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THE VERTICAL VISION

More Than a Few Good Men

The Vertical Vision / Part Iii: Casualties

December 17, 2002

Becker, 25, was a graduate of James Madison University. His widow remembers him as "a fun-loving guy" who danced and hunted.

*

COL. JOHN H. DITTO

Call Sign: Ranger Died: Jan. 19, 1981

With 24 years of service, including many missions in Vietnam, Ditto, 44, was among the Marines' most experienced pilots and a member of the Golden Eagles, an elite group of naval aviators.

Though he had flown 4,900 hours, only 13.7 were in the Harrier. He'd been named commanding officer of an air group at Cherry Point that included Harriers and wanted to know how to fly all aircraft in his charge. He called it "a bear of an airplane," said his widow, Susan Page.

Before the crash, Ditto began having dreams -- premonitions, Page thinks -- about flying without an airplane. The day of the crash, she saw him fly past their house not long before a chaplain knocked on the door.

Ditto had ejected too late from his AV-8A after losing control while practicing a vertical takeoff. The investigation concluded he stayed with the plane too long trying to save it, citing his "limited experience."

Ditto had been married 13 years to Page, a former Miss Texas whom he met at an air show.

He left a daughter and a son who recently won his wings as a Marine F/A-18 pilot.

*

MAJ. THOMAS W. TYLER

Died: June 26, 1981

Family members had been invited on board the amphibious assault ship Tarawa for a cruise, and Tyler's fiancee was watching as he did a demonstration flyby in his AV-8A. He was supposed to make several passes by the ship from stern to bow. But after the first pass, he changed direction, heading bow to stern. After narrowly missing the ship, the plane hit the water.

Investigators concluded the "primary cause of the accident was pilot error," noting that the presence of his fiancee "may have altered Maj. Tyler's previous conscientious flying attitude." Their report also faulted shipboard personnel for not warning Tyler sooner that he had strayed from his flight plan.

Tyler graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and flew helicopters in Vietnam. But his real love was the Harrier. "He just loved to fly that plane," said John L. Tyler, his father.

Thomas Tyler, 33, was divorced and had a daughter, who was 7 at the time he was killed.

*

CAPT. JEFFREY C.

FISHBAUGH

Call Sign: Bones Died: Dec. 3, 1981

Soon after Fishbaugh left for a monthlong training exercise in California, a surprise arrived at the family's home in Cherry Point.

He had arranged to have flowers delivered weekly during his absence. There was a bouquet for his wife and a nosegay for his 4-year-old daughter.

"She carried that little nosegay around until it fell apart and the next one came," said his widow, Alexis Fishbaugh Rainey. "That's one of her last memories of him."

He died one day before the exercises were to end when his AV-8A Harrier crashed in the desert during a practice bombing run near Twentynine Palms.

He was 27. Besides his wife and daughter, he left a 6-month-old son.

The investigation report did not cite a cause, but noted that Fishbaugh had previously complained that the radar altimeter was inoperative. The recovered barometric altimeter read 2,500 feet -- 200 feet lower than the impact site, noted the investigator, 1st Lt. Robert G. Wilson Jr.

Wilson was originally scheduled to fly the day Fishbaugh was killed. But when the planned sortie was replaced at the last minute with a more advanced maneuver, an instructor decided Wilson was too inexperienced. Fishbaugh agreed to take his place. Wilson died in a Harrier crash three months later.

*

1st LT. CHARLES E. SIMPSON

Call Sign: Chester Died: Jan. 26, 1982

Simpson was just 10 minutes into a training flight at Yuma, Ariz., when he noticed a fuel tank problem that caused a dangerous weight imbalance in his aircraft.

With ground crews declaring an emergency, Simpson brought the plane in but rolled left and crashed just as he was about to touch down. At final approach, he had 2,800 pounds of fuel on the left side and 1,200 pounds on the right.

An investigation found Simpson's AV-8A had experienced fuel tank problems twice previously. Mechanics did repairs on the plane the first time but took no action the second. Investigators concluded the crash was caused by a known mechanical problem that was not fixed by maintenance crews. But they also blamed Simpson for failing to take the right steps to safely land the plane.

The son of a World War II fighter pilot, Simpson learned to fly as a teenager and studied airport management in college. He flew A-4s until the Marines assigned him to the Harrier in 1980, said his mother, Marva Simpson.

"He was in awe of the Harrier," she said.

Simpson was promoted to captain posthumously. He was 27.

*

1st. LT. ROBERT G.

WILSON JR.

Died: March 5, 1982

After a Harrier crashed in Nevada, Wilson called his mother to assure her he was not the pilot.

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