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More Than a Few Good Men

The Vertical Vision / Part Iii: Casualties

December 17, 2002

Driscoll, 26, who graduated from Villanova on a Navy ROTC scholarship, never seemed intimidated by the Harrier, said his father, John Driscoll. "His mind-set was that he would not do anything that would jeopardize himself."

His son showed an interest in flight at an early age. He liked to watch planes at the airport in Rochester, N.Y., where he grew up. He built more than 50 model airplanes, which remain boxed in his parents' attic. "We don't have the heart or stomach to throw them away," his father said.



Call Sign: J.J. Died: June 30, 1992

Smith took advantage of an air show in Iowa to visit family and friends from his farm community. When it was time to return to his base in Yuma, his parents showed up at the Davenport Municipal Airport to videotape the departure of his AV-8B.

As his plane sped down the runway, the engine lost power, forcing him to abort. He stuck with the plane long enough to steer it into a field before ejecting. But his parachute blew over the burning debris, the panels melted and he dropped to the ground. He died of head injuries the day after the crash. He left a wife and a 7-month-old daughter. He was 29.

Smith's story is the subject of a feature that accompanies these profiles.




Call Sign: Rip Died: Aug. 16, 1992

Van Sickle and another pilot were simulating bombing runs in the desert in Kuwait when his AV-8B crashed.

The investigation found no evidence of mechanical failures and concluded that, "in the absence of any external factors as the cause, the probable cause of the mishap was pilot error." Investigators said problems with the plane's infrared navigation aid, which had been noted three months earlier, could have been a contributing factor.

The middle of three children in a Midwestern family, Van Sickle was a high school tennis star who inherited his interest in flying from his father, Robert Van Sickle, who piloted his own Cessna 172.

Van Sickle told others that the Harrier was a risky plane flown by highly skilled Marines. "He felt that most of the pilots he knew were very competent," Robert Van Sickle said. "They were just faced with a machine that was extremely dangerous and hard to control."

Van Sickle, 31, left a wife and a 3-year-old son. A daughter was born 15 days after his death.



Call Sign: Toxin Died: Aug. 19, 1992

Acosta was the son of Cuban architects who had moved to the United States in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro took power. The fourth of five children, "he decided to get in the armed forces to do something for his country," said his father, Carlos A. Acosta.

Acosta's AV-8B Harrier crashed in shallow water in Pamlico Sound during a training flight that began at Cherry Point. Investigators never determined the cause.

Carlos Acosta said his son was promoted to captain posthumously.

George Acosta understood the Harrier's vulnerabilities but never expressed fear of the plane, his father said. "Many, many times he said, 'If I die in a Harrier, don't cry for me.' That was his dream, to pilot a Harrier."

He was 27.



Call Sign: Bull Died: Aug. 10, 1993

A light rain was falling at Cherry Point as Delaney touched down and took off again in his AV-8B. In the midst of the training maneuver, the flaps malfunctioned and he ejected just before the plane crashed -- but descended into the fireball enveloping his aircraft.

The investigation said two broken wires caused the flaps to fail and cited moisture as a contributing factor. The report noted moisture had caused previous flap control failures.

A Washington, D.C., native, Delaney had flown about 35 missions during the Gulf War and won the Commandant's Trophy during training. He aspired to be an astronaut.

Delaney's father recalled asking his tall, handsome son whether he intended to get married.

"No, dad, my job is too dangerous," Delaney responded. "I don't want to leave a bride and a new baby behind."

He was 31.



Call Sign: Razor Died: Jan. 30, 1995

McKay's AV-8B disappeared at night over the Indian Ocean 140 miles off the coast of Somalia. A three-week search for the 30-year-old pilot and the wreckage ended without success. No cause was ever determined.

McKay had been deployed for several months aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex. His plane had been flown twice previously that day with no problems, according to the investigation report. He did not radio about any troubles with the plane.

He had always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Marine Corps aviator who flew A-6 Intruders in Vietnam and retired in 1986 as a lieutenant colonel.

"When he was in second grade, his teacher asked the class to pick three things they wanted to be when they grew up," said George R. McKay, his father, "and he picked Marine pilot and that was it. Left the other two blank."

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