Report: Missteps led to fatal Navy helicopter crash

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

By the time the Norfolk-based Navy helicopter began falling, it was too late.

heloThe MH-53E Sea Dragon was spinning counterclockwise, drifting out of control as its engines strained against the weight of a downed aircraft it had lifted moments earlier out of a canyon in the mountains of Oman.

Panicked crew members shouted orders to drop the oversized load and abandon the heavy-lift mission. Before they could, the chopper’s tail smashed into a ridge, and the helicopter careened into a canyon, landing upside down and bursting into flames.

Three of five crew members escaped the fiery crash on July 19, 2012. The others, Senior Chief Petty Officer Sean Sullivan and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Fitzmorris – “Sully” and “Fitz” – were mourned days later at a memorial service in Bahrain.

Their deaths, and the loss of a $50 million helicopter, could have been avoided if the crew had followed standard Navy flight guidelines before and during the botched salvage operation, according to a command investigation.

The extensive investigative report, obtained this week by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act, blames the entire crew for skipping preflight safety checks and for failing to develop a concrete plan for how and when to abort the mission.

“There were several opportunities to break the chain of events that led to this tragedy,” the report stated. “This mishap was completely preventable.”

Moreover, the report said, the crash revealed a series of systemic and cultural problems in Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 and within the broader Navy Sea Dragon program, which is headquartered at Norfolk Naval Station.

“The tragic events of that day shed light on a lot of things that a lot of people, myself included, should have seen a long time ago,” Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, said in an interview Friday. “This event, unfortunately, was years in the making.”

Days before the crash, the Royal Air Force of Oman requested the Navy’s help moving a twin-engine helicopter that had crashed a week earlier in a rocky ravine about 58 miles southwest of Muscat, the capital.

Cmdr. Sara Santoski, then the skipper of HM-15, hand-selected a crew of her most experienced aviators to airlift the downed helicopter to a nearby airfield. Santoski, who was later relieved of command, directed the crew to “take no unnecessary risk,” according to the investigation.

The names of the surviving crew members were redacted from the report, but it did identify the co-pilot as the squadron’s executive officer.

The seasoned helicopter crew arrived at Al-Mussanah Air Base in Oman a day before the flight operation to view the wreckage, record environmental conditions and plan the mission.

Based on the weight of the downed helicopter – estimated at 13,200 pounds – and the strength of the Sea Dragon’s engines, the lead pilot noted there would be only a small margin between “power available” and “power required” to perform the lift.

The pilot later told an investigator that he did not know Santoski had issued guidance requiring a 5 percent power margin to proceed with the lift.

During the planning, the air crew briefly discussed dropping two crew members from the mission to lighten the Sea Dragon’s weight by a few hundred pounds. The unconventional suggestion made one crew member wonder whether the lift was too dangerous, but he didn’t reveal his misgivings until weeks later.

On the day of the mission, the pilot and co-pilot opted against performing an operational power check of the helicopter, instead relying on the calculations they gathered a day earlier. They also decided against setting specific power numbers to determine whether the load was excessive. The pilot later said he believed he “would just know what excessive was” when he felt it.

The planning decisions were among several violations of Navy air training and operating regulations, according to the investigation. The missteps continued after the helicopter lifted off the ground.

video of the operation posted to YouTube shows the massive Navy chopper hovering a few dozen feet above the canyon floor as a ground crew attaches a hook to the downed Omani aircraft. Moments later, the Sea Dragon rose above the canyon, the smaller helicopter dangling below.

Based on the torque and power readings following the initial lift, the co-pilot later told an investigator that it was obvious the Omani helicopter was heavier than they thought. The power margin hovered between 0.6 percent and 2 percent as the pilot steered the helicopter away from the site.

Observers said it traveled about 50 yards before the tail of the Sea Dragon began to drift, a clear sign of a power deficit. The crew member responsible for watching through the left window told the pilots to “pull power,” fearing they were hovering too close to a cliff. They narrowly cleared it, but seconds later, the chopper began to spin counterclockwise as the tail rotor lost power.

“Lost tail!” one of the crew members shouted.

The co-pilot shouted “pickle!” – the signal to dump the load. A second later, two other crew members repeated the signal. But the crew hadn’t discussed the plan for an emergency jettison, and before anyone could act, the tail rotor hit the ridge, and the helicopter rolled into the canyon.

Sullivan, who was standing below the main rotor, was crushed by the gear box, according to the report, and likely killed on impact when the helicopter landed upside down.

