Internal Navy email: Safety of Sea Dragons in question


More than a year after a Navy helicopter caught fire and crashed off the coast of Virginia, killing three crew members, high-ranking military officials are now worried the tragedy could be repeated, according to confidential documents obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.

After an MH-53E Sea Dragon went down on Jan. 8, 2014, the military ordered crews to inspect every other Sea Dragon in the fleet – and every CH-53E Super Stallion, the Marine Corps variant – for signs of damaged fuel lines and wires like those that caused the crash.

There’s now evidence that many of those inspections were conducted haphazardly, if at all, leaving dozens of potentially unsafe helicopters in service and sending officials scrambling to come up with a plan to fix the problems, according to a chain of emails circulating last week among leaders at Naval Air Systems Command, the Maryland-based office that oversees all Navy and Marine Corps aircraft programs.

“Engineering is very concerned that the original bulletin intent was not met,” a Marine officer wrote in one email, referring to the fuel-line and wiring inspections that were conducted almost a year ago. “We don’t need another mishap as a result of chaffing wiring on a fuel line.”

The emails included attachments detailing the seriousness of the situation, including a spreadsheet documenting discrepancies in the original inspection process and a PowerPoint presentation apparently used during a briefing last week by Col. Hank Vanderborght, the Sea Dragon and Super Stallion program director.

“Bottom line up front,” Vanderborght wrote to begin the slides: “The risk of cabin fire was not mitigated and the hazard of chafing on fluid-carrying lines and wires was not eliminated.”

A sample inspection of helicopters conducted two weeks ago produced disturbing results, according to the slides. Of 28 helicopters that were looked at, all but eight were found to have bad fuel lines or wiring, including a few with chafing lines in the exact location that led to the deadly crash a year ago, when a worn out wiring bundle released an electrical arc that connected with jet fuel, igniting an explosive fire.

The Navy estimated it would take 36 hours per aircraft to conduct the post-crash inspections and repairs, but on dozens of aircraft, according to maintenance records included in the emails, crews reported spending less than two hours on the work.

The emails and documents sound an alarming tone, yet more than two weeks after the discrepancies were discovered, Sea Dragons and Super Stallions continue flying here, at bases across the country and overseas. Further, there is little indication that maintenance crews who work on the helicopters or pilots who fly them have been fully briefed on the matter.

“It’s all news to me,” said one aviator from Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I find it deeply troubling.”

Kelly Burdick, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, said the findings spelled out in the documents are preliminary.

“We’re going to be continuing to look into this and investigate this,” she said, adding that Vanderborght was traveling and wasn’t available for an interview.

The Virginian-Pilot has spent more than a year investigating problems with the Sea Dragon, the Navy’s oldest and most crash-prone helicopter – and the only one in the fleet capable of sweeping for underwater mines. The latest revelations come days after a NBC Nightly News and Virginian-Pilot story raised concerns about the safety of the aircraft.

Even as officials were trading emails about the renewed safety concerns last week, the newspaper had been actively questioning the command about its efforts to address wiring problems following a Jan. 15 incident over the Arabian Gulf. Two wires had chafed inside a Sea Dragon, causing an electrical arc that sparked a small fire and forced the crew to land in Kuwait.

When asked about the incident, the service responded by touting its work to fix bad wires and fuel lines. No mention was made of the newly discovered problems with those efforts.

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