Twelve years after Maj. Roland P. Wheeler died in a Harrier crash, his widow, Brandi, still drives her white Toyota Camry with his call sign -- "Wheels" -- stamped on her license plate. Even within the macho culture of military aviation, she said, Harrier pilots hold a certain swaggering cachet: "If you flew the Harrier, you walked on water and glowed in the dark."
After watching so many colleagues die, some pilots and their families have decided the risk is too great. Gary Pheasant left the Marine Corps in 1988, with 1,800 flight hours in the Harrier, when his wife decided she could no longer live with the dread.
"When I'd go fly," he said, "she'd make sure the house was clean. She figured the chaplain could be coming over at any moment."
Love at First Sight
No wonder the Harrier enthralled the Marines when they first saw it at a British air show in 1968. With wings distinctively swept back and angled downward, the plane is a technological marvel when it is flying well.
Named after a low-flying marsh hawk, the Harrier has a massive Rolls-Royce engine that supplies 23,800 pounds of thrust through four nozzles that pivot down to produce a shimmering blast of hot air. The thrust can propel the plane off the ground and into a hover, a process that pilots compare to balancing an elephant on the head of a pencil.
The British developed the Harrier in the 1960s to counter the threat of a Soviet attack. If allied air bases were destroyed, a dispersed fleet of Harriers could counterattack from glens or roads.
Marine pilot Thomas H. Miller, then a colonel, was one of the first two Americans to fly the British Harrier. "If I had my way, I'd have a squadron of those things tomorrow," he told his superiors upon his return. "I think we can save an awful lot of young people's lives."
The Marines got their first jump jets in 1971. Over the ensuing 31 years, the corps received 397 Harriers, first from Hawker Siddeley Aviation Ltd. and British Aerospace Inc., and then from McDonnell Douglas Corp., lead contractor on the second version of the plane.
The Marines now have 154 Harriers. The plane is no longer in production but is scheduled to remain in service another 13 to 17 years.
Despite its early billing, the Harrier turned out to have a crippling flaw: It crashed at an alarming rate.
Other military planes have killed more pilots because there are more of them, and they log more hours in the air. But by the accepted standard of U.S. military aviation safety -- major accidents per 100,000 flight hours -- the Harrier has no peer among active planes today.
Major accidents are known in the military as Class A mishaps if they cause death, permanent injury or at least $1 million in losses (the dollar figure has increased over time).
The Class A mishap rate for the first model of the Harrier, the AV-8A, was astronomical -- 31.77 accidents per 100,000 hours. Notoriously unstable, it had a propensity for rolling over and slamming into the ground. Well over half were lost to accidents. One tragedy-scarred squadron dubbed the plane "the Widow-Maker."
Promising dramatic improvement, the Marines replaced it with the more stable and capable AV-8B model in the mid-1980s.
"Any safety problems, perceived or real, with the AV-8A have been specifically designed out of the AV-8B," Col. Harold Clark, a Harrier program officer, proclaimed in 1981.
But by 1996, nearly a quarter of the new planes had crashed.
The lifetime accident rate for the Marines' AV-8B is 11.44 per 100,000 hours of flight, well over the combined rates for other attack and fighter planes flown during those years by the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force.
It is more than twice the lifetime accident rate of the Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcon, a single-engine tactical aircraft like the Harrier that has been in service since 1979. It is nearly five times higher than the A-10 Warthog, an Air Force attack plane that has been flying since 1976. And it is more than 3 1/2 times the rate of the F/A-18 Hornet, a twin-engine combat plane flown since 1980 by the Navy and Marines that, like the Harrier, operates largely off ships.
The Harrier Review Panel, a Marine commission that issued a 1998 report on the AV-8B's problems, wrote that the Harrier's accident rates "seem always to have been a decade or more behind the rest of the tactical aviation world."
All told, Harriers have been involved in more than 300 accidents and 900 less serious incidents, according to the Naval Safety Center's aviation database. The loss to taxpayers exceeds $1.8 billion. And those figures don't include the plane's calamitous first decade.
The Marines had a glimmer of hope in 2001. The Harrier earned its lowest Class A mishap rate ever: 2.74 per 100,000 hours of flight. That prompted Commandant Jones to say last February that "the Harrier is flying unbelievably well."