Another crew member blacked out momentarily after impact, he told an investigator. He found himself resting on top of Fitzmorris, who was unconscious. The crew member scrambled out, he said later, fearing they both would die in the fire if he tried to pull him out.

Both pilots escaped through a cockpit window. The three survivors ran from the scene as the fuselage erupted in flames, followed by a series of explosions.

A day passed before the wreckage cooled enough to perform a proper search and confirm the two fatalities.

The investigating officer recommended that neither pilot be allowed to fly again. That’s a decision left to a field naval aviator evaluation board, whose decisions are not made public.

“Proper administrative action was taken,” said Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic.

Flannery, then the deputy commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, was tapped to temporarily lead the squadron after the crash. It was soon apparent, he said, that the deadly accident was a symptom of larger problems in the Navy’s Sea Dragon community.

Sea Dragons, assigned only to two Norfolk-based squadrons, are primarily used to clear mines from shipping lanes, but they are also the Navy’s preferred option for heavy-lift operations.

The service had planned to begin phasing them out in the mid-2000s, but without a viable replacement, it kept the Sea Dragons flying.

The mixed signals on the future of the program, combined with a lack of financial investment from the Navy, allowed the Sea Dragon community to “fly under the radar” and develop some bad habits, Flannery said. Many of the sloppy missteps revealed in the crash investigation had become commonplace, he said.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Flannery said. “This was an atrophy over a long period of time.”

Since the crash, Flannery said, the Navy has invested millions of dollars to upgrade and better maintain its remaining 29 Sea Dragon airframes, including adding more than 100 maintenance personnel to the two Norfolk-based squadrons. The Navy also enhanced Sea Dragon pilot training to include mountain flying exercises and installed new leadership at both squadrons.

“It was absolutely tragic that it came to a head the way it did, that we had a mishap and two people lost their lives,” Flannery said. “I can’t say anything good came out of that. But the changes that came out of this mishap were profound and have put the community back on the right path.”

Change puts Navy woman face-to-face with Tom Hanks

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


hanksDanielle Albert had planned to be at home the day a Hollywood film crew climbed aboard the guided missile destroyer Truxtun to begin shooting “Captain Phillips.”

But when the ship’s executive officer learned that actors would be practicing dangerous stunts on the flight deck, he ordered Petty Officer 2nd Class Albert and the rest of the medical staff to come in on their days off – just in case.

The 24-year-old sailor and single mom didn’t know that she would spend that afternoon acting alongside Tom Hanks in what would become the emotional climax of one of the year’s biggest films.

Albert’s only previous stage experience came in fifth grade, when she played the caterpillar in Easton Elementary School’s rendition of “Alice in Wonderland” back home in Washington state. Her main job, she recalled, was to blow bubbles.

So when director Paul Greengrass walked into the ship’s sick bay and asked her to ad-lib a scene with a two-time Academy Award-winning actor, Albert grew light-headed.

“What do you mean?” she said, wishing she had bothered to do some reading on the film before reporting to work that day. She was totally unaware of the dramatic 2009 rescue of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates that became the basis for the film.

Continue reading “Change puts Navy woman face-to-face with Tom Hanks”

A home birth decision: Risk. Worry. Push …

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

I sat at the edge of my bed and, in the grogginess that accompanies 3 a.m., allowed my mind to drift.

I smiled, thinking of my toddler’s reaction months earlier when my wife pointed at two faint lines on a stick and told him he was going to be a big brother. Poor kid; he cried, somehow aware his little world was about to be rocked.

I started to replay my own bumbling reaction to the news when a hard squeeze on my right hand jerked me back to the moment.

“Here comes another one,” my wife moaned, bracing herself for the next contraction.

After nine months of morning sickness, worrisome ultrasounds and midnight snack runs, the event we had been preparing and praying for was upon us.

Continue reading “A home birth decision: Risk. Worry. Push …”

Affirmation in a small, conservative town

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


Two by two, they come. They drive north across bridges and through tunnels, along a sliver of land that separates ocean from bay, until highways and city lights give way to narrow roads and cornfields.

They are here only for a day – just long enough to see the man who can affirm their love for one another. The waitress at Georgetown Family Restaurant refills their coffee cups and asks the couples where they’re from. She doesn’t ask why they’ve come. She knows.

They pay for breakfast, then head out along Market Street, past antique shops and law offices, around the historic traffic circle in front of the old Sussex County Courthouse. They stroll by a 200-year-old pillory, the last of its kind in the last state to banish the wooden device once used to torture people of their persuasion.

