WTNH-TV: Defective Parts In Sikorsky Helicopters

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

David went up against Goliath when New Haven, Conn., station WTNH-TV reported that Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.—a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. with posted 2006 revenues of $47.8 billion—was installing defective parts on its Blackhawk helicopters. The potential for disaster was implicit, since every branch of the U.S. military relies on Sikorsky helicopters, in Iraq as in other wars.
The story started with a tip. “I was contacted by several very brave employees, who were so concerned about what was happening that they did interviews with me,” said WTNH-TV reporter Alan Cohn. “They brought me Sikorsky and Defense Department documents that showed in black and white that parts were coming into the company and being put on board helicopters that were defective.
“These people never revealed who they were, but Sikorsky never denied the veracity of what they were saying or questioned the documents. None of that was ever contradicted.”
These inside informants fed Mr. Cohn a steady stream of new documents over three to four years.
When the story first aired, it was big news, and many other news outlets covered the story that WTNH-TV broke. But when the national media attention died down, Mr. Cohn continued his relentless investigation.
“I give my news director Kurt Varner a lot of credit,” he said. “Every time I brought two documents that broke a new angle and furthered the story, the attitude was, let’s do it.”
In 2006, the stories took on a more urgent tone. “In the last year, the documents that we got just reached a different level than the ones we’d gotten before,” he said. “It reached a crescendo last November when there was an incident with a Navy Seahawk helicopter. The crew was forced to make a landing because something fell off the aircraft.” The Navy crew narrowly escaped disaster, and in a subsequent investigation, the Navy determined 41 of its helicopters had the same defective tail rotor blades.
Getting reliable documentation about these near-crashes was difficult. “One of the problems with this subject is that, unlike commercial aircraft, you can’t get the records for military crashes,” he said. “They are classified.”
When he did find the evidence that helicopters were forced to make emergency landings, the subsequent story had a big impact. “The company could no longer deny it, and the government and other news organizations saw our stories and picked it up,” said Mr. Cohn.
A great deal of attention was paid to making certain every detail of the story was correct. “We’re dealing with a multibillion-dollar corporation and incredible legal exposure if we get it wrong,” said Mr. Cohn. “That has to be on your mind. We went through a very meticulous process of vetting the documents, corroborating that they were authentic and making sure they were put in the proper context.”
Complicating the original reporting was the fact that Sikorsky refused to allow on-camera interviews of its executives. “We got written statements,” he said. “We were unable to do a back-and-forth with them, and that was frustrating.”
Mr. Cohn also vetted his information with Alan Haggerty, former head of the Apache helicopter program and a lecturer at MIT. “His credentials are impeccable,” said Mr. Cohn. “When he tells us that our information is incredible and that there’s no excuse for it, then you could take that to the bank.”
Mr. Cohn also struggled with a way to make compelling TV when his visuals largely consisted of documents. “We had a lot of videotape of helicopters in Iraq,” he said. “And our editor, George Roelofsen, was able to produce it with the use of editing and effects, to meld the script and the document in a compelling form. The proof of the pudding was when people said the story flew right by, and it was nearly five minutes long.”
The stories had the desired impact. For the first time, Sikorsky agreed to an on-camera interview, with VP of quality control George Klug. The U.S. government gave Sikorsky a “Level 3 Corrective Report,” a reprimand that started the company’s serious actions to fix the quality control problems, and the company had a corporate shakeup to help avoid such problems in the future.
Sikorsky executives congratulated Mr. Cohn on his Peabody win, but that won’t dissuade him from keeping the company on his radar screen.
“My sources say that things are getting better because this has been under the microscope,” he said. “But as far as I’m concerned, the investigation never ends. These are the helicopters flown by our men and women in the armed services every day, and it would be irresponsible for us not to keep a close eye on this.”

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