FOR YEARS THE NAVY AND MARINES NEGLECTED THEIR OLDEST HELICOPTERS Now they’re paying for it.
This is the story of a helicopter allowed to slowly fall into disrepair, and the military’s renewed effort to restore the program following tragedy.
Not long after taking charge of the Navy’s mine-clearing mission in the Middle East last year, Capt. Eric Wirstrom got a message about one of the massive helicopters that does the job.
A maintenance worker had found a nick in a fuel line inside the cabin of an MH-53E Sea Dragon. It’s unusual that such a small mechanical issue would be passed up the chain to a regional commander, but this wasn’t just any helicopter – and it wasn’t just any maintenance problem.
Before transferring to Bahrain, Wirstrom had been stationed in Virginia Beach, where he’d read stories in The Virginian-Pilot about safety problems in the Navy’s aging Sea Dragon fleet. The program’s troubles came to light following a crash off the coast of Virginia in 2014 that killed three sailors. The accident had been caused by old electrical wires rubbing against a fuel line, igniting an explosive fire in the cabin.
“I wanted to go out to the aviation unit here in Bahrain and get eyes on it,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I understand the risk that I’m asking them to assume.”
The Navy’s minesweeping helicopters haven’t always gotten such high-level attention and care. Only a few years ago, according to internal Navy figures, fewer than one in four of the Navy’s 28 remaining Sea Dragons was in flying shape at any given time. Maintenance workers complained of not having enough parts or time to keep the 30-year-old helicopters going. Pilots complained of not having enough flight hours to stay sharp. And funding for their core mission – airborne mine countermeasures – routinely came in at half of what was requested.
In recent years, the service has invested more resources to get the Sea Dragons back in shape, and for good reason: Without a viable replacement, the Navy needs to keep the helicopters in service through at least 2025, and likely for years beyond that.
What happened to the Sea Dragon – and a nearly identical Marine Corps version, the CH-53E Super Stallion – serves as a cautionary tale for military planners tasked with keeping other aging aircraft in service years longer than planned in an era of budget cuts and costly acquisition delays, such as those plaguing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
When Wirstrom visited the squadron hangar last summer, he was amazed by what the Norfolk-based maintenance team showed him. The nicked fuel line was hidden from sight behind a web of wiring bundles and other components. A sailor had discovered the problem by feel, blindly running his hand along the line, then confirmed it with a small mirror. The squadron immediately downed its other helicopters and inspected each for the same problem.
That level of commitment, Wirstrom said, could save lives.
“Using a mirror to me was indicative that the maintainers out here have taken the lessons from that mishap to heart,” Wirstrom said. “And they are very focused on making sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
WHEN TROUBLES BEGAN
The Sea Dragon’s troubles began about a decade ago. That’s when the Navy wanted to begin retiring the Cold War-era helicopters, which entered service in the mid-1980s. But a plan to perform the minesweeping mission using MH-60S Seahawks fell apart when engineers discovered that the smaller helicopter wasn’t powerful enough to tow sonar and other mine-hunting devices through the sea.
Sea Dragon parts and funding became scarce as the helicopter’s service life was extended again, and then again. Maintenance crews found other ways to get the job done, according to the Navy’s assessment of the situation. Sometimes, according to crews who worked on the helicopters, that meant taking shortcuts to meet flight-hour demands.
Short on equipment to perform an engine swap? Lay a twin mattress on the floor and lower the multimillion dollar part onto it. Need a gasket but none in stock? Cut up a folder and slap it on there instead. Looking for a part that will take weeks to show up? Take one from that helo that’s down for long-term maintenance and then fudge the paperwork.
“Whatever it takes, get it it done,” one longtime maintainer said.
That culture contributed to a series of Sea Dragon mishaps in 2012, the Navy later concluded. By 2014, the service had identified the problems with the program and worked to turn things around, investing millions of dollars in improved training and upgrading flight systems, adding more maintenance workers and changing squadron leadership.
Then, on Jan. 8, 2014, in the midst of that effort, Lt. Sean Snyder, Lt. Wes Van Dorn and Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Collins were killed when their Sea Dragon burst into flames and crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach. Two other crew members were injured.
