The Navy’s most dangerous helicopter keeps flying


The Navy started making plans in the late 1990s to retire the most powerful and crash-prone helicopters in its fleet.

By then, several of the service’s MH-53E Sea Dragons – the only U.S. helicopter capable of towing a specialized sled through water to detect and clear mines – were approaching the end of their planned service lives, and Navy leadership needed to make a decision: Invest a significant amount of money to keep the helicopters flying, or develop a replacement.

They chose the latter.

But a plan to outfit a smaller helicopter to hunt underwater mines fizzled. New technology didn’t work as designed. Shipping lane security threats increased after 9/11, along with demand for the Sea Dragon’s unique capabilities. And as a result, retirement of the Cold War-era aircraft got pushed back from 2008 to 2012, and then from to 2012 to sometime next decade.

Over time, “the Navy slowly but surely kind of forgot” about the Sea Dragon community, Capt. Todd Flannery said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot last fall, a year after a spate of crashes overseas prompted the service to take a hard look at the program.

The Navy found systemic problems: Maintenance was being conducted haphazardly. Standard operating procedures were being skipped. Only a few Sea Dragons were ready to fly at any given time, and among them, a third weren’t even equipped to perform the core mine clearing mission.

The squadrons had developed their own ways of doing business, Flannery said last fall, essentially “finding ways to do more with less.”

“It was a failure of many things,” said Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. “It was a failure of leadership. It was a failure of maintenance. It was a failure of operations. There were just many things that came to a head that led to this.”

Last year, the Navy committed millions of dollars to turn things around. It upgraded the aircraft with night vision technology and new sensors to detect mechanical problems. It added dozens of maintenance personnel. It beefed up pilot training. And it tapped Flannery, a career SH-60F Seahawk pilot, to implement leadership and cultural changes at the service’s two helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15. Both are based at Norfolk Naval Station.

The investments of attention and money were paying off, Flannery said in October. The Sea Dragon community still had a long way to go, but it was back on the right path. “We’re not there yet by a long shot,” he said at the time.

Then last month, another Sea Dragon went down, this time closer to home. The watery crash on Jan. 8 off the coast of Virginia Beach killed three of five crew members. The Navy is investigating what caused the accident.

The deadly mishap rocked the close-knit Sea Dragon community. It also attracted attention to a specialized naval helicopter program that had grown used to flying under the radar.


The MH-53E Sea Dragon, a variant of the Sikorsky-built Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion, joined the Navy’s fleet in the mid-1980s. Since then, no Navy helicopter has crashed at a higher rate.

Sea Dragons have been involved in 6.5 serious mishaps for every 100,000 flight hours since 1984, a rate more than three times greater than the rest of the service’s helicopters. Last month’s crash in the Atlantic Ocean was the 15th involving a Sea Dragon and the eighth to result in fatalities.

The helicopter’s demanding mission might have something to do with its below-average safety record, according to former pilots and aircraft maintainers. The Sea Dragon relies on three massive turbo shaft engines to drag a sled roughly the size and weight of an F-250 pickup truck through the water.

Unlike the Marine version, which is primarily used to transport troops and supplies, the Sea Dragon operates under constant stress while towing the sled, usually flying low and taking up a continuous saltwater mist that causes its airframe and components to rust more quickly.

The Navy acknowledges that the Sea Dragon mission is labor-intensive, but the helicopter was designed to pull against 25,000 pounds of sustained tension and never comes close to that while conducting mine sweeps. Flannery said the mission shouldn’t be blamed for its safety record.

For every hour in the sky, the Sea Dragon requires an average of 35 hours of work on the ground – down from more than 50 hours a decade ago, thanks in part to more efficient techniques – making it the most maintenance intensive helicopter in the fleet.

It’s also among the oldest. Originally built to last about 6,000 flight hours, several Sea Dragons have eclipsed that mark. Sixteen of the Navy’s 28 Sea Dragons have had a key bulkhead replaced, extending their service life to 10,000 flight hours.

