Reveal and XPRX – 2019-01-26 23:52:23
The Sea Dragon: The US Military’s Deadliest Helicopter
The Military’s Deadliest Helicopter
Co-produced by Reveal and XPRX
(January 19, 2019) — On a freezing January morning in 2014, a fire broke out in the cabin of a MH-53E Navy Sea Dragon helicopter on a training mission over the Atlantic. Seconds later, it slammed into the ocean. Only two sailors survived.
This week, Reveal partners with Investigative Studios, the production arm of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, to find out what caused that crash and why the 53 is the militaryâ€™s deadliest aircraft.
Unfit to Fly
On a frigid January morning in 2014, a Navy Sea Dragon helicopter took off on a training mission from Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
The helicopter was carrying five soldiers and had passed all of its necessary preflight checks. Yet as its crew conducted a routine minesweeping exercise 20 miles offshore, things began to go wrong — fast.
A fire broke out and started to grow. One sailor described it as “a flamethrower that was just eating everything in its path.” In a matter of moments, the chopper filled with smoke and started careening toward the frigid ocean. The crash killed three of the five men on board.
Days later, reporter Jason Paladino saw mention of the incident on Facebook. One of the sailors who died, Brian Collins, was a high school friend from Truckee, California. Paladino began to wonder how frequently accidents like this were happening — and whether this one fit into a larger pattern. So he teamed up with filmmaker Zachary Stauffer from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and started digging.
Their story, which encompasses our entire episode this week, examines why the military continues to approve its most dangerous helicopters for takeoff. Here’s what Stauffer and Paladino found in their three years of reporting:
Dozens of casualties: Since the Sea Dragon was introduced into Navy fleets in the 1980s, 132 people have died in crashes. All of these deaths were the result of accidents; the chopper has never been shot down in combat.
A whistleblower ignored: Lt. Wes Van Dorn, a pilot who died in the 2014 crash, tried repeatedly to warn his superiors about the Sea Dragonâ€™s safety hazards. In leaked recordings related to another chopper crash, Van Dorn expressed his concern in no uncertain terms. “There’s no checks and balances,” he told investigators. “The officer leadership has been nonexistent.”
A pattern of poor maintenance: After the crash in 2014, the Navy ordered inspections across its fleet for signs of wire chafing, which caused the fire that killed Van Dorn. Weeks later, the helicopters were still flying. Confidential documents showed the problem hadn’t been fixed.
Troubling spending priorities: Replacing the Sea Dragon’s most dangerous parts is doable. The problem, according to some experts, is that the Department of Defense tends to focus on new weapons, not the upkeep of older ones. “You can’t just say we’re just going to take care of the old and not do the new,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, formerly the Marines’ top aviator.
Hear the story and learn more about Stauffer and Paladinoâ€™s feature documentary, “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” at https://www.vandornmovie.com