But they haven’t come for a history lesson. They enter the county office building; go up the stairs and down the hall to the left until they arrive at Room 268. They’ve come from Atlanta, from Tampa, from Raleigh and from Norfolk. By the dozens, gay couples have come.

The clerk of the peace greets them with a smile and a handshake. They know nothing about the stocky, middle-age man with the crooked necktie. They only know that this town – and this stranger – represent the easiest way they can make their love official in the eyes of the federal government.

They’ve come to see John Brady.

But he’s far more excited to see them.


The 54-year-old lawyer never imagined that he would be joining couples in marriage. Until this year, he didn’t even really like attending weddings. But laws change, and so do people.

Jessica Kazmierski and Petty Officer 3rd Class Lara Runge came from Virginia Beach. Brady met the sailor and her partner at the door before their ceremony.

“You both look beautiful,” he said before leading them into his makeshift chapel.

The man who held the job before him decided not to seek re-election last fall, in part because of a moral objection. Delaware had approved same-sex civil unions and was moving swiftly toward more radical change.

Brady, a former county recorder of deeds, had been looking for a chance to get back into public service. The onetime-Republican-turned-Democrat ran on the slogan “Let the Big Man Work for You,” and received 54 percent of the vote in staunchly conservative Sussex County.

Then came a whirlwind of extraordinary change.

Delaware became the 11th state to allow gay marriage; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act; and the Pentagon announced that it would begin extending benefits to spouses of gay service members.

Those factors combined with geography to make Delaware’s southernmost county one of the most convenient places to get married for thousands of gay couples, from military-heavy Hampton Roads to Miami.

And so they’ve come. Most pass through Maryland, another gay-marriage destination, to reach Brady’s doorstep, but that state requires a 48-hour waiting period before issuing licenses. Delaware’s wait, Brady is quick to point out, is just 24 hours.

Kazmierski and Runge made travel plans within minutes of the Department of Defense’s announcement last month. A Google search led them to a small town they had never heard of, in a state they had never planned to visit.

Runge fidgeted with the box holding the rings; Kaz­mierski messed with her partner’s shirt collar. Brady cut through awkward silence.

“Have you enjoyed your stay in Sussex County?” he asked, and then offered suggestions for good places to dine afterward.

Since the marriage law went into effect in July, Brady’s office has performed more than 500 ceremonies, nearly half of them same-sex partnerships.

It’s a part-time job, paying just $24,000 a year, but Brady is committed to it: He’s agreed to perform marriages anywhere in the county, any day of the week, any hour.

He made headlines on Labor Day after a driver ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of his SUV, totaling the vehicle. Brady hobbled out of the hospital two hours later, in time to perform a wedding scheduled for that afternoon.

The Big Man has been in love, but he’s never been married. The teachers at his Catholic high school encouraged the young Eagle Scout to become a priest, but even as a teenager he knew that wouldn’t have been a good fit.

After finishing law school in the early ’90s in his hometown of Wilmington, Brady moved south to what locals know as “Lower Slower Delaware.”

He grew up just an hour away, but years would pass before he truly felt accepted in Sussex County. In these parts, you’re either from here, or you’re from someplace else.

And yet, in recent months, visitors have flocked by the hundreds to an antiquated town in the heart of a county that overwhelmingly favors tradition over change.

Last month, when an area school board narrowly rejected a proposal to add a Bible course to the high school curriculum, a county councilman went on the radio and complained that one of the board members was a lesbian.

“We all know they’re not very strong on the Bible,” he said.

That same councilman was among a majority that voted last year to waive the $200 marriage fee for service members and veterans. It was pitched as a patriotic gesture to thank brave men and women who have fought for freedom.

“They never anticipated that they would be creating an incentive for gay military members to come here from all over the country for a free wedding,” Brady said with a chuckle. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”

The fee waiver was the clincher for Kazmierski and Runge.

After filling out the marriage application, the couple spent the night in Rehoboth Beach, a resort town on the county’s eastern shore where rainbow banners flutter outside restaurants.

“We couldn’t believe how welcoming everyone was,” Kazmierski said, making small talk as Brady prepared the legal paperwork. “We want to come back and spend a week for our honeymoon.”

Scott Thomas, the director of the taxpayer-funded Southern Delaware tourism bureau, liked the sound of that. He wants to launch a marketing campaign inviting gay service members in Hampton Roads to come get hitched in Sussex County.

“I’m not concerned with people’s personal lives,” Thomas said. “Everyone is welcome to come spend some money in Sussex County.”