A few weeks after, once investigators had identified the cause, aviation engineers at Naval Air Systems Command in Maryland drafted Airframe Bulletin 343, an urgent directive instructing Sea Dragon maintenance workers – and those who work on the Marine Corps’ Super Stallion – to inspect every aircraft for the same frayed wiring and worn fuel lines that had caused the helicopter to catch fire.
Crews were supposed to spend about 36 hours completing the inspection and repairs on each aircraft. Within weeks, the work was said to have been completed, and the helicopters were again cleared to fly, in Norfolk and at bases around the world. The Navy later announced it had fixed the mechanical problem that had killed the three sailors.
But in February 2015, a spot inspection of the Marine Corps Super Stallions and then Sea Dragons revealed a startling reality: Most of the aircraft were still full of potentially unsafe wiring and fuel lines. A review of work logs seemed to indicate sailors and Marines didn’t spend enough time performing the repairs. An email began circulating among the Navy’s aviation engineers based in Maryland, warning of the possible danger: The threat of fire had not been mitigated; crews flying in the aircraft could be at risk.
This time NAVAIR dispatched its engineers to squadrons across the world to teach fleet maintenance workers how to perform the inspections and repairs. The engineers – civilian Navy employees responsible for making sure sailors have what they need to keep the aircraft in service – were surprised by what they found: The helicopters were in worse shape than they realized, said Col. Hank Vanderborght, the Sea Dragon and Super Stallion program director at NAVAIR. And the sailors who worked on the helicopters on a daily basis had apparently grown accustomed to their deteriorated condition.
That disconnect explained why the first directive didn’t fix the hazard, Vanderborght said.
“That’s what we as a team referred to as ‘normalization of deviance,’ ” Vanderborght said during a recent interview at the Pentagon. “If you think about it, a new person shows up to a squadron in 1990, and the airframe is at a certain level of material readiness. And let’s say, over time, there’s a change in that material condition of the aircraft, and three years later, a new person checks in. When they show up and look at the aircraft, that is normal to them. And over time, you have a degradation of what that aircraft looks like.”
Crews spent hundreds of hours on the second round of inspections last year, leaving many of the Sea Dragons and Super Stallions grounded for several months while crews waited for parts to make repairs.
Since then, the Navy has made a series of other moves to improve its situation, including re-establishing a Sea Dragon training squadron and buying a pair of retired MH-53Es from Japan. The initial plan was to harvest the decommissioned Japanese aircraft for replacement parts, but now the Navy is exploring the possibility of purchasing a couple more of the used helicopters, restoring them and putting them into service, Vanderborght said.
“The MH-53E community only has 28 helicopters in service, and they are kind of subject to the tyranny of small numbers,” he said. “So adding three, or maybe four pristine airframes would enable us to move that sundown date further into the future (beyond 2025) if that’s what the Navy desired.”
The 2014 crash off the coast of Virginia Beach also exposed serious problems with the Marine Corps version of the helicopters, which had quietly fallen into a state disrepair, but for different reasons.
A separate review of the Super Stallion fleet conducted after the accident found similar mechanical and cultural problems. The service had relied on the heavy-lift helos to ferry troops and cargo into combat during nearly 15 years of war in the Middle East, bypassing needed maintenance along the way.
The next day, a different Marine officer signed off on the nighttime training mission that ended in tragedy. An investigation into the crash has not been finalized.
A few months earlier, in September 2015, a Super Stallion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina experienced what officials called a “hard landing” while a Marine special forces unit based in Hampton Roads practiced fast-roping exercises. One Marine, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis, 31, was killed and 10 others were hurt.
The Marine Corps has yet to announce a cause in that crash, but according to documents obtained last week by The Pilot, the investigation into the crash that killed Lewis was completed months ago. According to the internal report, the crash was caused by “an emerging risk” in the aging aircraft – a mechanical defect that caused the tail rotor drive shaft to disconnect in flight. Lewis had been standing on the ramp at the rear of the helo, preparing to exit, when the aircraft slammed into the ground.
As was the case after the 2014 crash, every Super Stallion and Sea Dragon was grounded afterward and inspected for the same problem, which had never surfaced previously. New maintenance guidelines were soon implemented to prevent future accidents, according to the Marine Corps documents.
