Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn

When greed, incompetence, and corruption go hand-in-hand, it’s often the little people who suffer, and that’s brought to light in the well-researched, eye-opening documentary Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?

Lt. Wes Van Dorn was one of the hundreds who died needlessly while flying a U.S. Navy MH-53E helicopter, which holds the single worst safety record of all Navy aircraft. As the film points out, Navy and Marine brass, who covered up the craft’s mechanical problems, as well as the Congressional and Executive branch of government, who were in cahoots with arms manufacturers and eager to bring juicy defense contracts to their districts, must share the blame.

Van Dorn’s widow, Nicole, who wouldn’t accept the Navy’s questionable accounting of the accident that took her husband’s life, was instrumental in helping an outside investigator look into the matter. She contacted Mike Hixenbaugh, a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot, who had already written an expose on severe problems with the MH-53E, and offered him the data that her husband had collected. Wes was convinced that the helicopters were death traps, and had begun recording his own observations as well as those of his charges.

Van Dorn was one of the hundreds who died needlessly while flying a U.S. Navy MH-53E helicopter, which holds the single worst safety record of all Navy aircraft.”

By all accounts, Van Dorn, 29, was a loyal officer and a great father and husband. The accident that claimed his life took place during a training drill off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va. Investigators eventually discovered the cause of the accident, and it all boiled down to a cheap plastic part, faulty wiring, poor engineering, and lax maintenance.

Even more troubling is that the military had expressed doubts about the MH-53E from as early as when it was a prototype in 1962, and by the time that Van Dorn and three other sailors lost their lives in the frigid ocean water where they crashed, the aircraft had become notorious among the sailors and marines forced to fly in it. It’s a “get ‘er done” kind of culture, one former sailor comments. Those who tried to point out serious problems were slapped down by the brass. Pilots routinely fudged their flight data to cover up safety lapses — no one wanted to be the whistleblower, and those who chose to speak were forced out of the service.

“Wes was convinced that the helicopters were death traps, and had begun recording his own observations as well as those of his charges.”

Routine maintenance on the helicopters was often hastily and haphazardly performed. Under-qualified pilots were at times assigned to fly the dangerous aircraft. One observer notes that the military had more than adequate funds to maintain the aging fleet of helicopters properly, but the drive to buy new, fancy weaponry drained away funds for maintenance of older equipment. Members of Congress, eager to deliver pork to their districts in the form of defense contracts, military brass, and government officials, whom defense contractors reward with big-salaried jobs once retiring from the military or public service, all benefit from their cozy relationship. It’s a nice arrangement where everyone wins, except the soldiers, sailors and the taxpayers.

The military’s response has been to stonewall uncomfortable questions about the helicopter, and with each new tragedy, promises that the problem will be resolved, which apparently has not happened.

Appropriately enough, the final shot in the movie is a clip of President Eisenhower, who at the end of his presidential term warned the country against the dangers brought forth by the military industrial complex. As a former army general who was instrumental in the Allied victory in World War II, and as a two-term U.S. president, he ought to have known. But somehow that message never seems to get through to us.

Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? (2019) Directed by Zachary Stauffer. Starring Nicole Van Dorn, Mike Hixenbaugh, Lt. Gen John Davis, Capt. Todd Flannery.

8 out of 10 Emergency Flares

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