A number of mechanical and design problems have surfaced over the years.

At least five times over the past three decades, the Pentagon has grounded its entire fleet of Sea Dragon and Super Stallion helicopters. The first mass grounding came in 1984, following a Marine helicopter crash. In 1987, they were grounded again after engineers found a design flaw in the gearbox of the helicopter’s No. 2 engine.

The entire fleet was grounded again in 1992 when a deadly crash in Jacksonville, Fla., revealed a problem in the main rotor assembly.

The fourth mass grounding came in 1996 after a new Super Stallion crashed during a test flight near a Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Conn., killing four crew members. A defective part at the base of the rotor called the swashplate duplex bearing was blamed in that accident.

The swashplate adjusts the angle and tilt of the blades on the rotor to move the helicopter. The faulty bearing was inspected and replaced across the fleet.

Four years later, the same part was singled out after a Sea Dragon went down off Corpus Christi, Texas, killing four sailors and wounding two. After that crash, the Pentagon ordered every Sea Dragon and Sea Stallion grounded and equipped with a new system to monitor temperature and vibration of ball bearings in the swashplate. The monitors warn pilots if friction is building to the point of failure.

In 2001, Kaydon Corp., the Michigan-based company that supplied Sikorsky with the swashplate, admitted in federal court that employees falsified inspection records while testing the parts. Although denying it was to blame for any crashes, the company agreed to pay surviving family members an undisclosed amount, according to court records.

A 2005 lawsuit against Sikorsky also resulted in payouts to the families of fallen crew members. Frank Fleming, a New York aviation lawyer and former Marine helicopter pilot, filed the case on behalf of four sailors killed when their Sea Dragon caught fire and crashed in southern Italy.

The blaze started in the aircraft’s No. 2 engine, which Fleming argued was a recurring problem Sikorsky had learned about and ignored more than a decade earlier. Sikorsky denied the allegation. It settled the case out of court.

After researching the case, Fleming said he wouldn’t rule out flying in a Sea Dragon. But he might hesitate.

“Safety is a broad and flexible concept,” he said.

Overall, he thinks the helicopter he flew in Vietnam, a Sea Dragon predecessor, was safer.

By the time Fleming won a settlement for his clients, the Navy had begun to rework the plans to retire its mine-clearing workhorse.


During the first Gulf War, the Navy’s fleet of Sea Dragons found and destroyed dozens of underwater mines. Two decades later, mine warfare remains high on the service’s list of strategic priorities.

In 2011, when Iran threatened to choke off the Strait of Hormuz with submerged mines, the Navy sent two additional Sea Dragons to Bahrain, doubling the number it keeps in the region. The following year, the helicopters played a central role in a massive international mine hunting exercise in the strait, which serves as main supply channel for much of the world’s oil.

There are other ways to clear mines – the Navy has used everything from surface ships to specially trained dolphins – but airborne mine-hunters offer a special set of capabilities.

The Sea Dragon – the only military helicopter specifically designed to clear mines – can respond more rapidly to threats and sweep faster and closer to the shore than surface ships. Dragging a sled from above also helps keep sailors out of harm’s way.

But keeping the maintenance-intensive Sea Dragons flying doesn’t come cheap. In the late 1990s, top brass began planning to replace the Sea Dragon with a more flexible and cost-effective option: the MH-60S Seahawk. The Navy envisioned equipping the smaller and far less powerful helicopter with a special mine-clearing kit and planned to begin deploying them on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships in 2005.

That never happened, and the Sea Dragon retirement was pushed back.

Around 2007, the Navy said it would instead deploy the mine-hunting Seahawk aboard its new fleet of littoral combat ships, envisioned as a fast-moving mothership for mine-hunting helicopters and a host of unmanned underwater vehicles.

But last year, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation announced that the MH-60S was not powerful enough to tow the minesweeping and sonar equipment, forcing the Navy to scrap the plan.

