Report: Blinding smoke caused helicopter crash that killed 3

By Lance M. Bacon
Staff writer

NORFOLK, VA. — Loss of spatial awareness and disorientation due to dense smoke from a fire in the upper port wall caused the Jan. 8 MH-53E Sea Dragon crash that killed three, according to a Navy investigation released Sept. 11.

The crash, which occurred while the helo was towing a 180-pound Mk 104 acoustic minesweeping device during an exercise, resulted from a combination of mechanical failures, said Capt. Todd Flannery, commodore of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. There was no indication of trouble and nothing the crew could have done to avoid the fire, he said.

Two pinholes in the port fuel line allowed atomized fuel to escape. In addition, insulatedelectrical line coverings had rubbed against the surface of an aluminum fuel transfer line. This enabled an electrical arc to breach the transfer tube and ignite the pressurized fuel. The fire erupted in the crew cab aft of the port window, the report found.

Due to the January cold and the minesweeping exercise, the side windows were closed and the back ramp was lowered. The cockpit and cabin filled with billowing black smoke in about 20 seconds. It blinded the aircrew and resulted in a loss of visual reference to the horizon and cockpit instrumentation, according to investigators.

At a Sept. 11 press conference for the report’s release, Flannery likened it to a driver closing his eyes at 25 mph for 20 seconds, which would cover the distance of about three football fields.

The captain called the report’s scenario the likeliest version of events, noting that not all components were recovered. The investigation did have the bulk of the material and testimony from the two survivors who were in the fuselage at the time of the fire.

A subsequent investigation found that 28 of 153 Navy and Marine Corps aircraft had similar issues with fuel lines, Flannery said. All have been corrected. In addition, all of the Navy’s Sea Dragons had one or more of the same discrepancies that led to the Jan. 8 fire: electrical wires coming in contact with items, leading to chafing; deteriorated insulation around electrical wires; or deteriorated insulation around fuel lines. They also have been corrected in the nine months since the tragedy, Flannery said.

The captain called the Sea Dragon “safe and dependable,” and said he would not hesitate to climb in and fly it. He last did so Aug. 6, he said. He acknowledged that the Sea Dragons are aging and will require extensive maintenance to remain in the fleet through 2025, as planned.

Killed in the crash were: pilots Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, and Lt. Sean Snyder, 39, and Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25. Flannery called them “outstanding sailors who loved to fly.”

The crew, assigned to Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, were conducting mine countermeasures training with another helicopter about 18 miles off Virginia Beach when they went into the water. Van Dorn, Collins and two aircrewman were rescued by the other helicopter and taken to a local hospital, where Van Dorn and Collins died from their injuries later that day. Both surviving crew members were released from the hospital by Jan. 10.

Navy, Coast Guard and Virginia Beach Police Department assets aided in a search for Snyder and the wreckage. Coast Guard and Virginia Beach crews withdrew from the search Jan. 9.

Navy divers discovered Snyder’s remains inside the helo’s cockpit on Jan. 15. Family and friends gathered for a memorial service two days later at Naval Station Norfolk.

The Sea Dragon airframe is in use by two Norfolk-based squadrons — HM-14 and HM-15. This was the fourth Sea Dragon crash in less than two years; the previous three occurred in 2012. Most were due to rotor issues. Following two HM-15 crashes, the unit’s commanding officer and command master chief were fired.

One of the Jan. 8 crash survivors is headed to Pensacola on new orders. The other is still in physical therapy, officials said. Healing within the squadron has “been a progression,” Flannery said, as there has been some trepidation in the ranks.

Staff writer Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

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