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Jun 29, 2019

The military’s deadliest helicopter

Co-produced with PRX Logo

On a freezing January morning in 2014, a fire broke out in the cabin of a MH-53E Navy Sea Dragon helicopter on a training mission over the Atlantic. Seconds later, it slammed into the ocean. Only two sailors survived. 

This week, Reveal partners with Investigative Studios, the production arm of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, to find out what caused that crash and why the 53 is the military’s deadliest aircraft.

Dig Deeper

This episode originally aired Jan. 19, 2019. The Navy chose not to participate in this Reveal story or in the documentary “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” Internal emails show senior naval officers were mostly concerned about damage control.

Credits

Today's show was produced in collaboration with Investigative Studios, the production arm of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Reported by Zachary Stauffer and Jason Paladino for Investigative Studios.

Produced by Michael Montgomery. Edited by Jen Chien.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: On a freezing January morning in 2014, a Navy Sea Dragon helicopter was on a training mission over the Atlantic when a fire broke out in the cabin. Seconds later, it slammed into the ocean.

 

Speaker 2: We are continuing our breaking news coverage now involving the navy chopper crash.

 

Speaker 3: Yeah, and just to bring you up to speed, five sailors were onboard. One died, another is still missing, and of the three still at the hospital recovering-

 

Al Letson: One of the injured sailors died at the hospital, and the body of another was recovered days later bringing the death toll to three.

 

Speaker 4: Well Stephanie, this particular helicopter is assigned to the HM14 Squadron based out of Naval Station Norfolk. It's just under 100 feet long, 28 feet tall. It weighs-

 

Jason P.: I'm just scrawling through Facebook and I see a bunch of mutual friends talking about this helicopter crash, and saying, "Rest in peace, Brian Collins." I didn't believe it at first.

 

Al Letson: Jason Paladino went to high school with Brian Collins, one of the sailors killed in the crash.

 

Jason P.: I read the news stories they were linking to, and then I just quickly fired off a couple of Facebook messages to our close friends and said, "Is this for real?" They said, "Yeah." At that point, I started getting in touch with people and finding out what really happened.

 

Al Letson: Jason and Brian grew up in the mountains of Northern California in Truckee just down the highway from Lake Tahoe. After graduation, Jason went off to study journalism at the University of California Berkeley. Brian enlisted in the navy.

 

Jason P.: He was extremely driven and motivated. He started working out a lot and going to Crossfit and trying to get in the physical shape for his training. He originally wanted to be a SEAL, but yeah, so he basically just devoted himself to this.

 

Al Letson: Two weeks after the accident, Jason joined hundreds of others at Truckee High School for Brian's memorial service.

 

Jason P.: It was cold, snowy. It was on the football field. They did a 21 gun salute. It was just the whole community that was just shocked. It was like a really unfortunate high school reunion.

 

Al Letson: It wasn't just old friends on hand. Some of Brian's fellow sailors showed up. Jason was perplexed by what they told him.

 

Jason P.: They were talking about it like it was an avoidable crash, and that there is no reason that it should of happened. That trigger a feeling in me of rather than this just being a random tragic accident, that there was something going on here that was worth looking into and that was worth doing some reporting on.

 

Al Letson: As a grad student, Jason connected with Zachary Stauffer, a filmmaker at the university's Investigative Reporting Program.

 

Zachary S.: All good journalism, and certainly investigative journalism begins with a good question. Jason's inquiry began with a question. What caused my friend to die in this helicopter crash? Why did it go down? Several months later, the question became, what else can this helicopter explain? What can it tell us?

 

Al Letson: Zachary and Jason decided to launch an investigation and make a film. The project would end up taking nearly three years.

 

Jason P.: I mean one of the most daunting aspects early on was that you couldn't really get anything but rosy answers out of Navy Public Affairs. They are telling you that everything is fine, but then you've got all these people on the inside telling you things are terrible and people are scared to fly, and people are refusing to fly.

 

Zachary S.: These are people that lost three of their friends, people they worked with every day. They want to know why they died in this helicopter crash. But, as we went about our reporting we realized that it was much bigger than one crash. There was a much bigger problem.

 

Al Letson: Today, we're revisiting a show from earlier this year that looked at how this fleet of helicopters became the deadliest in the US Military. It was produced in collaboration with the Investigating Reporting Program. Jason begins with the story of two sailors on duty that January morning.

 

Jason P.: What Dylan Boone remembers most vividly was the biting, bone chilling cold.

 

Dylan Boone: It was freezing. It was below freezing. It was almost unbearably cold. It was just brutal.

 

Jason P.: Dylan was a young air crewman assigned to a Sea Dragon squadron. The same one as my friend Brian at Naval Station Norfolk. It's the world's largest navy base, sitting on the edge of Chesapeake Bay near where it drains into the Atlantic.

 

Dylan Boone: The wind coming right off the ocean on the flight line it's just one of the... sometimes you feel like it's one of the coldest places on earth.

 

Jason P.: It was so cold that the helicopters were partially frozen. [Chris Hummie 00:04:35] was a mechanic in the same Sea Dragon squadron.

 

Chris H.: It didn't take 10 seconds of looking at the aircraft then to completely confirm, absolutely we can't... This is crazy we can't fly with these.

 

Jason P.: After canceling the day's mission, the squadron moved the Sea Dragons off the flight line and into the giant hangar to warm up.

