The U.S. Military’s Most Powerful Helicopters Keep Killing Troops in Fiery Crashes

An investigation into a tragic consequence of the U.S. government budget sequester.
Marines use a CH-53E Super Stallion to lift a Humvee during an exercise at California’s Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range in 2015.
Source: Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps

On the frigid morning of Jan. 8, 2014, an MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, call sign Vulcan 543, rose from the tarmac at Naval Station Norfolk, its two massive rotors biting the cold air as it left on a training mission over the slate-gray Atlantic. The largest, most powerful chopper in the Pentagon’s fleet, the Sea Dragon transports personnel and supplies and performs minesweeping operations. Its three turbo-shaft engines allow it to drag mine-detection gear the size of a Humvee through ocean waves.

Lieutenant J Wesley Van Dorn piloted Vulcan 543. He and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Sean Snyder, were joined in Virginia that morning by a crew of three, including Petty Officer Second Class Dylan Boone. A day earlier, the aircraft hadn’t been cleared to fly, because its instruments had frozen solid after it was left outdoors. Vulcan 543 had spent the night defrosting in a hangar. The air was still frigid when the men climbed aboard, with wind chill pushing temperatures down into the single digits, and their breath steaming inside the cockpit. When the crew turned on the cabin heater, Boone recalls, it began “spitting out small fireballs.” Unfazed, they fiddled with the device and got it cranking. Crew members tended to have a fatalistic view of the 53E. “Eventually the horse will have to be taken out and shot,” Boone says. Meanwhile, he adds, “you are constantly making things work for you because you [have] to get those flight hours in.”

About an hour into the training flight, a much larger fireball erupted behind the co-pilot’s seat. “There were flames everywhere,” Boone says. “The smoke was debilitating. In 8 to 10 seconds, we were in the water.” The pilots didn’t even have time to radio for help.

Boone was knocked unconscious by the impact, and came to underwater. Much of his scalp had been sheared off, and he was suffering from other injuries as well, but he managed to swim to the surface, where he clung to some wreckage until he was plucked from the sea about 30 minutes later and taken to a hospital by another helicopter, along with Van Dorn and a third airman. Snyder and another crew member had died in the crash. Later that day, Van Dorn, who had suffered multiple severe injuries, passed away, too.

“We’re Marines. We know we put our lives at risk. That’s the job. But you don’t want to do it unnecessarily”

Navy investigators later attributed the fire to a bundle of old electrical wires that had rubbed against a fuel line, causing it to spring a leak. According to Navy statistics, it was the 18th noncombat disaster involving loss of life or at least $2 million in damage that the Sea Dragon had been involved in since it was introduced in the mid-1980s. The helicopter’s rate of 6.35 major failures per 100,000 flight hours is about three times the overall naval aviation average. “The aircraft has a poor safety record for crashes and other mishaps,” concedes Captain Pat Everly, the immediate past commander of the three 53E squadrons based at Naval Station Norfolk. Recent mechanical upgrades and additional support personnel have remedied the shortcomings, he says, adding, “It’s a challenge” to keep 53Es in shape to fly, “but once they’re in the air, they’re safe.”

Van Dorn
Source: Courtesy U.S. Navy

There are reasons to be skeptical of such claims, not least that a nearly identical helicopter flown by the Marine Corps, the CH-53E Super Stallion, has suffered setbacks as well. In June 2015 an internal review found that the inventory of Super Stallions was “astonishingly depleted” in numerical terms and in an “appalling state of readiness.” On Jan. 11 the officer in charge of a 53E squadron based in Hawaii was relieved of his command, in part because mechanical problems were limiting flight hours. Three days later, two Super Stallions collided off the Hawaii coast during a nighttime training mission, killing all 12 Marines aboard. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

No longer in production, the 53E heavy-lift helicopters are a case study of the broader fatigue affecting the U.S. military’s air fleet. After two post-Sept. 11 wars and recent Pentagon belt-tightening, the Sea Dragon and Super Stallion are “worn out and in need of replacement,” says Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. But Sea Dragons are scheduled to continue to fly until at least 2025, and Super Stallions until at least 2029. The obvious question is why.

At 100 feet long and 30 feet tall, the 53E’s bulk is immediately impressive. The aircraft are the only helicopters in the Pentagon’s fleet with enough muscle to hoist a 26,000-pound armored vehicle or pick up and carry nearly every aircraft in the Marine Corps’ inventory. On the ground, as the 53E’s rotors speed up, it’s hard to doubt this. The vibrations are gut-rattling. Once aloft on a calm morning, however, the beast moves with surprising smoothness. During my command-approved fly-along, the two pilots and two aircrew are the picture of brisk competence. The cabin’s innards—its tangles of wires and fuel lines—are fully exposed, rather than hidden behind panels as they would be in a commercial aircraft. Every metal surface is slick and grimy. Small drops of hydraulic fluid leak from a spot on the ceiling. Asked about this, an aircrew member just shrugs.