Brady emerged from his office wearing a black robe. He motioned for the women to join him before rows of metal folding chairs and a small audience of county employees.

“A marriage begins a whole new world, as two hearts pledge one love, and two lives are joined together,” Brady said to start the six-minute ceremony.

Kazmierski’s eyes grew damp as she recited her vows. Runge smiled and wiped a tear from her partner’s cheek, then repeated the same words.

“With this ring / I thee wed / and declare my trust / fidelity / and love for you.”

Brady smiled and nodded with each line. He then instructed the women to face each other.

“Lara and Jessica have solemnly consented together in a union of marriage on this 22nd day of August, 2013, here in Georgetown, Delaware,” Brady said, before looking away from his script.

“Because Delaware has one thing going for it. We have a legislature and a governor who believes, and it is the public policy of the state, that when two people are in love and they are in the age of the majority, that they have the opportunity and the ability to get married.”

He choked over the last few words, paused briefly, then continued with a trembling voice.

“So, therefore, by the power vested in me by the state of Delaware, I now pronounce you a happily married couple. You may kiss and embrace your wife.”

The crowd cheered.

Brady and the newlyweds posed for photos. He thanked them again for making the 3½-hour drive, and hugged both women before seeing them out the door.

“This is such a happy place,” Brady said. “I’ve never had a happier job.”


Minutes later, the clerk of the peace retreated to his private office near the end of another long day in what has quickly become Delaware’s busiest marriage bureau.

The room, lined with plaques and degrees, has become a refuge for a man who works more than 80 hours a week among three jobs – a place to recharge emotionally.

Couples probably wonder why he gets choked up performing the weddings of strangers, Brady said.

They don’t know about the malicious pink postcards that a political opponent mailed to voters several years back. They don’t know about the slurs that have come from the mouths of friends. They don’t know about the longtime partner whose heart stopped suddenly three years ago, or the tattered photo he still carries in his wallet.

They don’t know his Josh always wanted to get married.

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, but the change in the law didn’t come soon enough,” Brady said, his bottom lip quivering.

He bowed his head, took a deep breath and tried not to cry.

The Big Man didn’t have time for tears.

Two men were waiting for him in the lobby.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer to downed pilot: “Stay with me”

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

(Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill | U.S. Coast Guard)
(Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill | U.S. Coast Guard)

In the dark of night Thursday off the coast of Virginia, a pair of fighter jets clipped wings, forcing one pilot to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean.

More than 100 miles away in Elizabeth City, a pager beeped to life. Bret Fogle sat up, rubbed his eyes and sprang from his bunk.

The Coast Guard rescue swimmer had trained 13 years for this night.

Continue reading “Coast Guard rescue swimmer to downed pilot: “Stay with me””

Recordings offer new perspective on Navy jet crash

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


All appeared normal from inside the glass-enclosed control tower seven stories above Oceana Naval Air Station.

A fuel truck rumbled along the flight line. A squadron of fighter jets – blinking red dots in an expanse of blue – lined up miles apart for landings. A pair of F/A-18 Hornets rocketed down a runway, lifting off the ground seconds apart.

Then came a disturbing sight. A flash of light, followed by a boom. At 12:04 p.m., James Nairn’s voice crackled over a radio.

“Hey, dash-two just had a huge flame come out the back of his engine,” the 22-year-old air traffic controller said. “You need to let us know what’s going on.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nairn sounded surprisingly calm for someone who was watching a $29 million fighter jet and the two aviators inside it falling toward the suburbs.

Continue reading “Recordings offer new perspective on Navy jet crash”

He helped the other guys in Vietnam. Then the other guys left.

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

(Thé N. Pham | The Virginian-Pilot)

John Donovan stepped out of a taxi in the Vietnamese city of My Tho in 2008, dropped his bags on the street and squinted through midday sun as he scanned a bustling crowd.

He was searching for a ghost.

More than 40 years had passed since he had seen the local interpreter who guided his American riverboat crew as it navigated the winding and murky waters of South Vietnam during the war. For years, Donovan assumed his old friend was dead.

The retired Navy officer had spent part of an earlier trip to Vietnam searching for the translator, known simply as “Minh” by most of the men who served with him. But with no details about what happened to him after the war – and only his memories to guide him – Donovan didn’t know where to begin.

Then, about six years ago, he came across Minh’s name in a book. That led him to an author who put him in touch with a Vietnamese refugee in Dallas who gave him a phone number. The war buddies recognized each other’s voices almost immediately.

Continue reading “He helped the other guys in Vietnam. Then the other guys left.”