 

Chris H.: We put heat lamps near them to just trying to warm up the areas, and that was it for the day. We decided we'd give it another go the next day.

 

Jason P.: The MH53E Sea Dragon is the largest helicopter in the US Military. It's about 100 feet long and it can carry more than 50 fully equipped troops. Inside is a maze of wires, pipes, and gauges. Dylan says a thin film of grease always covered the floor.

 

Dylan Boone: We leaked hydraulic fluid all the time. The slogan was, "If it wasn't leaking, it wasn't working."

 

Jason P.: With nearly 400 hours on the aircraft, Dylan learned the Sea Dragon always needed lots of special care just to get it off the ground. That's because it isn't just big and powerful, it's also a relic of the Cold War and long past its prime.

 

Dylan Boone: They are a decrepit, decaying, falling apart. They're old.

 

Chris H.: I have so many nights where you have cried and bled and sweat and cussed at this helicopter. She never wants to fly.

 

Jason P.: The morning of January 8th, Chris came in early to make sure the choppers had thawed out.

 

Chris H.: Then we decided to bring the birds out one at a time because we were going to start getting everything ready for the launches. And then once we started firing the engines up it initially appeared that everything was going right. Everything was just looking like it was supposed to look.

 

Jason P.: Chris finished his final checks inside the aircraft. My friend Brian was onboard along with Dylan Boone, Crew Chief Justin Godfrey, Co-Pilot Sean Schneider and the pilot, Wes Van Dorn. Chris gave Wes the green light.

 

Chris H.: I slapped him on the back, and I turned around and I got out of the cockpit. I walked off the aircraft and it flew away.

 

Jason P.: The dark green silhouette of the Sea Dragon stood out against the blue winter sky. It was about 20 miles from shore and 100 feet off the surface on a routine mine sweeping exercise. With a long cable, the helicopter pulled a torpedo shaped device through the water just as it had done many times before.

 

Dylan Boone: It was just a regular training mission. I guess that's where some of my anger lies because it could've been avoided. It should have been avoided.

 

Jason P.: Dylan remembers moving closer to the front of the cabin to warm up.

 

Dylan Boone: I felt some heat blowing on my neck. I got up and turned around and saw that we had flames and smoke in the cabin. It was like a flamethrower that was just eating everything in its path.

 

Jason P.: Smoke filled the cabin and cockpit as the helicopter careened toward the ocean.

 

Dylan Boone: By the time you know it, you're just wishing for the fire to go out and it's not. You're just trying to get some air and you can't. In a weird sadistic way you're thankful that it finally hit something because it's either you're going to drown, or the fire is going to be put out by the water, and that was your escape is a wreck.

 

Jason P.: Dylan says he woke up under water. He wrestled himself free from the aircraft and kicked to the surface.

 

Dylan Boone: The water was 40 degrees and I could hear screams in the distance. I didn't know from who.

 

Jason P.: He wound up near another crew member. Eventually, the two fired off a smoke grenade to signal for help.

 

Dylan Boone: Yeah, it was a long time. It was the longest 45 minutes of my life.

 

Jason P.: As rescue helicopters rushed to the crash site, Chris Hummie was back at the hangar doing paperwork. Another mechanic opened the door and told him a Sea Dragon was in the water. It was just hours after he had cleared the aircraft for flight.

 

Chris H.: Then you just start panicking. You start running through all these scenarios like, "Man, did I put that cap back on the right way," or "I mean, did I really verify there wasn't ice in there?" You know you did it right. You just don't know because it's a crash. There is a helicopter that crashed under the ocean on a day that it's 10 below zero. You have this mental picture of these men freezing, and the coldest day, the coldest day.

 

Todd Flannery: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Captain Todd Flannery, Commander Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. Today has definitely been a tough day on all of us.

 

Jason P.: That afternoon, the navy held a press conference on the vast concrete flight line. It wasn't far from where the Sea Dragon had launched earlier in the day. Captain Flannery, the navy's top helicopter commander in Norfolk stood before the group of reporters in a green flight suit. His face was somber.

 

Todd Flannery: At this point, I'd like to bring you up to speed on what we know. One sailor has died as a result of this morning's crash. Three sailors are being treated at Sentara General in Norfolk.

 

Jason P.: Ships and helicopters were searching for a missing sailor. His body wouldn't be recovered for another week. Shadows crept across the flight line as reporters fired off questions.

 

Speaker 10: [inaudible] where it is yet?

 

Jason P.: Flannery wouldn't speculate on the cause of the crash and said the navy is launching a full investigation.

 

Speaker 10: Do you have any concerns about the safety of these aircrafts?

 

Todd Flannery: No, I don't. I do not.

 

Jason P.: While the navy reassured the public that the Sea Dragons were safe another scene was unfolding at the hospital. My friend Brian had been killed instantly on impact and arrived without a pulse. Dylan Boone and Justin Godfrey were in stable condition. Pilot Wes Van Dorn was fighting for his life.

 

Jason P.: Wes's wife Nicole had rushed to the hospital after an anonymous caller tipped her off. She hadn't heard any official details from the navy yet. In the waiting room she noticed navy chaplains in the hallway. That's when she started to get desperate.

