Most of Navy’s Sea Dragon fleet remains on the ground

Two months after the Navy ordered new inspections of every heavy-lift helicopter in its fleet, most of the aircraft – including all but one based in Norfolk – remain grounded until thousands of repairs are made to potentially unsafe fuel lines and electrical wires.

It’s a time- and labor-intensive process, complicated further by the age of the helicopters: Some parts needed to repair the Cold War-era aircraft are out of production and must be made in-house or custom ordered.

“We’re making good progress,” said Rear Adm. J.R. Haley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic in Norfolk. “I’m more concerned with accuracy of implementation than I am with quickness.”

The renewed safety push comes more than a year after an MH-53E Sea Dragon crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach, killing three crew members. A fuel line had chafed against an electrical wire in the cabin, igniting an explosive fire.

Afterward, the Navy required inspections of every Sea Dragon and the Marine Corps variant CH-53E Super Stallion for signs of damaged wires and fuel lines.

In February, nearly a year after that work was reportedly finished, a spot check revealed a problem: Either the engineers who wrote the original inspection guidelines hadn’t done a good job explaining their intent, or maintenance crews hadn’t grasped the importance of the work.

Either way, engineers found that many bad wires and fuel lines hadn’t been fixed, and the increased risk of fire hadn’t been eliminated.

A day after The Virginian-Pilot reported those internal concerns, Naval Air Systems Command in Maryland drafted the new inspection plan and issued temporary flight restrictions that are in effect until the work is finished.

This time, aircraft engineers were dispatched to every Sea Dragon and Super Stallion squadron across the country and overseas. They spent days teaching helicopter maintainers how to do the inspections.


Read the original report by The Virginian-Pilot and the Ivestigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley


As of Thursday, crews had finished inspecting 118 of 177 Super Stallions and Sea Dragons. About 68 – including six Sea Dragons – have returned to service. Most of the remaining helicopters can’t be flown until the work is done.

In Norfolk, home to the Navy’s only two Sea Dragon squadrons, pilots haven’t flown regularly for the past few months. Just one of the 16 Sea Dragons at Norfolk Naval Station is cleared for flight. That one was cleared Thursday. Seven helicopters here have not yet had a complete inspection.

One reason it’s taken this long: Priority was given to the seven Sea Dragons based in Bahrain and South Korea. Some of the parts needed to get those helicopters flying again were taken off helicopters in Norfolk and shipped overseas.

It was critical to get the forward-deployed helicopters inspected and repaired as quickly as possible, said Haley, the two-star admiral responsible for all of the Navy’s aircraft on the East Coast. The Sea Dragon, built in the 1980s, is the only U.S. helicopter powerful enough to pull equipment through the water to clear underwater minefields, a critical mission in contested Middle East waterways and the waters off North Korea.

Fuel line and wiring repairs have been completed on five of the seven Sea Dragons stationed overseas.

Haley said he’s more concerned about how the lengthy inspection and repair process will affect “future readiness.” In other words, if pilots and aircrew in Norfolk can’t fly training missions, they might not be ready when it’s their turn to deploy overseas.

“We have to make sure our guys are trained well,” Haley said. “I can mitigate some of that by putting guys in simulators… but there are things the simulator just can’t simulate.”

Haley isn’t responsible for the Marine helicopters, and no Super Stallion squadrons are based in Hampton Roads.

The Navy hopes to finish inspecting the last of its Norfolk-based Sea Dragons by mid-May. It’s not clear, though, when the repairs will be finished. On some helicopters, mechanics and engineers have documented nearly 1,000 “gripes” – each one representing a fuel line or wiring bundle that must be repaired, replaced or repositioned to prevent chafing.

The top priority, Haley said, is making sure those repairs are done properly. If parts aren’t readily available, nothing can be done to get the helicopters flying any sooner.

“We have an old airframe, and I don’t have very many of them,” Haley said. “So when we have a piece of equipment that’s bad, and it’s bad throughout the fleet, it has huge impacts.”

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