“In my opinion, these interim risk control measures have worked,” a Marine colonel wrote in May, after reviewing the crash investigation. “They have saved lives by averting further mishaps of this nature.”
But what about other, yet-to-be-discovered mechanical problems in the aging aircraft? Marine Corps officials say they are working to head off that concern.
“PAYING THE TAX”
Lt. Col. Scott Trent, the commander of a CH-53E squadron at New River Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina, said the Marines “are now paying the tax” of flying the helicopters hard during more than a decade of repeated deployments, though he wouldn’t directly connect maintenance and readiness troubles with the recent mishaps.
Now it’s time to regroup, he said. Over the next three years, the Marine Corps is spending $350 million to reset each of the 147 Super Stallions in its fleet and better equip Marines to maintain them. That means spending hundreds of hours stripping the aircraft down to their basic components and rebuilding them with fresh parts.
Jamie Revis, a retired Marine Corps aircraft maintainer who spent years working on Super Stallions, is now a civilian contractor leading the aircraft reset team at New River, about three hours south of Hampton Roads. He gave reporters a tour of the special hangar where his team has begun restoring a half-dozen Super Stallions.
“We’re taking these aircraft, stipping them down, looking at every wire, looking at every fluid line, looking at every component, and then restoring these birds to a condition that they haven’t seen in years,” Revis said.
It’s work that top Marine Corps officials, including Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, agree should have been done years ago. But top brass have stopped short of saying the decision not to do that has cost lives.
Now the Marine Corps – like the Navy – is paying for that mentality, he said.
“The fleet needs refurbing. It needed refurbing 15 years ago,” Skelton said. “This problem has compounded, exponentially, because we didn’t do it right the first time, or the second time, or the fourth time, or the eighth time. It’s compounded to the point now where … we’re looking at a problem that’s much bigger than what it should have been had we done things properly and by the book all along.”
The Navy hasn’t ordered a full reset of its aircraft, Vanderborght said. Instead it has opted to hire additional civilian maintainers to work alongside sailors, without pulling aircraft out of service for months. They’ve made progress, he said. The Sea Dragon’s mission capable rate has doubled since 2014, up to about 50 percent. That’s still well below the Navy’s goal of keeping 75 percent of its aircraft in flying shape, but “we’re moving in the right direction,” Vanderborght said.
ALL FLYING AT ONCE
In Bahrain, sailors from Norfolk said they feel like they’re getting the resources they need to get the job done. That doesn’t mean it’s easy work. Lt. Dennis Pollmeier, the top maintenance officer at the detachment, said his crew has to put in 70 hours of maintenance for every hour a Sea Dragon spends in the air. Years ago, when the aircraft were new, the helicopters required half as many maintenance hours.
“It’s a lot of dirty, hot hours,” Pollmeier said. “We average about 11-hour days between the two shifts. It’s just a lot of work.”
A few years ago, that never happened.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Chase Poling, a junior maintainer on his first deployment overseas, said everyone at the squadron knows about the troubles the program has faced in recent years. He said it drives them to do the job as best they can.
“You get a sense of pride out of it,” Poling said. “You see them fly every day and you push every day to get these birds up and then you see things like the four-bird formation flight, and you see them tow and you see them work. You do these missions. There is a lot of pride behind it, and it is its own reward.”
In the past, some Sea Dragon maintainers complained that the lack of parts and flyable aircraft led to pressure from above to skip some “less critical” repairs. Pollmeier said he doesn’t know how things were done before he joined the squadron last year, but he won’t allow that kind of mentality in his shop.
“That’s how I run my department,” he said. “Up is up. Down is down. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. There’s no use in sending an iffy aircraft out to do a mission that doesn’t need to go and put people’s lives at risk.”
Wirstrom is proud of the work his sailors have done getting the aircraft in better flying shape, but he doesn’t want them to get comfortable. The Navy needs those helicopters for at least another decade and can’t afford to let them slip back into a state of disrepair.
After the squadron simultaneously launched all four of its Sea Dragons in a formation flight in April, Wirstrom issued a challenge to the sailors who made it happen:
“When’s the next one?”