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THE VERTICAL VISION

More Than a Few Good Men

The Vertical Vision / Part Iii: Casualties

December 17, 2002

Their average age was 30. They came from 24 states and the District of Columbia. Thirty-three were married and three were engaged. They left behind 38 children and five on the way.

They are the 45 Marines who have died in Harrier accidents during the jump jet's 31 years of U.S. service. Two more Marines were killed when their Harriers were shot down during the Persian Gulf War.

With the exception of Lt. Stephen J. Chetneky, a flight surgeon, all were pilots. Some were highly experienced; others were "nuggets." All shared a devotion to the corps and to the Harrier's special mission of using Marine air power to protect Marines on the ground.

Some came from military families, with fathers and even grandfathers who had flown or fought in America's wars. Others stunned their parents when they announced plans to enlist and learn to fly. They typically were high achievers in school and in flight training. Some chose to fly the Harrier, invigorated by the challenge. Others were assigned to the plane by the Marines.

They died in fiery explosions and ill-timed ejections. Some made fatal mistakes. Some did everything right and perished anyway.

Following are the stories of their lives and deaths.

*

MAJ. MICHAEL J. RIPLEY

Died: June 18, 1971

Ripley, a test pilot, was the first to die at the controls of a Harrier in the United States. His AV-8A crashed into Chesapeake Bay during a test flight.

The son of a railroad foreman, Ripley grew up in a small town in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. He finished college and joined the Marines in 1958. After serving in Vietnam, Ripley -- a decorated combat pilot -- began flight training on the Harrier.

Ripley's oldest son, Charles, remembers the excitement of hearing the drone of a military plane every day around noon. "My father would fly over and he'd tip his wings at us," he said.

On his last flight, Ripley flew toward a target in the bay at a steep angle, but then couldn't pull up fast enough to avoid hitting the water.

A Marine investigation found pilot error, said his brother, retired Marine Col. John W. Ripley. "That's almost always the case, especially when you can't recover the aircraft."

Michael Ripley was 33. He had a wife and three sons under the age of 6.

*

CAPT. RICHARD H. BRIGGS

Died: June 5, 1974

Members of Congress and military brass were watching as Briggs, 28, brought his AV-8A in for a landing during a military exercise near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

His plane banked, rolled, then crashed. He didn't survive an ejection into a wooded area, said his widow, Marv Briggs. Investigators blamed pilot error and noted he was flying on five hours' sleep.

An experienced A-4 Skyhawk pilot, he had just 44 hours of flight time in the Harrier. His logbook showed he flew 6.2 hours in the month before his death and 10.2 hours the month before that, his widow said. His wing commander used the incident to write that Harrier pilots needed to fly 17 to 20 hours a month to stay proficient.

Marv Briggs remembered him as a "warm, funny and kind man." A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he flew in the first Harrier squadron trained in this country. "He was very excited about the possibilities of that plane," she said. "It was a whole new part of aviation."

*

CAPT. ROY R. DOUGHERTY

Call Sign: Shank 47 Died: Oct. 9, 1974

The landing gear of Dougherty's AV-8A Harrier collapsed on touchdown at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C. The plane skidded off the runway and flipped into a drainage ditch, where it burst into flames.

As the plane flipped over, the ejection seat was thrown from the cockpit and slammed to the ground with Dougherty still strapped in. He was flown by helicopter to the base hospital, where he died two hours after the crash. He was 30 years old.

He had been assigned to the Harrier for just two months and it was only his third training flight. He left behind a pregnant wife and a 3-year-old son.

He was the oldest of four siblings growing up on a farm in southeast Michigan. Though he planned to enter law school after college, Dougherty instead joined the Marines and fought in Vietnam, said his sister, May Shull. He came home with a Purple Heart and a desire to fly jets, she said.

The family treasures a photo of Dougherty in uniform that he inscribed for his parents. "Rest easy," he wrote. "Your security is in my hands."

*

CAPT. RICHARD F. DAVIS

Call Sign: Rock Died: Feb. 14, 1975

As a child in Terre Haute, Ind., Davis begged to watch jets take off at the airport. He got his pilot's license before his driver's license.

Between semesters at Indiana State University, he attended officer training school and wore the uniform of a Marine lieutenant by the time he graduated.

In 1973, the Marines tapped him to fly the Harrier. "He was ecstatic," said his widow, Annie Davis Kennedy.

When his father fell ill the next year, Davis flew a Harrier to the Terre Haute airport to visit him. People poured onto the tarmac to watch as he made it hover, turn and climb straight up, his brother said.

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