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YUMA, Ariz. – In the entire U.S. arsenal, only the Marine Corps' Harrier attack jet can lift straight up off a runway, hover like a hummingbird, then blast off toward its target. Though many had died flying it, Lt. Col. Peter Yount never thought the plane would let him down. "Difficult but honest," he had called it.

But in 1998, the Harrier betrayed him--not once, but twice. High above the Southern California desert, the plane's engine quit and refused to restart. Then, when Yount, 42, ejected, his seat rotated out of position and his parachute harness smacked against his helmet. The father of two young girls died of a broken neck.

The accident was familiar: Despite three decades of effort and billions of dollars spent to improve it, the Harrier remains the most dangerous airplane in the U.S. military. It has the highest rate of major accidents of any Air Force, Navy, Army or Marine plane in service. Forty-five Marines have died in 143 non-combat accidents since 1971. More than one-third of all Harriers ever in service have been lost to accidents. Yet the Marine Corps is not only pressing ahead with the Harrier but also with a second trouble-prone aircraft that takes off vertically, the V-22 Osprey troop transport. After 20 years and $12.6 billion, the Osprey is still undergoing testing to prove its safety. Twenty-three Marines died in two crashes in 2000 alone.

Undeterred, the Marines are to receive a version of the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter that can take off after a short roll and land vertically. The warplane is being developed for the Air Force and Navy as well, but only the Marine model will have this special capability. Still more such planes are envisioned for the distant future.


This devotion to the Harrier and to the challenging concept underlying it is all the more striking because the plane has played only a peripheral combat role. "If the Harrier had been decisive many times in battle, we would all still regret horribly the tragedies of the pilots who have been killed, but at least you would be able to say that the Harrier made a difference," said Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester from 1994 to 2001.

"What makes this situation so difficult is that we just don't have that kind of battlefield record to support the accidental deaths," he said.In the 1991 Persian Gulf war, for instance, the hot thrust-producing nozzles in the heart of the fuselage that allow the Harrier to rise and hover, made the plane a magnet for heat-seeking missiles. Its loss rate was more than twice that of other leading U.S. combat jets in the conflict. Five Harriers were shot down, and two pilots died.

"It's the most vulnerable plane that's in service now," said Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, who evaluates tactical aircraft for the Pentagon. "You can't hit that thing without hitting something important." Critics add that in the last decade, the use of laser-guided ordnance by conventional bombers and drones has diminished the need for the Harrier's brand of close air support.

Afghanistan provided the kind of battlefield where the Marines had maintained the Harrier would make a crucial difference. Yet U.S. commanders held the Harrier out of the first four weeks of combat. As other planes pummeled Taliban and Al Qaeda targets, Harriers based on the Navy's amphibious assault ship Peleliu practiced attack maneuvers over the Arabian Sea, hundreds of miles from the action.

The Marines hope the Harrier will play a more dramatic role if there is war with Iraq. But given its limitations, many defense officials and military analysts doubt it. In part, the Marines' persistence with the crash-prone aircraft springs from their position as the smallest U.S. combat service and their dependence on the Navy, which oversees the Marines' aviation finances.


Since 1957, the Marines have nurtured the dream of a flying force to assure the branch's independence from the others.

At the heart of this vision have been planes that could be positioned close to combat zones, able to provide transportation and support for troops without depending on aircraft carriers or traditional airfields. The hybrid aircraft were to combine a helicopter's ability to lift off from small clearings or damaged runways and an airplane's speed to race to the rescue of Marines in trouble. The Marines acknowledge the Harrier has been a rough ride, but they say it has been worthwhile. Accidents are the price of technological progress, officials say, and the Harrier has proved its value in combat.

"I would resist with all my moral fiber the idea that we would willingly or knowingly try to bring aboard a program--V-22 or anything else--and so fall in love with the program that we would put people at risk to ride in those vehicles," Marine Commandant James Jones said at a forum last year. The evidence suggests many of the deaths were preventable.

The Marines knew for years that the Harrier was bedeviled by mechanical problems and had exceptionally demanding maintenance requirements. Yet the corps moved slowly to fix known shortcomings. In Yount's case, a mechanic incorrectly installed a part that led to the failure of the temperamental engine, and the ejection system had killed two other pilots.

The Harrier has more than twice the lifetime accident rate of the Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcon, a single-engine tactical aircraft like its Marine Corps counterpart, that has been in service since 1979.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

Special to – 15 December 2002

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