Ground dangerous Sea Dragon

The Virginian-Pilot

More than a year ago, an MH-53E Sea Dragon, the Navy’s oldest and most unreliable helicopter, crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach.

Lt. Wes Van Dorn and two other sailors were killed. Van Dorn – a Sea Dragon pilot who had been on a mission to make the helicopter safe – left behind the notes, logs and spreadsheets he had compiled about the aircraft since 2010.

The documents showed that maintenance protocols were being skipped, faulty parts were being replaced with equipment from other old Sea Dragons, and that only a few of the helicopters were ready to fly at any given time.

Van Dorn’s records added to the significant doubts about the Navy’s biggest helicopter, which crashes three times more often than other Navy helicopters. The disaster should’ve been enough to force an overhaul of the fleet of 28 Sea Dragons, if not a trip to the scrap yard.

Instead, because the helicopter was the only one with enough horsepower to find and disable underwater mines, Navy brass merely grounded the fleet after the January 2014 crash. They ordered wires and fuel lines showing signs of wear to be replaced. Within weeks, the Sea Dragons were flying again.

The Pilot’s Mike Hixenbaugh, who has reported extensively for the past year on the struggles with the Sea Dragon, wrote last month that when Naval Air Systems Command engineers conducted a spot check on 28 Marine helicopters, “all but eight were found to have bad fuel lines or wiring, including at least one with chafing lines in the same location that led to the deadly Sea Dragon crash.”

Last week, Hixenbaugh reported that the Navy had discovered the 36 hours of inspections ordered for each of the helicopters weren’t being done. “At HM-14 – one of two Sea Dragon squadrons at Norfolk Naval Station – a maintenance crew, unaware of the higher-level concerns, grounded the only helicopter at the command that had been cleared to fly [that] week.” The crew found several chafing fuel lines and wires, sources said.

Logic would dictate that these helicopters should be grounded. When automobiles are found with defects that caused crashes, the models are recalled.

The Sea Dragons, despite their importance to the Navy, aren’t safe. Nicole Van Dorn, whose husband tracked the helicopter’s performance, told The Pilot that it was “beyond inexcusable” that the entire fleet hadn’t been properly inspected.

Hixenbaugh reported another problem that arose last month with a Sea Dragon flying over the Arabian Gulf. Two wires chafed, sparking a brief fire that the crew was able to extinguish but that forced a landing in Kuwait.

“When asked about the incident,” Hixenbaugh wrote, the Navy “responded by touting its work to fix bad wires and fuel lines. No mention was made of the recent concerns about those efforts.”

On Friday, the Navy announced plans to order additional inspections with detailed instructions for maintenance crews. Officials said experts would help the crews find chafing components and repair them. But the Sea Dragons still will be allowed to fly, with some restrictions, while the inspections are under way.

The mission of the Sea Dragons is to keep the sailors and Marines safe. But it’s hard to accomplish that when the Cold War-era Sea Dragons continue to have problems. Bring them down for an extensive overhaul. They shouldn’t fly again unless they can be made safe.

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