 5 million hours and has the best safety record of any (Department of Defense) helicopter for the past five years,'' the company said in a letter released to The Courant.

In a June 30 letter to Freer, Pino assured her the company was taking the concerns seriously by focusing on communication, process improvement, management standards and training.

Sikorsky, a unit of Hartford-based United Technologies Corp., has been recovering from a six-week strike that ended in April. The helicopter maker has had supply chain and capacity challenges that have forced it to increase outsourcing, driving up costs, company officials said in October.

The issues will likely take until the middle of next year to resolve, company officials said at the time.

The Courant obtained the letters between Freer and Pino from the Project for Government Oversight, a government watchdog group based in Washington.

Sikorsky sued the Defense Contract Management Agency in U.S. District Court in Washington a year ago in an effort to prevent the release of documents pertaining to Black Hawk production inspections. Sikorsky said the documents would reveal proprietary information, and would be used by competitors to unfairly disparage Sikorsky in the eyes of customers. The case is pending.

Sikorsky and other helicopter manufacturers have increasingly relied on subcontractors as demand spiked due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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