And so the Sea Dragons fly on with no concrete plan for when the program will end.

After the crash last month, Flannery told reporters he had no concerns about the long-term safety of the helicopter.

“The Navy is taking appropriate steps to ensure the viability of the MH-53E until its services are no longer required,” Flannery wrote in an email this week.

Bill Arnold, a retired Navy captain, was among the first pilots to fly the Sea Dragon and served as the commanding officer at HM-14 in 1989. Back then, the Navy was still building new Sea Dragons, the program was well-funded and morale was high, Arnold said.

For the past decade, the community has operated under a cloud of uncertainty.

“I can tell you that once the Navy has decided an aircraft is going away, they quit putting money into it and quit putting emphasis in it,” Arnold said. “That has a big impact. You tell a community you’re going away, where do you think the best pilots are going to go?”

Another change that affected the community: As the Navy prepared to wind down the program, the service consolidated its five HM squadrons to just two and placed them under the command of air wings that include several other types of helicopters.

Sea Dragon aircrewmen – the enlisted sailors who operate the mine-clearing equipment – used to spend multiple tours at various HM squadrons spread across the country, and were trained to maintain their own aircraft, Arnold said. Since consolidation, Arnold said most aircrewmen spend one tour working on Sea Dragons before transferring to another airframe.

“We used to have an entire wing that was all aerial mine countermeasures,” Arnold said. “Then you lose that identity and that backing, and soon the culture suffers for it.”

About the reporting: This story is based on numerous sources, including archived newspaper articles, federal court records, information from the Naval Safety Center, Naval Air Systems Command, Naval Air Force Atlantic, as well as interviews with Navy officials, former pilots and aircraft maintainers.

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949,

Sam Abell



Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Having turned away from his quest at National Geographic
for an America of nostalgia, a renowned photographer
now seeks to see America as it really is.

photography by HYUNSOO LEO KIM
archive photographs courtesy of SAM ABELL

Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America.

That’s what obedient children did at the Abell household when adults stopped by for adult conversations – they sat quietly in the family room, daydreaming as they studied the cloth map that had been encased inside a glass coffee table, the map their mother had made in 1942 when she was pregnant with the first of her two boys.

Within the border of each state she had stitched a symbol of beauty, or history, or ingenuity – America as she imagined it. A prickly cactus in Arizona. Golden wheat stalks in Kansas. A cowboy riding a horse in Texas. Smoke rising from a thriving steel mill in the Abells’ home state, Ohio. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

For the better part of four decades, Sam Abell carried a camera across America in search of those idyllic images. He photographed ranchers roping steer in Montana, bison grazing through snow in North Dakota, a lone fisherman obscured by fog on the Mississippi River. The photos are iconic, expertly composed. They hang on walls in museums and fill the pages of books and magazines.

The images Abell spent decades chasing depict America as he dreamed it would be in all those hours gazing at his mother’s map. They are photographs of the wild and untouched New World.

And they are mostly superficial.

The realization hit Abell without warning a decade ago. He had been among the most celebrated documentary photographers of the late 20th century, yet he had spent most of his career making images that more closely resembled scenes from the 18th century.

“I was treasure hunting,” Abell says of his work for National Geographic. “I was on the beach with a metal detector looking for a ring, the whole while disregarding the ocean and the sky and the sand. I went to great lengths to escape the authentic, modern world around me, searching instead for a hidden vestige of another era.”

Sam Abell had spent his career photographing America the way his mother imagined it.

Now he’s searching for the real story.


The views from Abell’s eighth-floor downtown Charlottesville studio perfectly symbolize his late artistic awakening. Out one window is the historic Court Square where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once argued cases. Antique black lampposts stand along brick sidewalks and streets. A tree-covered mountain range is on the horizon.

Out another window, on the opposite side of the studio, is a municipal parking deck. Cars whip along an asphalt street painted with double yellow lines. A thicket of power lines obstructs the view of a narrow sidewalk where two restaurant workers are taking a smoke break.

