More Than a Few Good Men
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.
Davis died four months later. His AV-8A Harrier rolled and crashed on Feb. 13, 1975, during a vertical takeoff at Cherry Point. He was 27.
A flashlight left in the engine bay or contamination of the hydraulic system could have caused the accident, investigators said.
Three more pilots in his squadron were killed in Harriers over the next four years. “I was shocked and amazed when I heard that,” Kennedy said. “I just thought, ‘Is this never going to stop?’ ”
CAPT. CLEVE B. DOSTER
Died: July 3, 1975
Doster, 26, was flying a training sortie with Maj. Woody F. Gilliland, who was in his own Harrier. Gilliland’s plane lost power because of a mechanical problem and he ejected successfully, parachuting into a cotton field near Bennetsville, S.C. Soon afterward, Doster’s Harrier crashed into trees. The cause could not be determined, but officials assume he lost control while trying to locate Gilliland for rescuers.
A bright, gregarious and athletic Marine with a compact 5-foot-7 frame, Doster came from a remarkable military family.
His father, Col. Grover Cleveland Doster, was a Marine aviator who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, then served as a White House naval aide during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Cleve Doster held a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the University of West Florida. He dreamed of being an astronaut. He had been married for three years.
“He had always wanted to fly and his idea of flight was real fast flight,” said his younger brother, David Doster.
CAPT. DONALD P.
Call Sign: K-10 Died: Dec. 16, 1976
Kaltenbaugh’s AV-8A crashed into the Sea of Japan during a training flight.
His widow, Judy Kaltenbaugh, said the Marines told her he became disoriented in the fog. “I was told he got turned upside-down and instead of pulling up, he plunged down into the water.”
A graduate of Cal Poly Pomona, he flew other aircraft before training on the Harrier in January 1976. “Donnie lived and breathed to fly,” his widow said.
At the time he died, his oldest daughter was 4 and his twin girls were 1 1/2. “The most tragic part about this is that they didn’t know him,” Judy Kaltenbaugh said. “He adored them.”
Kaltenbaugh was 29.
1st LT. THOMAS J. EVANS
Died: April 6, 1977
Heavy crosswinds battered the runway as Evans set out to practice a vertical takeoff in his AV-8A in Beaufort, S.C.
A novice Harrier pilot, Evans, 25, had a hard time controlling the plane in previous attempts. Now, with the wind whipping around him, he lifted his plane off the runway, hovered and lost control as he tried to accelerate into conventional flight. The plane rolled to the left, dropped nose down and bounced so hard on the ground that it detonated Evans’ ejection seat. He died of a skull fracture and internal injuries.
The investigation described Evans as “an inexperienced first-tour aviator” and suggested that pilot error caused the crash. But the report also found fault with the decision to let Evans take off in heavy winds.
He was married and had a 2-year-old son. A scholarship was named for Evans at his New Jersey high school, where he was an athlete who made top grades, said his brother, David Evans.
CAPT. TIMOTHY C. KREPPS
Call Sign: Tango Charlie Died: July 12, 1977
Krepps crashed into the Atlantic during a demonstration for several high-ranking government officials, including Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor Jr. and Bert Lance, then director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“It was a horrific sort of thing,” recalled Lance, who was on board the carrier Saratoga with the other observers. “They were giving some kind of flyby demonstration and maybe a firing demonstration. It was out on the horizon. You could see him disappear.”
The investigative report found that Krepps, 30, “became disoriented” and may have been confused by clouds or distracted by cockpit tasks. Little of the AV-8A was found, and Krepps was lost at sea. He was married and had two sons, 7 and 9 at the time.
“He was really gung-ho about learning to fly the Harrier,” said Krepps’ sister, Judy Corcoran. “He understood the complex nature of it. And he was a bit afraid of it, especially when these accidents started happening.”
Call Sign: Bayou Died: July 26, 1977
Franovich was the first in his large, extended Cajun family to explore life beyond the oil rigs off Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, said his widow, Pam Franovich Kinard. After graduating from Louisiana State University, he joined the Marines and flew F-4 Phantoms. He requested a transfer to the Harrier program in North Carolina shortly after they lost their 2-week-old firstborn child, she said.
One day the base commander dropped in on a meeting of officers’ wives. “He and the chaplain told us that they knew there were a lot of fears, but we needed to support our husbands,” Kinard said. “They brought out a wife whose husband had to eject from the Harrier but survived. He died later in another Harrier accident.”
She knew it was her turn when she saw a chaplain approaching at the Cherry Point base hospital, where she had taken their second child for a routine checkup. Witnesses saw Franovich’s AV-8A descend into the Bay River in the rain and explode. An investigation couldn’t determine the cause. Franovich was 32.
Four months after his death, Kinard gave birth to their third child, a son she named Tony.
CAPT. CHARLES G. REED
Call Sign: Husky Died: Sept. 6, 1977
Reed flew into a mountainside during a bombing training run at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
The cause was never determined. But investigators surmised that Reed, 30, didn’t realize how close he was flying to the rugged terrain -- perhaps partly because his altimeter wasn’t working properly. He had complained to a fellow pilot that the device was acting up during a flight the previous day, the accident report said.
Investigators recommended that the Marines equip all AV-8A aircraft with an audio and visual low-altitude warning system. It was added to the plane over the next few years.
A highly regarded pilot, Reed left a pregnant wife and three children between 1 and 4. His father, a private and commercial pilot, had died in a plane crash about three years earlier.