 

Nicole: I asked the hospital administrator to come back in and I just looked her in the eyes and I said, "I see these chaplains walking by. I don't know what they're here for. I've been told that my husband is in surgery, but God help you if he's near me and I don't get to see him and he dies." She came back a minute or two later and she said, "Come with me."

 

Jason P.: The hospital staff pulled up a chair for Nicole in the operating room. She watched a team of doctors and nurses work on Wes as he lay on a table.

 

Nicole: I should have been terrified I guess by what I saw, but I just for some reason I just looked at him and I just smiled at him. His hair looked perfect. It looked like he had just been to the barber shop, but he... I get closer to him and there was a straight line down his face though I don't know where the fire came from, but the whole left side was burnt as if he had turned his head.

 

Jason P.: It wasn't just the burns, the impact with the ocean had severed two of Wes's fingers and his right foot. He was also severely hypothermic.

 

Nicole: Yeah, they let me hold his hand and I laid my head on his chest. And then I saw the... I think he was a neurologist because he had a little flashlight in his hand and you could see him as he shook the light in Wes's eyes and then he looked at the other doctors and that's when I knew.

 

Jason P.: Wes was 29. He left behind Nicole and their two young children. As Nicole grieved she couldn't stop thinking about things that Wes had told her before the crash. He had serious concerns about the Sea Dragon squadron for a long time. He thought poor leadership was leading to sloppy maintenance, and that was putting crews at risk.

 

Nicole: Over time, and especially when mishaps became more frequent and people started getting hurt, that's when Wes started to become more sure of his concerns and more sure of himself.

 

Jason P.: In countless dinner conversations at their house near the base, Wes would tell Nicole about his frustrations. She suggested that he start keeping records, so that when he got to be more senior he could actually do something about it.

 

Nicole: I remember sitting on the floor of this living room, I don't know, less than a week after the accident and I would just all of everything that Wes ever said to me and the crash is all just colliding in my mind and I'm like, I got to find that stuff. I've got to find that stuff, I've got to find the stuff, so I went on this crazy tear all throughout the house.

 

Jason P.: Nicole found a tattered green notebook, the biding barely holding together. Wes carried it around with him at work.

 

Nicole: I opened and the second page, or the back of the first page says, "There is no accountability for bad maintenance."

 

Jason P.: His writing is emphatic, big letters, underlined. It takes up the whole page. You can sense his frustration.

 

Nicole: He was really bothered by the fact that anytime he observed something that was not being done right he would try to talk to his superior about it, and it wouldn't get anywhere.

 

Jason P.: On Wes's computer Nicole also found a memo he wrote to his superiors. It alleges squadron commanders, "Cheated, doctored numbers and reports, and were otherwise dishonest in reporting up the chain of command." None of this lined up with the military's version of what was happening in the squadron and what led to the crash.

 

Nicole: I was told that my husband was an American hero who died doing what he loved doing and made the ultimate sacrifice. He was trying to make neat a very messy situation. I wanted the messy answer because that's the truthful answer.

 

Jason P.: To get closer to the truth Nicole reached out to someone outside the military, a reporter named, Mike Hixenbaugh. Mike had written multiple articles in the local paper, The Virginian-Pilot, about problems with the Sea Dragon fleet. Years of neglect by the navy, haphazard maintenance, high crash rates. To Nicole, Mike's stories echoed the concern she'd heard so many times from Wes.

 

Nicole: He wasn't just accepting the facts given to him by the navy at face value. It was inquisitive. I was like, maybe he's willing to, if there is truth to this, break the mold. I want someone who is professional enough to not just chase a story that isn't there, but if there is truth to it I also want someone whose not afraid to dig deeper.

 

Mike H.: Late one evening, I got a text message from a number I didn't recognize and it was Nicole Van Dorn telling me that she's been reading my stories, and that she had some things that she wanted to tell me that I'd be interested in.

 

Jason P.: Nicole remembers telling Mike...

 

Nicole: My husband expressed to me before he died that he was really worried about things going on in the squadron. He kept copious records, notes. I don't know if I have anything, but I also need a place to bring it all.

 

Mike H.: The text sent chills up my spine. It's a tragedy. It's a guy who sees a problem, commits to trying to fix it, and the problem kills him.

 

Jason P.: Wes's concerns about the Sea Dragon weren't just detailed in documents. They also come up in this audio recording that was leaked to Nicole.

 

Speaker 13: [inaudible] start off by... Say your name.

 

Wes V.: All right. I'm Lieutenant Wes Van Dorn.

 

Jason P.: Wes is talking to a group of naval investigators looking into an earlier Sea Dragon crash. He uses the opportunity to share some of his wider concerns about the fleet. You can hear Wes thumping the table as he insists that the root of the problem is not with junior enlisted sailors.

 

Wes V.: They're hardworking young kids. They want to do right. They at least start out motivated, but they're only going to do what's asked of them.

 

Jason P.: He says the real problem is higher up the chain of command.

 

Wes V.: And then senior enlisted seems like they don't really care about their junior enlisted. I think that's a huge issue in our squadron.

 

Jason P.: Wes thought that poor leadership extended to the officers.

 

Speaker 13: You're suggesting that the training failure is a cultural failure and has simply been allowed to perpetuate over time.

 

Wes V.: Yeah, there is no checks and balances because the officer and leadership has been nonexistent. [crosstalk 00:17:11].

 

Jason P.: He knew the consequences could be disastrous.

