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By Mark Schone

The Society of Professional Journalists has recognized the NBC News Investigative Unit, The Virginian-Pilot, and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley for their combined reporting on a troubled Navy helicopter program.

The judges of SPJ's prestigious Sigma Delta Chi awards singled out the collaborative report, "Sea Dragon Down," which was broadcast in February 2015 on “Nightly News,” as the best investigative TV news report in the country last year.

“Sea Dragon Down epitomized the basic strengths of investigative reporting," the contest judges wrote. "It exposed a systemic problem and prompted powerful results -- saving lives."

The Nightly News report, broadcast in conjunction with a series of written reports that ran on and in The Virginian-Pilot , examined the decisions that led the Navy to keep its MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters in service years longer than planned -- and the human cost when one of the aging choppers caught fire and crashed off the coast of Virginia in January 2014, killing three sailors.

Watch the Nightly News report "Sea Dragon Down"

The unusual collaboration of network television, a mid-sized metro newspaper and a journalism graduate student "was inspiring," the contest judges wrote. The reporting team consisted of correspondent Cynthia McFadden and producer Anna Schecter of the NBC News Investigative Unit, Pilot investigative reporter Mike Hixenbaugh, and Jason Paladino, at the time a graduate student at IRP.

Read the original report

Days after the NBC broadcast, the news organizations collaborated again, this time on a written story based on internal military emails, revealing that the Marine Corps and Navy had failed to adequately address the safety hazard that caused the 2014 crash in the remaining Sea Dragons and CH-53E Super Stallions, a nearly identical version flown by the Marines.

Cynthia McFadden of NBC News with Capt. Todd FlanneryNBC News

The top general in charge of Marine Corps aviation later said he learned of the lingering safety hazard from reading the story online, soon after it was published. Afterward, he “had a small meltdown,” he said. Then he temporarily grounded his fleet of more than 150 Super Stallions and called for the most comprehensive one-time inspection and repair process in the helicopter program’s history.

Navy and Marine Corps crews spent months after that inspecting the helicopters for unsafe wiring and fuel lines and making thousands of repairs.

According to the contest judges, the NBC/Pilot/IRP team “told a compelling story in a traditional way: it has a moving beginning, an illuminating middle and a sense of completion at the end, with the interview saying, we can't lose another life in one of these helicopters.”

The collaboration between NBC News and its partners is ongoing.

An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce in 2012.Blake Midnight / U.S. Navy via AP file