“Here’s a guy who sees a problem and sets out to fix it…and it kills him.” That’s the story of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Wesley Van Dorn as tersely summed up by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot investigative reporter, Mike Hixenbaugh, who first covered the story.
But the title of Zachary Stauffer’s documentary about Wes Van Dorn’s death asks the question: “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” Meaning, who let the problem – the “it” that killed Van Dorn and two of his crewmen – persist? Who kept the H-53E helicopters, the Marines’ Super Stallions and the Navy’s Sea Dragons, flying despite a 30-year record of crashes and failures that identified them, in a Navy report, as “the highest-ranked safety risk in the fleet?”
That report, that judgment was written in 2009. In 2012 an H-53E from Van Dorn’s squadron crashed and burned on an exercise in Korea. Van Dorn saw it happen, and reported to investigators that his squadron was a mess, and so was his aircraft. The Sea Dragon had so many mechanical problems maintenance couldn’t keep up, he said, and cut corners, which in turn cut into morale.
Here’s the “what” that killed Lt. Van Dorn: a plastic tie, chafing the cover over bundled wires, and scraping a puncture into a fuel line which burst, spraying the uncovered wires, which ignited, and starting a fire that caused the helicopter to crash.
Exactly the same scenario had been written up in a Navy safety report 15 years earlier. The danger of the sheathing on the bundled wires bursting into flame had been noted again and again. Long before the 1999 accident which badly damaged an H-53E, but caused no injuries, and before the 2009 plan to get the Kapton sheaths out of all helicopters by 2019, which immediately got slowed down as Kapton-replacement money got shifted somewhere else. Lt. Wesley Van Dorn died in 2014. His friend Capt. Brian Kennedy, who was member of Van Dorn’s wedding party, was killed piloting an H-53E in 2016. In the 40 years of flight testing and actual military service 132 people have died aboard H-53Es, not one of them from enemy fire.
Many have died, and many more have complained about the deficiencies and dangers of the H-53Es and seen their military careers cut dead.
Zachary Stauffer is a staff producer at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and its primary director of photography. Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?, winner of the Audience Award in Active Cinema at the 2018 Mill Valley Film Festival, is his first feature documentary. Throughout his career, he’s contributed to a number of documentary films as a producer or DP, many for PBS Frontline, including Money and March Madness(2011), Murdoch’s Scandal (2012), The Child Cases (2011), Post Mortem (2011), the DuPont award-winning Rape In The Fields (2013) and its follow ups Rape On The Night Shift (2015) and Trafficked in America (2018). His short documentary, A Day Late In Oakland (2008), about the murder of a local journalist, was nominated for two IDA Awards, screened at film festivals across the country and was broadcast on KQED in San Francisco. He began his career at Northern Light Productions in Boston. There he served as co-producer of The Special: A Story of an American Anthem (2005), which premiered at the Nashville Film Festival and screened at Silver Docs and other festivals. Stauffer is a graduate of Boston College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he is currently a lecturer.