Navy issues plan to help ensure helicopter safety

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


The Navy on Friday issued guidance intended to ensure the safety of its heavy-lift helicopters, a day after a Virginian-Pilot story revealed internal concerns about hazardous wiring and fuel lines inside the aircraft.

The renewed effort comes 13 months after an MH-53E Sea Dragon caught fire and crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach, killing three crew members. Afterward, the Navy ordered inspections of every Sea Dragon and CH-53E Super Stallion, the Marine Corps variant, for signs of damaged fuel lines and wires like those that caused the crash.

The fleetwide repairs were reportedly completed almost a year ago, but evidence emerged last month indicating that many of the initial inspections had been conducted haphazardly, if at all. The concerns were spelled out in internal emails and other documents obtained this week by The Pilot.

Under the plan announced late Friday, the Navy will order additional inspections, this time with more detailed instructions. And teams of maintenance experts will be dispatched to help squadrons root out chafing components and make repairs.

The helicopters can be flown while the inspections and repairs are under way, Navy spokeswoman Kelly Burdick said Friday, but with a few restrictions barring crews from cross-transferring fuel during flight or aerial refueling, and Sea Dragon crews will be barred from refueling a mine-clearing sled that the aircraft drags through the sea.

The aircrew that went down off Cape Henry a year ago had been transferring fuel when a worn-out wiring bundle released an electrical arc that connected with a badly chafing fuel line, igniting an explosive fire.

In a statement Friday, the commander of Naval Air Systems Command, Vice Adm. David Dunaway, said he is confident the new round of inspections will “yield the desired effects.”

No Sea Dragons or Super Stallions flew Friday while leaders worked to develop the plan and maintenance crews in Norfolk received additional training. The service doesn’t plan to extend the operational pause.

“From my perspective,” Dunaway said, “squadrons can start flying immediately as long as they follow these temporary restrictions.”

The Navy’s 28 Sea Dragons, the service’s only mine-sweeping helicopters, are based at two Norfolk squadrons and stationed in Bahrain and South Korea. The Marine Corps has more than 150 Super Stallions in service.

The new safety concerns surfaced three weeks ago, when Naval Air Systems Command engineers conducted a spot check on 28 Marine helicopters. All but eight had suspect fuel lines and wiring. In a follow-up review this week, engineers found similar hazards inside Sea Dragons, officials said.

The findings seemed to suggest that some squadrons didn’t understand the intent of the directive – or didn’t take it seriously. The Navy had estimated the inspections would take 36 hours per aircraft. But records obtained by The Pilot revealed that, on dozens of helicopters, crews spent only a few hours on the job.

The new inspections and repairs will begin immediately, according to a Naval Air Systems Command news release.

“The Navy places top priority on the safety of its aircrews,” the release said. “Correcting causal factors from this mishap – or any aircraft mishap – is paramount to the aviation community.”

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