Websites appear and disappear every day. The internet is an amorphous beast, constantly being edited and updated. We accept these changes as simple fact, but crucial information is frequently removed from government websites—and small changes over time can have major downstream consequences.
I made the disturbing discovery recently that, amid a dramatic five-year spike in aviation accidents, the Navy has put aviation safety data that used to be public behind a wall. I bumped into this change while researching for the documentary film Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?, which uncovers the long history of negligence and institutional failure surrounding the 53E helicopter, the deadliest aircraft in the U.S. military.
I lost a high-school friend in the 2014 training accident that killed Wes Van Dorn, and soon after, I began investigating why he died. The safety data on Navy accidents that is now blocked was public when I began my reporting, and it was indispensable in producing what was first a newspaper series, then an NBC Nightly News investigation, and now a feature documentary. Without that safety data, these stories would have been far more difficult to tell.
The decision to suppress this data from public view came as the Navy, which also oversees Marine aviation, was dealing with headlines pointing out that its safety problems are increasing faster than any other branch: The Navy has seen an 82 percent spike in accidents between the 2013 and 2017 fiscal years, while the overall military increase for that same period of time is 40 percent.