Truckee native, SNC Tahoe grad Jason Paladino uncovers truth of troubled Navy program in wake of Brian Collins’ death
Visit nbcnews.to/1Dq0Zv7 to read and view the entire NBC production: “Sea Dragon Down: The Human Cost of the Navy’s Most Crash-Prone Chopper.”
TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s Jan. 8, 2014, and Truckee native Jason Paladino — a member of the University of California, Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program — is in South Korea, assisting a fellow student with a film project.
Later that day, the project was the last thing on Paladino’s mind.
It starts with a troubling Facebook message. Then another, echoing the first.
The messages reveal that Paladino’s Truckee hometown friend, Brian Collins, Petty Officer 3rd Class, was killed that morning in a Navy helicopter crash off the Virginia coast.
Collins was a crewman on a five-man MH-53E Sea Dragon that was out on a routine training exercise for mine countermeasures when it caught fire and crashed into the Atlantic. Three of the five sailors aboard were killed and two others were badly injured.
Paladino may be thousands of miles across the Pacific, but his mind is back home.
“I was devastated, I was totally upset,” said Paladino, a graduate of Truckee High (2008) and Sierra Nevada College (2012). “I had just seen him two weeks earlier (over the Christmas holiday).
“He was someone I grew up with, and we both used to work at Cottonwood (Restaurant & Bar) together for many, many years … someone I considered a close friend.”
‘Something not right here’
It’s Jan. 25, 2014, and a heavy-hearted Paladino — making the trek up Interstate 80 East shortly after resettling on American soil — is back in Truckee, giving and getting hugs, paying respects to his fallen friend.
At Collins’ memorial service — which was attended by roughly 1,000 people and included a vehicle procession down Donner Pass Road, military honors at Surprise Stadium, and eulogies at Truckee High — Paladino finds himself talking with comrades of Collins about the tragic helicopter crash.
Here, Paladino can’t help but feel his journalistic synapses firing off.
“I started talking to his Navy friends who I had never met before and they were talking to me about the aircraft and the situation,” Paladino recalls. “And the journalist in me just sort of perked up and I was like, wow, this sounds like something not right here in terms of the safety of the aircraft and the crash-rate.
“It was just a general feeling (among Collins’ Navy friends) that it could have been avoided — that it was a wrongful death.”
It was clear to Paladino: There was an untold story here, and he was going to attempt to tell it.
‘A squadron in disarray’
Promptly, Paladino went to work, submitting Freedom of Information Act requests about the MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter and its crash rate, collecting any data he could find.
The numbers were startling:
In all, 30 Navy men have died in Sea Dragon accidents, including five in four crashes during a two-year span.
According to military statistics, the Sea Dragon is three times more likely to crash than any other Navy aircraft.
Built in the 1980s, Sea Dragons are still in service 15 years after the Navy started making plans to replace them.
“It was just mind-blowing stuff,” Paladino said. “It just painted a picture of a squadron in pretty serious disarray.”
In his research, Paladino came across a military reporter for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Mike Hixenbaugh, who was reporting on the Sea Dragon crash. Notably, the Virginian-Pilot is based in Norfolk, Va., home to the largest naval base in the world.
Attempting to dig deeper into the troubled Navy program, Paladino sent Hixenbaugh an email.
“I just sent him a friendly email saying, how did you find this number and that number?” he said. “He was a military reporter, he knew how to work on these stories and I didn’t; I had never done one before.
“I kept pestering him … and he realized that I had some sources, too, through Brian (Collins) and his friends.”
With that, Paladino and Hixenbaugh decided to pool their resources and work on the expansive story together.
A yearlong investigation
Pitching the story for a scholarship through UC-Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, Paladino was granted a salary, along with a travel and research budget, and a year to work on the story.
Less than a year later, Paladino and Hixenbaugh’s first joint effort was published in the Virginian-Pilot on Jan. 8, 2015, the one-year anniversary of the Sea Dragon crash off the Virginia coast.
The story, written by Hixenbaugh and contributed by Paladino, was titled “Distress Signal,” a narrative about the widow of Wes Van Dorn, one of the pilots killed in the wreck.
