Sailors Secretly Cannibalized Parts To Keep Sea Dragons Flying

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published by The Virginian-Pilot.

The Navy is retraining sailors who work on its Sea Dragon helicopters after a Virginian-Pilot investigation revealed workers had improperly filled out maintenance records, an apparent violation of naval aviation policy.

At least 15 times over the past year, according to records obtained by The Pilot, sailors at Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14 failed to properly document their work after taking a part off one helicopter to install on another - a practice known as cannibalization, which the Navy tracks closely and tries to limit.

A few sailors at the squadron told The Pilot they had been outspoken at the command about inaccurate record keeping, which they say is more common than what's shown in the documents. They said their concerns were dismissed by maintenance chiefs and quality assurance personnel.

Click Here to Read the Virginian-Pilot's Coverage of Sea Dragons

"We are hiding problems with our parts supply system to keep aircraft flying, instead of exposing our problems to get the help we need," said one HM-14 maintainer, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "This is not a training issue; our maintenance controllers know the right way of doing business, they are simply choosing not to."

The newspaper presented its findings to the Navy early last week, allowing the service time to look into the matter. After a preliminary review, the Navy confirmed Thursday that the documents had been filled out incorrectly. Some appeared to be clerical errors, while others appeared to be more serious, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Brown, maintenance officer for Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, which oversees the Navy's Norfolk-based helicopter squadrons.

Read the Original Report from NBC News, The Virginian-Pilot and the Investigative Reporting Program.

"We're looking through all their outstanding (maintenance action forms), and we're going to provide clear direction on how these records should be done," Brown said. He emphasized that his team likely would have discovered the problems later this year, during a biennial audit of the squadron's books.

The Navy's MH-53E Sea Dragon program has been under scrutiny in recent years, first after a string of mishaps in 2012, and then again last year after a crash off the coast of Virginia Beach killed three crew members. That crash was caused by a fuel line that chafed against an electrical wire, igniting an explosive fire.

The Navy ordered fleet-wide inspections after the crash to repair chafing wires and fuel lines in the Sea Dragons and a similar helicopter flown by the Marine Corps, the CH-53E Super Stallion. Last month, though, engineers found evidence that those repairs were inadequate, and the risk of fire was not eliminated. The Navy called for a new, more thorough round of inspections, which are now underway.

Navy officials acknowledge that maintaining the 28 remaining Sea Dragons is a difficult task. The service had initially planned to retire the 1980s-era mine-clearing helicopters a decade ago but decided to keep them in service after a replacement plan fell through. For that reason, parts are not always readily available and sometimes must be custom-made.

Navy policy allows sailors to take a part from another aircraft if a critical component is unavailable and the mission is essential. The service requires sailors to closely document those cannibalizations and to do everything possible to limit the practice, which requires twice as many man hours because they must first remove the good part, then re-install it.

If sailors don't document that work correctly, quarterly cannibalization rates provided to top brass and to Congress won't accurately reflect what's happening and could mask gaps in the parts supply system, said Rear Adm. J.R. Haley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic.

"We're not having a safety problem by taking a part out of one airplane and putting it in another," Haley said in an interview with The Pilot. "What we have is a systemic issue long-term."

Haley reviewed the maintenance records obtained by The Pilot and said he's confident his officers will take appropriate action - just as they do after internal audits turn up discrepancies, which he said is not uncommon.

Nicole Van Dorn's husband, Lt. J Wesley Van Dorn, was killed in a MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter crash in January of 2014. Photo taken inside her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Nov. 2014.
Nicole Van Dorn's husband, Lt. J Wesley Van Dorn, was killed in a MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter crash in January of 2014. Photo taken inside her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Nov. 2014.L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot

"I want to build a system that catches mistakes, fixes those mistakes, and then allows us to learn as we go, while having very minimal risk," Haley said. "And we do pretty good at that."

More than a dozen naval aviators and aircraft maintainers, including a former commanding officer of HM-14, reviewed the records on behalf of The Pilot. Most said the problems with the recordkeeping should have been caught by the squadron's quality assurance personnel.

They also noted the experience level of the sailors: Nearly all of the reports were filled out by chief petty officers or senior chief petty officers, sailors who typically have spent more than a decade in aviation maintenance.

In addition to creating more work for maintainers, there are other downsides to relying too heavily on cannibalization, especially if the same few helicopters are harvested for parts. According to experts on the matter, you run the risk of stripping an aircraft of so many components, a team of experts must be brought in to rebuild it.

IN-DEPTH

All of the cannibalized parts cited in the records were taken from the same two helicopters, both of which have been grounded for about a year. Any work performed on those aircraft - known in aviation parlance as "hangar queens" - requires approval from the air wing, according to the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program manual.

But because sailors failed to record the work as cannibalizations - and because many of the work orders were left open in the computer system - the air wing was not alerted and was never asked to authorize the work.

Capt. Pat Everly, the air wing commander, said the Sea Dragon squadrons aren't under pressure to reduce cannibalization rates, so there shouldn't be incentive to take short cuts on documentation.

"That is essentially not the right way to do business," Everly said, adding that he is confident the recordkeeping has not had an impact on safety: "I am not concerned that they are doing unsafe maintenance or that they are willfully disregarding maintenance procedures."

Image: Cynthia McFadden of NBC News with Capt. Todd Flannery
Cynthia McFadden of NBC News inside a Sea Dragon with Capt. Todd Flannery, who was formerly in charge of Norfolk's Sea Dragon squadron.NBC News

Friday, the day after The Pilot met with Everly, sailors were poring through squadron maintenance records and correcting discrepancies. Moving forward, he said, the squadron will not be allowed to pull parts from the two grounded aircraft for troubleshooting purposes, and any cannibalizations from those aircraft will need to be approved by the air wing.

Meanwhile, personnel continue to perform a second round of fuel line and wiring inspections mandated last month by Naval Air Systems Command. So far, eight of the 28 Sea Dragons have been re-inspected.

On some of the aircraft, sailors and engineers have found several hundred instances of fuel lines or wiring bundles that must be repaired, replaced or repositioned to prevent chafing.

Until repairs are made, those helicopters can't be flown.

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