 

Wes V.: If anybody should care about what's happening on that aircraft it should be me and the other pilots, I think. It makes sense to me because I'm the one whose going to get in it and have something terrible happen if it doesn't go right.

 

Jason P.: Eight months after the crash in Norfolk, the navy finished its investigation. They held another press conference. I was there along with Mike Hixenbaugh. Captain Todd Flannery led reporters into the cabin of the Sea Dragon to explain what had happened.

 

Todd Flannery: The fire took place here. The report tells you there was a fireball that happened. You can see how close to the cockpit it is relatively compared to the size of the helicopter.

 

Jason P.: The navy concluded that it all started with a simple plastic zip tie. The tiny nylon strap secured a bundle of wires near a metal fuel tube. Flight after flight under constant vibration the zip tie chafed the installation on the wires and rubbed a hole in the fuel line. The leaked fuel ignited in the cabin.

 

Todd Flannery: And because that fuel line is pressurized the fuel continued to feed the fire.

 

Speaker 15: Where was it then?

 

Todd Flannery: I don't know specifically, but this is the fuel tube here.

 

Jason P.: The navy's talking points were all about the chafing that caused the crash, but Mike and I wanted to follow up on Wes Van Dorn's concerns, things like dysfunction at the squadron and cutting corners on maintenance. At one point, the captain seems to acknowledge some of these problems.

 

Todd Flannery: The way that business had been done in the past may not have been 100% correct. Now, we are doing maintenance by the book all the time.

 

Jason P.: But then, he backpedals.

 

Todd Flannery: I want to be very careful on how that's interpreted. It wasn't that we weren't doing by the maintenance beforehand. It's now there is a renewed effort and emphasis to ensure that if there are any questions that the young sailors are empowered to go to their supervisors and say, "I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to go," instead of just trying to figure it out by themselves.

 

Jason P.: Faced with grieving families and inquisitive journalists the navy was saying, don't worry. Everything is under control. This was just an isolated incident, but Mike and I suspected that wasn't the whole story.

 

Mike H.: Throughout the press conference, it became clear and it was repeated again and again that nobody was at fault. It wasn't the pilot's fault. They were blinded by smoke and fire. In the helicopter Flannery started to say it was poor maintenance, but then backtracked and said no this wasn't maintenance's fault. In the past he talked about the navy not fully funding this aircraft, but no it's not their fault. At the end, no one has taken responsibility for what happened. Nobody is at fault. What we find is that is absolutely not the case.

 

Al Letson: The navy didn't want to talk about it, but there were warning signs about the Sea Dragons going back decades.

 

Mike H.: There were opportunities to fix this and to make changes, and they were ignored.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Speaker 16: Reveal is supported by the On Something Podcast. Do you feel like marijuana legalization is happening all around you and you're left wondering what it all means for you, or that legalization is happening so fast, but also seems to be taking forever? There is a podcast for that. PRX and Colorado Public Radio present, On Something, a show about life after legalization. Available wherever you get podcasts, or at onsomething.org.

 

Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey. It's time for Al's podcast picks. This one is so easy because it's one of my all time favorite shows, On the Media from WNYC. It's journalism about journalism, so the show looks at the week's biggest stories and looks at what's behind them.

 

Al Letson: Throughout June, On the Media is doing this big ambitious project. Host Brooke Gladstone who is one of my top five favorite podcast hosts. She's teaming up with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Matthew Desmond to look at eviction in America. In Chicago, they look at the legacy of racists housing policies. In Atlanta, they examine the hopes and failures of public housing. In Indianapolis, they meet with landlords. In Richmond, Virginia, they sit down with people who are trying to solve America's eviction crisis. Subscribe to On the Media wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Today, we're revisiting a story about a 2014 navy helicopter crash that killed three sailors off the coast of Virginia. The official investigation found no one at fault, but filmmakers, Jason Paladino and Zachary Stauffer from the Investigative Reporting Program had a lot of unanswered questions. Zachary picks up the story in Norfolk, Virginia.

 

Zachary S.: We're driving into Norfolk with reporter, Mike Hixenbaugh. He's in his early 30s and covers the military for The Virginia-Pilot newspaper. We've teamed up to dig deeper into the causes of the crash.

 

Mike H.: Half of the US aircraft carriers are based in Norfolk, half of our fighter jets are here, half of the Navy SEALs are based here. It's a navy town, so covering the military at the paper from my perspective is a big deal. It's the job.

 

Zachary S.: On our way to the newspaper's office we pass destroyers and aircraft carriers docked in shipyards. Ships are part of the cityscape with masts, cranes, and towers mixing with office buildings. It's as if Norfolk and the navy are one.

 

Mike H.: I think because of that identity also when you have a helicopter that crashes lots of people relate to it. It's something about someone in uniform in the military is harmed that I mean the community is just plugged into that at schools, at churches, everywhere. Good morning, Joanne.

 

Zachary S.: The navy connection continues in the newsroom. Front page military stories and photos cover the walls. Mike takes us into a conference room and pulls out a box.

 

Mike H.: This is what we've accumulated in a year and a half on this, I guess.

 

Zachary S.: He opens binders full of navy investigations, court files, company records, internal maintenance documents and more. We got some of the documents through the Freedom of Information Act. Others came from Nicole Van Dorn, the widow of pilot Wes Van Dorn. Still, others were leaked by active duty sailors and marines.

