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THE VERTICAL VISION

Far From Battlefield, Marines Lose One-Third of Harrier Fleet

The corps, persuing its long-held dream of a unique flying force, pays a heavy price: 45 of its elite officers killed

December 15, 2002|Alan C. Miller and Kevin Sack | Times Staff Writers

The Marines had a disastrous time with the first Harrier, the AV-8A, destroying 66 of 114 planes in accidents. They vowed that its successor, the AV-8B, would end the safety problems. The record improved, but the AV-8B is still the most dangerous military plane in service.

1981: "Any safety problems, perceived or real, with the

AV-8A have been specifically designed out of the AV-8B."--Col. Harold Clark, Harrier program official.

1984: The AV-8B enters the fleet. Accident rate falls dramatically from the AV-8A but stays high compared to other military planes.

1990: Col. James Hart, Harrier program manager, tells a House committee the AV-8B "is a significantly safer aircraft than its predecessors," even though 24 of the first 204 crashed.

1990: The AV-8B has 11 major accidents, two of them fatal. Marines hold a symposium to decide what to do.

1991: The AV-8B flies extensively in the Persian Gulf War, but the introduction of a new night-attack model is delayed after a crash in California reveals problems with Rolls-Royce engines. Casing flexed at high speeds and caused fires.

1992: Defense Department's inspector general reports the Harrier engine still "ranks low in reliability" after seven upgrades, yet concludes that the Navy and Marines are "taking appropriate actions" to reduce accidents.

1996: The AV-8B has the highest major accident rate of any active plane in the military. Lt. Gen. Harold W. Blot, Marine aviation chief, tells a House panel it "is still a safe plane to fly. We wouldn't fly an airplane that we feel is putting pilots at risk."

1996: Marine blue-ribbon panel on the AV-8B cites "significant progress" with engine modifications and makes recommendations to reduce accidents. Nearly one-quarter of all AV-8Bs have been lost.

1997: Two crashes in eight days prompt Marine Corps commandant to name a Harrier Review Panel to assess problems and recommend solutions.

1998: The review panel releases findings and makes more than 50 recommendations for wide-ranging improvements, many of which are later funded.

1999: Seven major accidents push the AV-8B's rate to a

12-year high.

2000: Investigators conclude an engine fire that led to a nonfatal crash was caused by an engine-bearing assembly failure. The same bearing assembly had failed at least four times previously in other Harriers. Many of the AV-8Bs are grounded for at least six weeks; some remain out of service for nearly a year.

2000: Marine Commandant James L. Jones meets with Sir Ralph Robins, Rolls-Royce chairman, to discuss how to improve handling of the engine. Both parties commit more resources.

2001: The AV-8B records its lowest annual accident rate.

"The Marines Corps' AV-8B is one of the success stories of this past year," Jones tells a Senate subcommittee. "It's a wonderful story."

2002: Three crashes push the accident rate back up.

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Note: A Class A mishap is an accident that causes death or permanent injury or $1 million in damage (financial figure has increased over time).

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Sources: Naval Safety Center, Air Force Safety Center, Defense Department and Marine Corps reports, Congressional Record, newspaper clippings and interviews

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Researched by Times staff writers Alan C. Miller and Kevin Sack, Times news researcher Janet Lundblad and Times graphics reporter Joel Greenberg

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

About This Series

In reporting this series, The Times analyzed 87 judge advocate general investigation reports of individual Harrier accidents between 1971 and 2001, most of which were obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The JAG office, a unit of the Navy, which oversees Marine Corps aviation, withheld portions of some reports, citing privacy and national security concerns.

The Times also based its findings on information from the Naval Safety Center's aviation database, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act as well. The database includes voluminous records on Navy and Marine aircraft and crewmen involved in accidents from 1980 through mid-2002.

The Marine Corps provided information on Harrier safety, maintenance and combat records, including a breakdown of Harrier accidents and fatalities.

Comparative statistics about accident rates were provided by the Naval Safety Center and Air Force Safety Center. Harrier cost data came from the Naval Air Systems Command and the Navy Center for Cost Analysis.

The Marines did not provide the identity of pilots killed in crashes. The names and backgrounds of pilots who died in the Harrier were compiled through searches of the Marine Corps Historical Center, National Archives, news clippings and online databases, as well as interviews with other fliers and family members. The Times interviewed at least one relative of each of the 45 Marines killed in Harrier accidents.

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