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The Navy and Marines have ordered new safety measures for a class of heavy-duty helicopters after an NBC News investigation highlighted potential dangers in the wake of a deadly crash. The Navy has ordered a more rigorous inspection process for fuel and hydraulic hoses and electrical wiring that were implicated in accidents involving their MH-53E aircraft, known as Sea Dragons. The Marines have suspended in-flight refueling for their CH-53Es, which are called Super Stallions.
The move comes a week after NBC News, along with partners The Virginian-Pilot and UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, reported on problems with the Navy's oldest and most unreliable helicopter, which has a crash rate three times that of any other chopper in the fleet.
While Navy officials have said in interviews they are confident the Sea Dragons are safe, others have voiced serious concerns — including Wes Van Dorn, the Navy pilot killed with two others when his MH-53 went down off Virginia on Jan. 8, 2014, because chafing on fuel lines ignited an explosive fire.
There are no plans to take the MH-53Es out of service until at least 2025, even though confidential documents obtained by The Virginian-Pilot and NBC News revealed that a year after Van Dorn died, military brass were still worried not enough had been done to prevent a similar tragedy.
Inspections ordered after the crash appear to have been conducted haphazardly, if at all, according to a chain of emails that circulated late last month.
A spot check of Marine Super Stallions conducted two weeks ago found that of 28 examined, all but eight had bad fuel lines or wiring, including at least one with the same defect that led to the 2014 fatal crash. A Navy review concluded that the initial training on how to conduct the wiring and fuel-line inspections was inadequate.
Van Dorn's widow, Nicole, said then it was "inexcusable" that many helicopters were not properly inspected, especially in light of warnings her husband gave before his death.
"This points to exactly what Wes observed," Nicole Van Dorn said. "That is, an organizational culture that is built on the acceptance of risk because it's easier. I'm so glad someone is speaking up, because Wes can't."
Col. Hank Vanderborght, manager of the Heavy Lift Helicopter Program for the Marines, said in a statement he believes the new action plan should "alleviate any concerns."
"The safety of our crewmembers is forefront in my mind at all times," Vanderborght said. "Having steps explicitly spelled out, supplemented with photos and soon, a video, will address any chafing issues during inspections."