 

Mike H.: What's amazing about this is the fact that we're receiving this kind of information.

 

Zachary S.: Yeah.

 

Mike H.: Multiple and numerous enlisted and officers are reaching out to us with that kind of information just shows where there is smoke there is fire, I guess.

 

Zachary S.: Jason, Mike, and I started by investigating the crash of a navy MH53E helicopter, the Sea Dragon, but as we kept reporting we found there were also issues with a similar model used by the marines, the CH53E, the Super Stallion. The documents we had obtained showed a history of accidents going back decades.

 

Mike H.: This was in 2005 off the coast of Virginia. They had something with the main gear box and it caused them to have to ditch the aircraft at sea. That's [Siginawa 00:25:11], Italy.

 

Zachary S.: That killed four people?

 

Mike H.: Right.

 

Zachary S.: We got from the navy spreadsheet with details on every accident the 53 was involved in. We added up the fatalities and found something startling. 132 people have been killed on the helicopter since it hit the fleet in the 1980s. Relative to flight hours, it's become the deadliest aircraft in the US Military. Here is another thing, all those people, they died in accidents. The helicopter has never been shot down in combat. The 53 is one of the oldest helicopter in the military. Mike says the navy had started to come up with a plan in the 1990s to retire its version.

 

Mike H.: Then when that plan goes out the window it's like they're in limbo. They're just still operating. We still need them, but the resources have already been trimmed back.

 

Zachary S.: They were supposed to be replaced and weren't, but funds had already started flowing to newer defense programs. That took away money to cover spare parts and maintenance for the Sea Dragon. Sailors told us they were under constant pressure to keep the helicopters in the air.

 

Mike H.: That's when this culture of just, "Get 'er done," took hold.

 

Chris H.: That always turned into a flight hours first, safety second thing.

 

Zachary S.: Navy mechanic, Chris Hummie who we heard from earlier says he experienced those pressures first hand.

 

Chris H.: We blatantly were told over, and over, and over, day, after day, after day this is what you're going to do. Don't worry about this. That's above your pay grade. Don't ask about things that you don't know. These will be taken care of at higher levels. Do your job.

 

Zachary S.: After the 2014 crash, the navy ordered inspections of all 53s for signs of chafing. Weeks later, the helicopters were flying again. Everything was okay according to the military, but a confidential internal source sent Mike documents showing something very different.

 

Mike H.: The wiring fuel line problems hadn't been fixed. The very kind that caused the crash. These aircraft were still flying and nothing had changed.

 

Zachary S.: We published a story with that leaked information in The Virginian-Pilot, and it caught the attention of marine corp General John Davis.

 

John Davis: I got up in the morning and I'm having a cup of coffee and I read this article. I'm like, "Okay, we have a problem." I called my navy counterparts and said, "We have a problem here and we need to get it fixed."

 

Zachary S.: At the time, General Davis was the marine's top aviator. He's now retired. He was the only senior military officer who agreed to speak with us on tape.

 

John Davis: Well, I just try not to lose my composure, but I was unhappy. I was concerned. From hey, we're good to we're not so good. Yeah, I wanted facts. I wanted data. I wanted it quickly.

 

Zachary S.: Davis grounded the fleet. The navy and marines ordered up a new round of inspections. Once again, crews spent months looking for signs of chafing. But the problem went beyond chafing. It had to do with the wiring itself. The electrical wires were wrapped with a type of installation called, Kapton.

 

Speaker 18: This is a piece of Kapton insulated wire.

 

Zachary S.: While making our film I came across this 1999 BBC documentary.

 

Speaker 18: Kapton is best when young. It's featherweight, the thickness of only about three human hairs, flame resistant, tough. That was the good news. And this is the bad, the Kapton insulation can explode like a firework if it's chafed and rubbed against metal.

 

Zachary S.: The navy had known about the dangers of Kapton for decades even when the 53 helicopter was still just a prototype.

 

Speaker 18: Kapton insulation burned to a crisp.

 

Zachary S.: The 53's manufacturer Sikorsky had actually recommended replacing Kapton as early as 1981, but the navy declined saying it would be too costly. They did come up with a plan eventually, but Kapton was still on the Sea Dragon that crashed into the Atlantic in 2014. The navy's investigation into that crashed never mentions Kapton, but we got the maintenance log for the helicopter. It shows that some of the wiring had been replaced, but not at the site of the explosion. I asked General Davis about it.

 

Zachary S.: Why would it have still been on that MH53E that crashed in Virginia?

 

Speaker 18: I don't know. I don't know the why. I mean I didn't know about Kapton wiring problems, per se. I'd knew we had a plan to replace our Kapton wiring by 2019.

 

Zachary S.: Why the long delays in replacing Kapton wiring? Something the navy's own documents call the highest safety risk in the fleet. How could such clear threats to sailors and marines become such a low priority? In search of answer I reached out to military analyst, Chuck Spinney. He spent more than 25 years at the Pentagon.

 

Chuck S.: The situation that you are seeing with the helicopters is basically a predictable consequence of a screwed up priority system, not predictable, inevitable. And when you continue this behavior into the future it basically boils down to malice of forethought.