Quite simply, Van Dorn was one of the few people who saw the depths of the squadron’s problems and was attune to the reality that the Cold War-era helicopters were lacking proper maintenance and replacement parts.
In their reporting, they discovered that the helicopter caught fire — and subsequently crashed within 20 seconds — due to old electrical wires chaffing against worn out fuel lines.
Epitomizing Van Dorn’s elevated concern, the story quotes a text message he sent to his wife, Nicole, during one of his many long days performing maintenance on the aircraft: “‘I want to get flying, but I also need to fix maintenance so I don’t die while flying,’ he wrote once, repeating a variation of a line he used often.”
“He was trying to tighten the ship and fix things up,” Paladino said. “He ended up dying in the helicopter crash due to the maintenance problems he was trying to prevent.”
Paladino noted that because of his friendship with Collins, he had to “be aware of that conflict of interest” while reporting on the story. In other words, that’s why the narrative focused on Van Dorn, rather than Collins.
The heart-wrenching story turned a lot of heads and opened a lot of eyes, including the NBC News Investigative Unit. The network wanted to turn Hixenbaugh and Paladino’s in-depth reporting on the Sea Dragon crash into a segment for the nightly news.
elevating the story
Less than a month later, with Paladino and Hixenbaugh serving as producers, NBC News aired a segment called “Sea Dragon Down: The Human Cost of the Navy’s Most Crash-Prone Chopper.”
“It was great,” said Paladino, referring to the story’s spike in exposure. “The Virginian-Pilot is a great paper, but it doesn’t have the huge national reach, so to be able to produce something where it’s almost guaranteed seven million eyes are going to be on your story is really exciting.”
Moreover, “it was great for the reporting — it elevated the story to a national level.”
Days after the NBC News segment aired, Paladino and Hixenbaugh wrote a follow-up story on leaked emails among high-ranking military officials. Simply put, the emails revealed that inspections of the aging Sea Dragons were conducted haphazardly, if at all.
“It was a wiring problem that was supposed to be fixed,” Paladino said. “The documents proved the maintenance hadn’t been done.”
Specifically, Paladino said, the Navy estimated crews would need to spend 36 hours doing fuel-line inspections on each aircraft.
However, “In most cases, it was under five hours (that the crews spent on inspections) and then they checked it off,” he added.
A day after the story published, Naval Air Systems Command in Maryland grounded the entire Sea Dragon fleet until maintenance issues were addressed.
“It was very satisfying when the grounding happened,” Paladino said. “That felt like we were actually making a difference.
“It’s a difficult topic to get people really excited and upset about,” he continued. “A lot of people think, oh, you’re in the military, it’s a dangerous job, so what? … What we’re trying to get across is there’s a difference between doing a dangerous job and knowing that and doing a dangerous job where you’re getting equipment that isn’t safe.”
And Paladino and Hixenbaugh’s work has not go unnoticed.
Both have won numerous investigative journalism awards, including the Sigma Delta Chi award (given by the Society for Professional Journalists) for best Television Investigative Reporting for the “Sea Dragon Down” segment on NBC News.
The NBC News piece also received honorable mention for the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense.
Additionally, Paladino and Hixenbaugh were named finalists for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, the top award given to journalists under the age of 35.
“Just to be a finalist is a huge honor, I’m really grateful for that,” said Paladino, who also won a 2016 James Madison Freedom of Information Award, which recognizes Northern California organizations and individuals who made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information.
And Paladino’s work on the military’s troubled programs is far from finished. Currently, the Truckee native is working on a documentary that explores the problems that exist in the U.S. military’s defense industry.
“The United States military spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined,” Paladino said. “How is it in that situation where people are dying in an old aircraft that was supposed to be retired 15 years ago? That’s one of the central questions (of the documentary).”
Paladino said the documentary is in the production phase and “a long ways out” from completion, noting that they are still fundraising for the project.
“It’s a huge topic to tackle,” Paladino said. “We’ll see what the response is like to the documentary — it’s going to be interesting.”