The 53E has a 620-mile range, a top speed of 200 miles an hour, and can be refueled in flight. Its manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft, has made helicopters since the 1940s, including the SH-60 Seahawk, the UH-60 Black Hawk, and the green-painted presidential helicopters designated Marine One. (The company was acquired by Lockheed Martin last year for $9 billion.) The Marine Corps began acquiring Super Stallions in 1981 to move equipment and troops—up to 55 soldiers at a time. The Navy followed suit five years later. During the first Gulf War, in 1991, Navy 53Es found and destroyed undersea mines; more recently, they’ve been deployed to deter Iran from mining the Strait of Hormuz, a vital Middle Eastern oil-shipping channel. The Marine variant helped establish the first U.S. land base, Camp Rhino, during the post-Sept. 11 invasion of Afghanistan and served long, rugged duty in that country and in Iraq.

Chart entitled The US Air Force Is Also Going Gray

The Navy has 28 Sea Dragons; the Marines, 147 Super Stallions. “It’s a really good design,” says Lieutenant General Jon Davis, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation.

That design, however, is dated. Pilots describe the 53E cockpit as “steam gauge” because many of its instruments are vintage analog, as opposed to digital. And over the years, a variety of mechanical flaws have surfaced. Faulty bearings at the base of the main rotor were linked to crashes that killed four Sikorsky test crew members in 1996 and four sailors in 2000. The Pentagon replaced the problematic bearings in all 53E aircraft and installed temperature- and vibration-monitoring equipment to warn pilots if friction was building dangerously. In 2001, Kaydon, the Michigan-based company that had supplied the original bearings, admitted in a federal court settlement with the Department of Justice that its employees had falsified inspection records, although it denied liability for the crashes.

Davis acknowledges that with complicated weapon systems, “you episodically see something [like the bearings flaw] that pops up. They shouldn’t happen, but they do occasionally. And we fix it.”

But other alleged problems cropped up. Four sailors died in a separate fire and crash in 2003 in Southern Italy. Relatives of the dead sued Sikorsky two years later, alleging a recurring problem of hazardous exhaust backflow in the 53E No. 2 engine. Sikorsky denied liability but settled confidentially out of court. As a remedy, the Pentagon improved overheating-alert systems and fire-resistant fuel lines. Caroline Dennis, a Sikorsky spokeswoman, says via e-mail that the company doesn’t comment on past or pending litigation, but adds, “We stand behind the products and will continue to work with our customers to provide safe, reliable helicopters to the U.S. military.”

The Pentagon brass has been planning for the Sea Dragon’s retirement since at least the late 1990s, but a proposed “sunset date” of 2005 kept getting pushed back. Smaller helicopters can’t safely tow bulky antimine gear, and mine-tracking robots designed to be launched from new Navy vessels have so far proved ineffective. “The Navy decided to keep the 53Es but didn’t reinvest in the community” that flies and supports them, says Commander Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman. “The community, it’s fair to say, suffered some degradation.”

Van Dorn, the pilot who died in the 2014 training mission out of Naval Station Norfolk, grew up in Greensboro, N.C. He’d hoped to become a Navy SEAL after graduating in 2007 from the U.S. Naval Academy, but he didn’t complete the special-operation force’s notoriously demanding training program. Reevaluating his priorities, he chose to fly 53Es because he saw the job as “family-friendly,” says his widow, Nicole. Sea Dragon pilots deploy relatively infrequently to Asia and the Middle East, and the work hours at the 53E squadrons based in Norfolk are considered civilized.

When he arrived at Norfolk in 2010, Van Dorn discovered that part of the reason for the low-key environment was that a lot of crucial work wasn’t getting done. “Our maintenance departments do not have the bodies or knowledge required to keep our aircraft and [antimine] gear operating properly,” he observed in a handwritten note from 2012 that Nicole had typed up and stored on the family laptop. “Instead of admitting there is a problem,” he added, “skipper after skipper has continued to fudge numbers because they didn’t want to be the whistleblower.” Laxity characterized his squadron. He felt that training missions weren’t adequately preparing crew for the battlefield: “Guns in the windows? Body armor for the pilots and air crewmen? I’ve never even seen this equipment, let alone used it when flying.”