The first scene is what drew Abell, who will soon turn 69, to Virginia many years ago. He and his wife live in Crozet, on a plot of land near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he traveled the world searching for images of natural beauty, cultural meaning and historic significance, he chose to plant roots in a place that seemed to embody all of those things. He moved here when he started at National Geographic in the 1970s and never left.

“Virginia,” Abell says, “has a hold on people, including me, that comes from a gathering together of very important things: History, culture, geography, climate, landscape. Charlottesville is a coming together of the best of all those things.”

It’s one of the places he remembers visiting with his family as a boy during one of their many road trips across America. He vividly recalls standing in the garden at Monticello with his older brother. They each held up a nickel in the direction of Jefferson’s grand estate and closed one eye, trying to see if the picture on the coin matched the building before them.

Abell family vacations were elaborate history lessons. The family of four studied the American landscape as it flashed by their car windows. They traveled scenic back roads and took rest breaks at Civil War battlefields. “My parents were both teachers, and so when we traveled, it was not about sunbathing and it was not about mountain climbing or fishing or rafting. It was about American history.”

Dad always carried a camera. The developed film reel would arrive in the mail about two weeks after they returned each summer. The slide shows documenting those trips were in Technicolor, and they featured a smiling family against the backdrop of America.

But with each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore the changing landscape.


Abell was working on a project about Lewis and Clark when he heard the words that would reshape the way he sees the world.

It was 2001, and this was to be his final assignment for National Geographic. He met with the writer, historian Stephen Ambrose, in Helena, Montana, to discuss the project.

“Sam, I’ve got the easiest job to do on this project,” Ambrose said. “All I have to do is retell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting and boating trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job. You have to pretend that nothing’s changed in America for 200 years.”

That offhand comment was a resounding wakeup call. Abell realized, quite suddenly, that he had been fictionalizing America. He had spent years traveling through the modern world – in a car, or on foot, or in a boat – disregarding almost everything he saw “in search of fragments that were beholden of another time, another way of life.”

He thought of  a months-long assignment from years back for a travel story in the vast Australian wilderness. It was boring. He barely saw anything worth photographing. But he managed to capture a few breathtaking shots, and those are the images that ran in the magazine. He thought, “My God, people are going to come here and they’re going to say, ‘Where is it?!’ ” Had he been doing the same thing in America?

That conversation with Ambrose sparked an idea – one that Abell first had as a photography student at the University of Kentucky but that he had lost sight of, having landed at National Geographic. It’s perhaps the most celebrated photographic magazine in the world, but its style skews toward beauty over realism. His dream job led him away from his roots.

He had grown to love his craft while studying the work of Walker Evans(American Photographs, 1938) and Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958), two photographers known for their blunt and honest portrayal of America and its people. As a student, he had dreamed of picking up where they left off.

Retirement offered a fresh shot. Abell wrapped up the Lewis and Clark assignment and immediately went to work on a new long-term project that would become his obsession – one that bears little resemblance to his celebrated portfolio.

“It’s a rebound project,” he says. “It’s also a reaction against romancing America. I don’t have regrets about that. I was capable of doing that. I was good at doing that. I made the romance meaningful, not candy. My photographs always tried to have an intelligence about them and a soul that went beyond the surface of the picture. But now I wanted to take up all those things I had passed by while searching for the exception.”

Abell settled down in Virginia for its lush landscape and history. But lately it’s that parking deck he’s been looking at for inspiration.


The subjects of Abell’s photography have changed dramatically, but his approach is rooted in many of the same foundational techniques his father taught him as a boy in Sylvania, Ohio.

Abell won an award in a national high school photography contest in 1960 for a black-and-white picture of his father standing at a train station. His old man had offered a few pointers – get a low angle, “look for strong diagonals,” and then wait for a train to move into the frame. Years later, someone paid $10,000 for a copy of the image that resulted from that impromptu lesson.