 

Zachary S.: Back in the early 80s, Spinney was something of a budget badass. He graced the cover of Time Magazine after testifying to Congress about how the Pentagon was misallocating, i.e., wasting money. Spinney says, "The main priority for the Pentagon is to spend more money on fancy new weapons." But to do that the military reduces money for what it calls readiness, less glamorous things like training, spare parts, maintenance, and repairs.

 

Chuck S.: Maybe one of those cutbacks was saying, hey, we can live a little longer with this shitty wire.

 

Zachary S.: I talked to General Davis about what he thought contributed to the poor readiness of the 53? Readiness is first and foremost in the marine corp.

 

John Davis: It is.

 

Zachary S.: The CH53E was not ready.

 

John Davis: It was not ready to do all the things we needed to do. That's a fact.

 

Zachary S.: What put it in the state that it was in?

 

John Davis: I think, one, we had some budget challenges inside the Department of Defense. The money is being pulled from our Department of Defense budgets at the same time we're four deployed and fighting, so a very challenging environment out there for sustainment.

 

Zachary S.: Some people say that the cost of new weapons are constantly taking away resources from programs like the 53. Do you agree with that assessment?

 

John Davis: I don't. I don't. I think that you've got to have a balance. You can't just say we're just going to take care of the old and not do the new, so you have to balance that.

 

Zachary S.: That is not the way Chuck Spinney sees it.

 

Chuck S.: You do have to modernize. You have to support the fleet in being, but you can't get there from here doing business as usual.

 

Zachary S.: To Spinney, business as usual means the almost constant ratcheting up of the Pentagon's budget full of promises about how the services will spend money on readiness, operations, and maintenance, but he says, "Those budget increases always seem to get spent in a way that benefits powerful people in the defense establishment."

 

Chuck S.: That's the kind of craziness we've gotten ourselves into.

 

Zachary S.: You're describing a very complex situation.

 

Chuck S.: Yeah, no shit. But, it's making a lot of people rich. That's the key point. A lot of people are benefiting from this lunacy. Everybody wins except of course the soldier at the pointy end of the spear and the taxpayer.

 

Zachary S.: When we meet back up with Chris Hummie he's at his house in Virginia Beach. There is a flag flying on his front porch.

 

Chris H.: I love the navy. I mean I come from a big navy family. There is chiefs in my family. There is master chiefs in my family. That's all I wanted to do was just make everybody proud.

 

Zachary S.: Chris is surrounded by bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. He's packing up his house prepping for a move back home to Tennessee.

 

Chris H.: I'm not a politician. I'm just a mechanic who saw a lot of things being done the wrong way. I tried to voice it. I think as a whole that has a lot to do with me getting pushed out.

 

Zachary S.: Chris wasn't at fault for the 2014 accident, but he struggled knowing that he was the one that told pilot Wes Van Dorn that the helicopter was safe to fly. In the aftermath of the crash, he grew sick of the status quo.

 

Chris H.: I wrote a letter to the commanding officer. Basically, I'm coming clean with we're doing illegal maintenance. I get a message, "Skipper wants to talk to you." I come in and sit down. I realize very quickly this is not a conversation of anyone wanting to talk about the letter I wrote other than how inappropriate the letter that I wrote was. I was just dumbfounded. I couldn't believe this. And then one that really shocked me it was with the command master chief recommended that I read a book called, How To Win Friends and Influence People. I did read it. It was a great sales book. I don't really know that it's going to ever save anyone's life when it comes to flying naval helicopters.

 

Zachary S.: The navy wouldn't talk to us about Chris, but we took a look at his personnel file. He got stellar evaluations. He was widely regarded as one of the top mechanics at the squadron. But the navy says he lied about a maintenance mistake he made shortly after the crash. He was disciplined for it. More than a year later, he skipped a lecture about weekend behavior and personal safety in order to take his daughter to school. That's when his commanding officer had grounds to dismiss him. Chris's career in the navy was over.

 

Chris H.: I just basically point blank asked him, "Sir, has this gotten anything to do with a lot of the concerns I've raised, some of the issues that I know you've talked to me about me with some of my ways of approaching things?" He pretty much looked me in the face and told me that I poked the bear. I poked the bear too many times and now I've got to deal with it.

 

Zachary S.: I asked analyst Chuck Spinney about Chris and why it's so hard for people in the military to speak up?

 

Chuck S.: Most people look at this thing and they just say it's too much of a risk. And remember also, they're conditioned culturally to put faith in the authority of the system, so even if they see something wrong they are biased to say maybe I just don't see the big picture. After all, he's a geneal and I'm just a lieutenant.

 

Chris H.: Anyone that says, "Oh, you should've spoken up more." I did speak up as loud as I could, and no one was listening across the board even all the way up to an admiral. No one was listening. Now, my fear is two years from now, right, I'm sitting there with my five year old daughter on the lake one day and I get an alert on Facebook that a 53 crashed somewhere and someone died. You look at that bird number, and everything you ever did on that bird is going to flood through your head. That's a hard toll to put on somebody. That's a sentence. I'm not out of the navy, or at least as long as this bird's flying. But, I can't wait until the day that I can go to an aviation museum and show my daughter the MH53 and tell her that it doesn't fly anymore.

 

Al Letson: But the bird is still flying.

 

Nicole: When is it going to be enough? How many people have to die?