Events that summer confirmed Van Dorn’s prescience. There were three Sea Dragon crashes, one of which, in Oman, led to two deaths. In response, Navy brass removed a Norfolk squadron commander for failure “to strictly enforce appropriate operational, maintenance, and safety standards.” Speaking to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Todd Flannery, the captain who took over supervision of the Norfolk 53E units, attributed the crashes to “an atrophy over a long period of time,” adding: “It was a failure of leadership. It was a failure of maintenance. It was a failure of operations.”

Around the time of the crashes, Van Dorn was flying 53E training missions in South Korea, and things weren’t running right. Mechanical breakdowns limited flight time. Continually short of spare parts, ground crews had to cannibalize from nonoperational aircraft called hangar queens. “I want to get flying,” Van Dorn texted to his wife, “but I also need to fix maintenance so I don’t die while flying.”

“Let’s focus on the not dying,” Nicole typed back. She was at home in Virginia Beach, looking after their infant son and expecting a second child. “You’re the best diaper changer I know,” she told him.

Van Dorn and his wife, Nicole, pictured on their wedding day.
Source: Provided by Nicole Van Dorn

Eighteen months later, Van Dorn was dead. He was 29 years old. “What’s so hard to deal with, still,” says Nicole, “is that Wes saw the maintenance and morale issues, but they ended up leading to his death anyway.”

The Navy investigators who found that wiring near the front of the cabin chafed against an internal fuel line went on to conclude that the friction caused an electrical charge to ignite pressurized fuel mist escaping from the damaged line. The Navy conceded that none of its routine inspection protocols specifically obliged maintenance crews to scrutinize electrical wiring for dangerous proximity to fuel lines. “We never imagined this issue,” Petty Officer Boone says. “We never looked for it.”

This kind of chafing posed a potential danger in all Sea Dragons, the investigators found. Worse, they concluded, “the discovery of this defect is a leading indicator that other age-related discrepancies that could lead to loss of aircraft and crew in the future may be present.”

Suing the government over military accidents is generally difficult. In December 2015, Boone, Nicole Van Dorn, and the wives of the two other men killed in the crash sued Sikorsky for installing defective electrical wiring. However, the Navy’s inattention to the gear and description of the chafing problem as “age related” appear to make the lawsuit a long shot. (Sikorsky’s Dennis declines to comment on the suit.)

In the wake of its findings in the 2014 crash, the Navy vowed, again, to make its heavy-lift helicopters safe to fly. Almost exactly a year later, however, a Sea Dragon suffered an ominously similar incident over the Arabian Sea. Two sets of wiring that were rubbing against each other had worn down their protective coatings, causing an onboard generator to short out. The aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in Kuwait; there were no injuries.

Chart entitled The US Air Force Is Also Going Gray
Marines board a CH-53E Super Stallion on the USS Essex at sea in 2015.
Source: Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps

Despite the supposed high-priority initiative to repair wiring in all 53Es, the job didn’t get done correctly. Spot checks of Marine helicopters revealed that maintenance crews hadn’t spent nearly enough time to remedy fire dangers. A Jan. 28, 2015, internal Marine Corps PowerPoint presentation—first reported by the Virginian-Pilot—said that 70 percent of Super Stallions that had been checked still presented the kinds of perils that killed Van Dorn and his colleagues. “The risk of cabin fire was not mitigated, and the hazard of chafing on fluid-carrying lines and wires was not eliminated,” the presentation concluded.

The Navy and Marine Corps say that these failures have now been addressed. “Not all of the maintainers had acted with the necessary urgency, so a new bulletin was issued making clear what had to happen,” says Kafka, the Navy spokesman.

“What’s so hard to deal with, still, is that Wes saw the maintenance and morale issues, but they ended up leading to his death anyway”

James Skelton, a Marine 53E pilot who retired in 2014, places responsibility higher up the chain of command than mechanics and other maintainers. “Among the commanding officers, there’s a visceral reaction to this kind of warning: deny it, avoid it,” he says. “We’re Marines. We know we put our lives at risk. That’s the job. But you don’t want to do it unnecessarily.”

In July 2014, not long before he retired, Skelton circulated a letter to senior aviation officers at his base in New River, N.C. “The legitimate concerns of key leaders within the maintenance department are being disregarded,” he wrote. “It is imperative that we not only address the material condition of multiple aircraft on the flight line, but that we also address the maintenance culture of the squadron.”

The reaction? “It was rejected summarily,” Skelton says. “The COs don’t want to hear that kind of thing.”

Asked for comment, Captain Sarah Burns, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, says: “Our objective is not to discredit James Skelton or the motivation behind the letter. The issues and discussion took place in regards to deployment issues, and they were resolved amicably and professionally then.”

Davis says that as a general matter, such concerns did reach his ears, prompting him to commission a self-assessment called the Super Stallion Independent Readiness Review. Carried out with the assistance of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and released in June 2015, the review reinforced Skelton’s scathing critique. It was this report that found the fleet to be in “an appalling state of readiness.”

