13News Now Investigation: MH-35E safety record

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by Nick Ochsner, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on January 9, 2014 at 7:41 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 9 at 8:01 PM

VIRGINIA BEACH -- The MH-35E that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach Wednesday has checkered safety record, Navy records and past press reports show.

Also known as the Sea Dragon, the MH-35E is the largest helicopter in the Navy's fleet and is used to detect mines at sea and also to lift and move heavy cargo loads.

The workhorse helicopter has crashed at least eight times since going into service in 1984, including Wednesday's crash.

Not all of those crashes were fatal, but a total of 31 crew members have died -- including the two that died in Wednesday's crash.

That figure does not include the crew member that is still missing off the coast of Virginia Beach.

Frank Fleming Jr. is a New York attorney who led a lawsuit against Sirkosky, the company that manufactures the MH-53E after a fatal crash near a Navy base in Italy.

The case filed by Fleming alleged the company installed a faulty cooling system in one of the helicopter's engines that caused the aircraft to catch fire.

Fleming, who was also a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam and flew MH-53A/D helicopters, said a third engine added to the MH-53E makes a big difference between that model helicopter and its predecessors.

"To increase the power they put a third engine on and where they located it and how they incorporated it into the transmission was certainly not perfect, and left a little to be desired," Fleming said.

In addition to a third engine, designers also added a seventh rotor blade to the MH-53E. Fleming, who has flown an MH-53E simulator but has not piloted an actual MH-53E helicopter, said the additions make the Sea Dragon harder to fly.

"It flew completely differently, from my point of view. The stick forces-- the reaction of the machine to the pilot's input--was very different."

A helicopter crash in 2012 prompted a number of changes to the MH-53E program, including the addition of more personnel to help maintain the aging aircraft.

"Over the past two years, the Navy has invested significant resources in the program -- including money for training, for equipment, to make sure that the service life of this aircraft continues to be viable," said Cpt. Todd Flannery, who commands the Helicopter Sea Combat Wing.

The MH-35E was one of two helicopter models that was grounded in 1996 after a similar model aircraft crashed. The Sea Dragon was later cleared for flight.

Cpt. Flannery called the helicopter safe and said at a press conference on Thursday he did not foresee the Navy's remaining fleet of MH-35E aircraft being grounded.

"I'm very confident and proud of the contributions that the Sea Dragon, has made and I look forward to its continued service in the fleet," Flannery said.

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