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Speaker 16: Hi. I want to tell you about a new PRX podcast called, Things That Go Boom. It's all about foreign policy, but not in the way you might think. At Things That Go Boom, they tell stories about our lives and the world around us in an effort to better understand the ins, outs, and what have yous of what keeps us safe.

 

Speaker 16: On the new season they tell the story of the secret back channel meetings, political ploys, and even broken bones that led to the Iran nuclear deal. And since President Trump yanked us out of that deal they ask, are we headed for nuclear war? Things That Go Boom's second season called, Fallout is available now. Listen on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Dylan Boone was one of two sailors who survived the 2014 Sea Dragon crash. His recovery was difficult physically and emotionally. His injuries led him to leave the navy with an honorable discharge in 2015. One of the things that helped him process what he'd been through was developing a friendship with another person deeply affected by the tragedy, Nicole Van Dorn who lost her husband, Wes in the accident that Dylan survived.

 

Al Letson: Documentary filmmakers, Jason Paladino and Zachary Stauffer join Dylan on a week long visit to Nicole's house. Here's Zachary.

 

Zachary S.: The minute Dylan steps out of the car Nicole's two sons rush over one by one to hug him.

 

Nicole: Oh, you got one.

 

Dylan Boone: What's Up, [crosstalk 00:39:57]?

 

Nicole: You got one. Hey, honey. You got another one coming. Hey, babe.

 

Zachary S.: It's been nearly three years since the crash that killed Wes. Nicole is remarried now with a four month old baby. Her new husband, Josh gives Dylan a bear hug.

 

Josh: How have you been?

 

Dylan Boone: [inaudible 00:40:11].

 

Speaker 21: He's fine.

 

Zachary S.: Over the next few days, Dylan goes out to lunch with Nicole. They get pedicures together and he goofs off with the boys in the yard.

 

Dylan Boone: You ready?

 

Speaker 21: Yeah.

 

Dylan Boone: One, two, three.

 

Zachary S.: The boys, dressed in superhero costumes, playfully attack Dylan as he rakes leaves. At first glance, you'd never know about Dylan's injuries, that his shoulder was torn up and his head split open.

 

Dylan Boone: I'm Thor, son of Oden, keeper of [Asgarth 00:40:44].

 

Speaker 21: No, you're not.

 

Dylan Boone: I am.

 

Zachary S.: When he's having this much fun it's even harder to see the psychological trauma. Dylan has moved eight times since the accident. Clearly, it's been tough to find his footing. Nicole's place feels as much like home as anywhere, probably more. The next afternoon as Nicole is packing the boy's school lunches she reflects on the difference between Dylan's struggles and her own.

 

Nicole: Wes is gone. People understand that. People can digest that. They look at their husband and they think, what if that were my husband? But then they look at Dylan and they just don't understand the things... That yeah, I think his struggle is unseen by a lot of people.

 

Dylan Boone: I didn't lose a loved one, but I know that I lost the old me. I'm not going to pretend that I haven't had those dark nights and thoughts of suicides, and struggles with PTSD, or adjustment disorder, or whatever you want to label it as. But for me, it became a much different battle because I didn't feel justified in my feelings because I didn't go to war. I wasn't blown up in a IED, or I wasn't taking bullets.

 

Zachary S.: Dylan enlisted at 17, and always figured the navy would be his career. Out of the service, he's finished up training, so he can work for a utility company. He says he's moving forward, not moving on, but moving forward and some days are tougher than others.

 

Dylan Boone: I mean I'll honestly, I'll never know if I'm going to be on the other side of this storm. Sometimes it's really hard to find the reason for why things happen. Sometimes it feels like you're damn near close to breaking.

 

Nicole: Do you want to come see, yes or no?

 

Dylan Boone: Yeah, I haven't seen this before.

 

Zachary S.: At one point, Dylan and Nicole sit down at the kitchen table to leaf through a scrapbook.

 

Nicole: This is my grief process in a binder.

 

Dylan Boone: No, I respect that.

 

Nicole: Yeah, I've never shown it to anyone. If I remember, it goes in a chronological order, so [crosstalk 00:42:49].

 

Zachary S.: The thick binder covers Nicole and Wes's journey starting at his time at the naval academy. Early photos are all smiles, like the whole family at his winging ceremony after finishing flight school.

 

Nicole: He's kissing my mom underneath the American flag. She has his hat on, kissing her.

 

Zachary S.: She turns the page.

 

Nicole: Yeah, and then we get to all this stuff, right.

 

Zachary S.: Nicole saved everything related to the crash, articles, letters, photos. There are even pictures her older son, then only four, drew at the time. They show a family of stick figures. One of them is in a box and crossed out.

 

Dylan Boone: I didn't know you had this.

 

Nicole: Man, [inaudible] rip your heart out and put it in a blender and then some.

 

Dylan Boone: Stomp on it and [inaudible 00:43:32].

 

Nicole: Yeah, and then some.

 

Zachary S.: Somehow they make it through the book.

 

Dylan Boone: Thanks for sharing that.

 

Nicole: Love you.

 

Dylan Boone: I love you too.

 

Nicole: Give me a hug. You okay?

 

Dylan Boone: Yeah.

 

Nicole: Yeah, I think you'll be okay. We love you. You're part of our family, yeah, you too. I got you.