In support of this conclusion, the report’s authors observed that only 27 percent of Super Stallions were “mission capable,” compared with 71 percent of the Army’s comparable Boeing Chinook heavy-lift transport helicopters. They also noted that, as Super Stallions were “reset” upon return from the Middle East, the Marine Corps allotted only 935 man-hours of maintenance and $100,000 to each aircraft. The Army, by contrast, invested 6,000 man-hours and $1.2 million in each of its helicopters.

With so many 53Es grounded for repairs, pilots lose valuable experience. “Poor CH-53E availability is costing the Marine Corps an entire generation of aircrew and contributing to the destruction of community morale,” the review found. “Verified anecdotes are rampant of pilots returning from six-month deployments with 30 total flight hours”—a small fraction of what they should be logging.

“If pilots aren’t getting their hours because older aircraft are stuck in maintenance, that’s going to lead directly to mishaps,” says Christopher Harmer, a former Navy pilot who flew the SH-60 Seahawk search-and-rescue helicopter and now is an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “Is that going on with the 53E? I think that’s very likely.”

“I don’t think our young Marines [flying the 53E] were set up for success,” says Lieutenant General Davis. During an hourlong interview in a Pentagon office decorated with model planes and photos of Davis with comrades from a 36-year career in military aviation, the Marine deputy commandant for aviation speaks in a blunt, almost confessional manner. “This is not a good-news story,” he says. “I am being straight up with you.”

On the day we speak, a cover story in Stars & Stripes questioning Marine readiness across the board is being displayed on news racks in the Pentagon food court. The article includes a quote from testimony given by another top Marine general before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We are concerned about an increasing number of aircraft mishaps and accidents.”

Davis doesn’t dispute any of it. He recounts a humanitarian mission in April 2015 to help earthquake victims in Nepal. “We didn’t take the 53Es,” he says, “because the 53Es were broken.” Helicopters with smaller payloads went instead, including a UH-1Y Huey that crashed into a Himalayan mountainside, killing six Marines and five local residents who were aboard.

He declines to speculate on what caused the crash off Hawaii in January 2016, citing the ongoing investigation. But, he acknowledges, “that squadron was not flying the hours it should have been leading up to that mishap. They had challenges in the maintenance department.” Pressed on the matter, he adds, “That squadron was underperforming compared to other squadrons that were all underperforming.”

One reason the 53Es are in such bad shape, Davis says, is that the Marines tried to repair their largest helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than bringing them home for more thorough attention. Another reason is that the Corps responded to the 2013 “sequester,” which entailed $1 trillion in governmentwide spending cuts, by almost halving its budget for aviation maintenance and spare parts. “That was a Marine Corps decision as to how to respond to the sequester,” he says, “and we’re paying the price now.” To keep its aircraft operating, the Pentagon has gone to lengths that include buying decommissioned Japanese 53Es for their engines and parts and reviving two airframes that had been retired to an Arizona aviation “boneyard.”

The 53E helicopters aren’t unique. “Airplanes are falling apart,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh III said in a speech in September 2014. “I don’t care if it’s B-1 oil flanges that are breaking and starting fires or F-16 canopies cracking. There are just too many things happening because our fleets are too old.” The average age of B-1 bombers and F-15 fighters is 27 years; B-52 bombers, on average, are more than 52 years old. Newer planes, including the F-35 stealth fighter, are coming online, “but not quickly enough to replace aging 20th century aircraft, some of which are older than their pilots,” says Mackenzie Eaglen, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter during an official rollout at Sikorsky Aircraft in Jupiter, Fla., in 2015.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

Overall, the Marine Corps has been hardest hit by the problem of aging aircraft. Since January 2015 there have been 24 deaths in six noncombat Marine mishaps—a five-year high for such fatalities.

Davis insists the Marines are addressing the problem. This year the service began a three-year, $650 million “reset” program for their entire aviation fleet, and about a third of that money was budgeted for 53Es. The repair work has begun, at a cost of $1.5 million per helicopter. These tired heavy-lift aircraft will be relied upon to take Marines and their gear ashore for many years to come.

Showing its faith in Sikorsky, the Marine Corps plans eventually to replace the 53E with the same manufacturer’s 53K, now in development, which will be able to transport three times as much weight as its predecessor, according to Davis. The Pentagon is expected to pay $26 billion for 200 53Ks. The start of the replacement process has been pushed back from 2015 to 2019, though, and the changeover won’t be completed until 2029 at the earliest. For at least the next 13 years, patched-up 53Es will remain on the job. “This airplane has plenty of life left in it,” Davis says.

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