Associate Producer Jason Paladino was a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2014 when he got the news: a longtime friend who was serving in the Navy had died in a helicopter crash.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins was killed when his MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, a Cold War relic used for minesweeping, crashed off the Virginia coast on a training mission. At the funeral in Truckee, California, a small mountain town near Lake Tahoe where the two had grown up, Paladino struck up conversation with Collins’s family and fellow sailors about his friend’s time in the Navy. Talk turned to safety concerns and the culture in Collins’s helicopter squadron. It didn’t take long for Paladino to realize that something was wrong, and he set to work as a reporter.
On the other side of the country, another young journalist had also begun digging into the story.
Mike Hixenbaugh became the military reporter at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in summer 2012. On his first day on the military beat, his editor asked him to file a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the investigation into the crash of a 53 in Oman just a couple of days earlier. Hixenbaugh had never heard of the helicopter before. He eventually got the report, secured an interview with the Navy’s top helicopter commander on the Atlantic coast and, in late fall 2013, published a story about the wide range of problems with the 53 squadrons. Just two months later, another 53 crashed. This one was right in his paper’s backyard, and it killed Collins and the two pilots, Lt. Wes Van Dorn and Lt. Sean Snyder.
Van Dorn’s widow, Nicole, happened to read one of Hixenbaugh’s stories about a month after the accident. She reached out and told him that she had many of Van Dorn’s old files and correspondence about the 53 and happenings at the squadron. Word got out that Nicole was looking for information. People dropped papers on her doorstep and called her out of the blue. She led sources to Hixenbaugh so he could continue to dig further.
Paladino, who was reporting on the accident from afar, struck up a conversation with Hixenbaugh, the only journalist who was giving the 53 anything more than cursory coverage. Rather than compete, the two opened a collaboration between the Virginian-Pilot and the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP), a nonprofit newsroom affiliated with the Berkeley J-school. The collaboration eventually expanded to include the NBC News Investigative Unit. A four-minute story on the Nightly News brought national exposure to the 53 and more sources came forward.
By fall 2015, both Paladino and Hixenbaugh were working as Fellows for the IRP. Staff producer Zachary Stauffer began to weigh in about ways they could expand both new and old material into a film. In December, they were on the road for the first shoot, eager to find out where the Van Dorn story would take them and what it could say about larger questions about the military.