 

Zachary S.: While it's healing for Dylan and Nicole to process their grief together, there is another step that's much harder to achieve, getting justice for what went wrong. Survivors and families can't sue the military for things that happen in training, or in combat. Since a 1988 Supreme Court decision, the odds of winning a lawsuit against defense contractors are slim. Still, Dylan, Nicole, and the two other widows from the crash sued the helicopter's manufacturer, Sikorsky. Without admitting wrongdoing, Sikorksy agreed to a confidential settlement. Parent company Lockheed Martin declined to be interviewed for this story.

 

Zachary S.: We completed the film in the fall of 2018. We decided to call it, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn after Wes. We knew that one place that we had to show it was in Norfolk where his squadron is based, so we arranged a screening at a local theater. I call Nicole before we head to Virginia.

 

Nicole: Hello.

 

Zachary S.: Hey, how are you?

 

Nicole: Good, and how you doing?

 

Zachary S.: I'm basically calling to just check in with you and see how you're doing? We're screening this film in your hometown in just a couple of days.

 

Nicole: I'm nervous. I'm anxious, but I'm also a little bit relieved, I guess.

 

Zachary S.: Nicole says she's been seeing nasty comments about the film online from sailors at Wes's old squadron.

 

Nicole: A lot of the people who are talking weren't even at the squadron at the time and have been fed a whole bunch of propaganda about how I'm an angry widow with an ax to grind and you guys are unethical journalist who are just out for your own ends.

 

Zachary S.: I tell her that even though the navy declined to participate in the documentary, we've invited squadron commanders and staff to the screening.

 

Nicole: I don't feel like the navy, or the squadron wants to hear us. I've resolved that, that doesn't matter, right, if the public is going to listen there is someone will listen.

 

Zachary S.: Three days later we're driving into Norfolk.

 

Jason P.: Did I get on the right road?

 

Zachary S.: I'm not sure.

 

Jason P.: We're coming up on the USS Wisconsin. Take this exit?

 

Zachary S.: [crosstalk 00:46:46]. About 250 people show up at the theater, many greet each other. It's clear that this is a tight knit community. Our film covers Wes's life, the crash, and how the navy ignored problems with the fleet for decades. Nicole is in it, Dylan is too, along with mechanic, Chris Hummie, and Wes's mom, Susan.

 

Susan: I said to Wes, "Do they ever have a day when you can fly your family and take us for a ride in the helicopter?" I'll never forget that because Wes turned to me, and he had looked me in the eye and he said, "Momma, I would never take you up in this piece of crap."

 

Zachary S.: You can hear Nicole crying as she watches. The film ends on another tragic note. Two years after Wes died, another 53 crash off the coast of Hawaii. Among the dead, one of Wes's best friends.

 

Nicole: When is it going to be enough? How many people have to die?

 

Zachary S.: The lights go up. Afterwards, people crowd around Nicole. We don't see anyone from the squadron command here, but some sailors have shown up.

 

Speaker 23: I appreciate you telling this story.

 

Zachary S.: No, but you coming and this support, I can't tell the story if people aren't willing to listen, right?

 

Speaker 23: Yeah. Wes was just a great guy. He did have that awesome personality. Everyone was just attracted to him.

 

Speaker 24: As a military wife, I want this expose because civilians just don't understand what we go through.

 

Zachary S.: One sailor who is from Wes's squadron doesn't want to be recorded, but tells Nicole the same culture problems Wes was concerned about they're still going on.

 

Nicole: The point is for something to change, right. The point is for the right person who is in a position to change something to actually do that, so it remains to be seen. But nothing bad happened and I feel it was cathartic. I feel supported by a community. [crosstalk 00:49:13].

 

Zachary S.: Who does Nicole think was responsible for the death of her husband? She says, "The answer isn't so simple."

 

Nicole: I mean, I can't point the finger at one person, but I would say that anyone that knowingly looked the other way and chose to not speak up. All of those individuals, whether intentional or not, they are who killed Wes.

 

Zachary S.: What's the end game for Nicole? That's an easier answer.

 

Nicole: The end game for me is that people are safe. People are always in the armed forces are always going to die. They're all dangerous jobs, and that's something that men and women that decided to do that, that's the cross they bear and they do it knowingly. That's not what I take issue with. It's the unknown, the risk that he didn't knowingly accept that is what I can't stomach. There is a difference between unsafe and dangerous. He had a dangerous job. He accepted that it was dangerous and he chose to do a dangerous job, but he didn't choose to do it unsafely.

 

Al Letson: What's the future of the 53 helicopter? Well, the marines are overhauling the existing fleet, but they're years behind schedule. They're also building a new model the 53K at over $150 million dollars a piece. It's also behind schedule and over budget. As for the navy, they say they're going to stop flying the Sea Dragons by 2025, but there are few signs of progress on meeting that target, so even today the military's deadliest aircraft is still flying.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Zachary Stauffer and Jason Paladino for bringing us this story. We got a lot more about their award-winning documentary, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn, so visit our website, revealnew.org.

 

Al Letson: Special thanks to our partner the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and executive producers John Temple and [Lowell Bergman 00:51:55]. We also got help from Amy Walters, [Loy Amira Almarone 00:51:57] and Mike Hixenbaugh. He's now with the Houston Chronicle.

 

Al Letson: Michael Montgomery produced this week's show. Jen Chien was the editor. Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help from [Katherine Ray Mondo 00:52:14] and [Caitlyn Benz 00:52:16].

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 25: From PRX.