Lt. Wes Van Dorn, a 29-year-old United States Naval Academy graduate and the married father of two young sons, died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed off the coast of Virginia during a 2014 training exercise. Motivated by her grief, his wife Nicole sought an explanation for the cause of the disaster. Her efforts spurred an investigation that uncovered a long history of negligence and institutional failings around the 53E helicopter—the model Van Dorn was piloting when he was killed, and the deadliest aircraft in the US military. Through incisive reporting and interviews with Van Dorn’s colleagues and family, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? is at once a poignant picture of one family's tragedy, as well as a revelatory inquiry into the murky inner-workings of the American defense establishment.


I need to finish Wes’s work. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was wrong. I don’t know. But the only way to find that out, is to… look into that, and to talk to people, and to see if the worst was actually the truth.
— Nicole Van Dorn, Wes Van Dorn’s widow
I can’t wait until the day that I can go to an aviation museum and show my daughter that MH-53, and tell her that it doesn’t fly anymore.
— Chris Humme, Navy 53 mechanic
There is a big difference between shooting it straight and being a professional and falling in line when you’re just standing idly by when you see something wrong. If you see a malpractice or you see problems with something, speaking up about it doesn’t make you unprofessional, it makes you a concerned individual.
— Dylan Boone, Naval Aircrewman
When you know the quality of the people and the work that they want so badly to do well, and you’ve entrusted your child to the military thinking that this is where they’re going to be able to be their best self, and find out they don’t have the best equipment to work with – that is a very hard thing to learn. It’s a very hard thing learn.
— Susan Van Dorn, Wes Van Dorn’s mother
The military is like any other major organization. They circle the wagons. They can be defensive, obstructive at times. And my job is to sort all of that out and find the truth and get to the point where I can tell a story that matters.
— Mike Hixenbaugh, Military Reporter
It was actually more than 53E. Many of our platforms didn’t have the spare parts they needed to go make our readiness goals. The 53 was worse than the others and so, yeah, I would tell you there’s no excuse for that. No excuse.
— Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, USMC (Retired)
You don’t sign on in the voluntary military to utilize faulty equipment. You didn’t sign on for that. You didn’t sign on for your military to kill you.
— Louis Franecke, Attorney
When you can testify that there’s a genuine problem occurring with potentially lives at stake, it’s incumbent upon you to do something about it. And if your recourse has already been exhausted within the chain of command, where else do you go at that point if you feel like you can’t talk to anybody about the problem?
— James Skelton, Marine 53 pilot
If you just pour money into the Pentagon like so called pro-defense advocates want, you’re not solving the problems that you’re complaining about. You’re just setting the stage for the same game to be played at a higher budget plateau.
— Chuck Spinney, Fmr. Pentagon analyst
The main beneficiaries are the people at the top of the pyramid. Generals, vice presidents and presidents and chairmen of the board of corporations, Congressmen and Senators, and to a much lesser extent, stockholders… The soldier at the other end of the pipeline, who’s getting a bad rifle... he’s certainly not benefiting. His life is being endangered.
— Pierre Sprey, Fmr. military aircraft designer and analyst