Abell is known for composing his images from the back to front, a painstaking and counterintuitive approach that requires as much patience as it does vision. First he searches for a dynamic background and attempts to build meaning into every layer. Once he has composed the image, he waits for the subject to move into the shot.

On assignment for National Geographic, that often meant several hours or even days camped out in the same spot, waiting for the right light to reflect off a river or for wildlife to move into his frame. Abell once spent a year and a half making an image of bison skulls on a prairie for a story on the life of Charles M. Russell, the cowboy artist of Montana. After he found a pile of discarded skulls, he made multiple trips to the scene, waiting for the right elements. Finally he captured a live bison passing through the background on a snowy day. The project was complete.

Compose … and wait.

Lately Abell has been employing that unconventional approach while photographing people at fast-food restaurants, smokers standing outside department stores and business people staring at cell phones while walking down busy sidewalks. He carries his camera always as he travels the country to lead photography workshops and lectures.

“I’m always on assignment,” he says while sipping a coffee outside a café in Charlottesville. “I’m on assignment right now.”

For now he’s calling the project “Modern American History,” drawing inspiration from a college professor who once told him that the main theme of American literature is to come to terms with what we – the arriving peoples – have done to the New World. “I wrote that down and I never forgot it.”

The working collection includes images of people riding trains through rolling countryside, but instead of looking out the window, they’re staring at screens in their hands. It includes shots from the Lewis and Clark Trail, but instead of framing out the power lines, highways and truck stops, those modern creations are the subject.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Abell has become obsessed with photographing product distribution centers – “the most constructed building of the past 50 years,” he says – and self-storage facilities, where people indefinitely stash the stuff that won’t fit inside their homes.

The man who earned fame photographing real-life cowboys spent a recent trip to Dallas marveling at the massive Cowboys Stadium, a gargantuan building capable of hosting more than 100,000 spectators and home to the world’s largest high-definition screen. “This stadium is an architectural temple to football, surrounded by an ocean of automobiles,” he says. “This is modern America on steroids.”

Themes of Abell’s post-retirement project include: automobiles and how they have shaped the modern landscape, the mass consumption of processed food, the triumph of mass marketing in all aspects of life, the influence of consumer electronics on behavior, and industrial, commercialized patriotism.

Abell, who plans to publish the project in 2015, says he’s trying his best to remain neutral.

“I think the thing that would doom this is if I were trying to make a statement, either condemning or celebrating modern American culture,” he says. “That’s not my goal. My hope is to present an authentic portrait of this country as it exists in our time, in an effort to continue the conversation that was started by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. My strongest statement, I think, is a question, not an answer. And that is: Was there another way?”

Press him hard enough, though – ask him to contrast his recent work with the images he chased during his storied career – and it’s obvious that Abell believes the answer to that question must be, “Yes.”


Abell isn’t jaded, he says. He’s simply documenting the world around him as it is, not searching for beauty in the margins but instead searching for meaning in the authentic world before him.

His mother’s old needlepoint map hangs in a frame in his Charlottesville studio, alongside cherished photographs from his many travels – all reminders of how far he’s come in pursuit of an interesting life. Once in a while he’ll pull the map off the wall, set it on the table and daydream about the images his mother stitched so many years ago.

He turns from the map and points to his computer screen; it’s open to the gallery of his latest work. The cursor hangs over a photo of a young couple at a beach in Florida. They’re tourists driving along a boardwalk in a convertible. They’re seeing the ocean for the first time, and they’re both seeing it – separately – through the screens of matching digital cameras.

Abell looks at the photo and thinks of his mother, who died in 1981, long before the rise of smartphones and social media and widespread instant gratification. She grew up in an era with fewer distractions and simpler dreams. Hers was for her boys to travel the country she loved – to visit every state on that map – and to see the images of Americana that colored her imagination.

Her younger son wonders what she would think of his most recent pursuits. “She wouldn’t recognize the America in these photos.”