CAPT. JOSEPH GALLO
Call sign: Cobra Died: Oct. 2, 1978
Dana Gallo said her husband advised her to sue if he died flying a Harrier.
“He had lost too many friends in accidents,” she said. “He loved the aircraft, loved what it could do, but it was not a forgiving aircraft.”
His AV-8A Harrier crashed in the Chocolate Mountains east of California’s Salton Sea during a bombing training run. He flew into the ground inverted, according to his wingman. No cause was ever determined, Dana Gallo said. She never sued.
Gallo had flown Cobra helicopters in Vietnam and was one of the first Marine helicopter pilots to make the transition to the Harrier. After learning to fly the plane, he had served in Japan and the Mediterranean.
The son of a career Army officer, Gallo was due for a promotion to major when he was killed, Dana Gallo said. He was 34. He left two sons, who were 2 and 5 at the time of his death.
1st LT. ROBERT C. MURRAY
Call Sign: Sweet Biscuit Died: Oct. 12, 1979
Murray was a by-the-book Marine who wore his hair short and regularly attended Bible study.
He grew up in Mississippi, son of a World War II military pilot and a schoolteacher. He was an Eagle Scout, played high school football and tinkered with the piano, trumpet and French horn. His father told him he would buy him a car if he didn’t take a drink or smoke a cigarette before graduating from Mississippi State. Murray had little trouble meeting the challenge. He got a shiny new Ford.
As a Marine, he was a cautious but fearless pilot, family members say. “One day I said to him, ‘Robert, I know what you’re doing is terribly dangerous,’ ” recalled his mother, Marjorie Murray. “But he said: ‘Mama, don’t worry about me. If anything happens to me, I’ll be face to face with my savior, Jesus Christ.’ ”
His AV-8A crashed during a training flight over the Atlantic just off Cape Lookout, N.C. He hit the water at a steep angle and a high rate of speed. He never ejected. His body was never found and the plane was destroyed. No cause was ever determined.
Murray was 25.
CAPT. ARTHUR G. MORRELL
Call Sign: Otter Died: March 13, 1980
Morrell flew into a 200-foot-thick cloud bank at the start of a short trip back to base at Cherry Point, N.C. Two fishermen in a waterway below heard the AV-8A crash and reached the wreckage first.
The family was never told the cause of the accident, said his father, Wallace Morrell, who died earlier this month. “The explanation was simply that he went in the water and they didn’t know why.”
Arthur Morrell had co-captained the football team at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and married his high school sweetheart the day before graduating with a degree in mathematics. He had two sons, one 7 months and the other 2 years old, when he died at the age of 26.
“I tried to be mad at him and the Marine Corps for about two seconds,” said his widow, Blenda Morrell Long. “But flying is what he wanted to do with his life, and he accomplished it. How many people can say that?”
1st LT. DONALD P. BECKER
Call Sign: Dirt Died: May 1, 1980
When the Marines assigned Becker to the AV-8A, his wife felt some trepidation.
“We had heard there were accidents and different things that tended to go wrong with the plane,” said Catherine Waid Keating. “There was definitely a sense of a safety issue.”
The crash that took his life was one of the most spectacular in Harrier history: During a vertical takeoff at Cherry Point, his plane rolled, dropped to the runway, bounced into a ditch, burst into flames, flipped, slid through a hangar and into a parking lot, where it damaged 20 vehicles.
The Marines never determined the cause of the crash, though an engineering analysis found no evidence of mechanical failure.
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.
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.
Died: March 5, 1982
After a Harrier crashed in Nevada, Wilson called his mother to assure her he was not the pilot.
“I said, ‘Robbie, why do you fly that damnable airplane?’ ” recalled his mother, Ann Bandgren. “And he said: ‘Mother, it’s not a damnable aircraft. It’s a wonderful aircraft and I love it. I’m right with God, and I’m doing what I want to do.’ ”
Wilson’s own AV-8A crashed on March 4, 1982, while he was attempting to land from a hover during a training exercise at Cherry Point.
According to Bandgren, he was dropping onto a small metal pad surrounded by trees. The plane drifted left. When he tried to correct it, he became enveloped in debris kicked up by the nozzles. The plane rolled and Wilson ejected, but into the ground. He survived for about 15 hours. A letter Bandgren received from the squadron commander said, “The final cause was undetermined, with most probable cause as pilot error.”
Wilson, 25, was the oldest of three brothers, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and had been married less than six weeks when he was killed.
1st LT. KENNETH A.
Call Sign: Grover Died: Sept. 24, 1982
Donnelly, 26, was a devout Christian utterly devoted to the Marine Corps, said his wife, Rosemarie Donnelly.
“He believed that it was a calling almost,” she said.
He picked the Harrier when he left flight school, she said, even though he considered it “a squirrelly plane” that “took a really delicate touch” to fly.
Donnelly believed in the aircraft’s mission of providing close air support to ground troops. And he was supremely confident in his ability to handle it, she said. “He was not intimidated by anything.”
His AV-8A Harrier crashed into the North Sea near Germany shortly after he took off from a ship during a training exercise. Navy officials said they cannot find the investigative reports on the incident. But his widow said she was told that his Harrier went down after encountering wind shear.
They had been married three years. “He said he thought he had the best job of anyone in the world,” she said.
1st LT. WILLIAM M. SQUIRE
Call Sign: Jackal Died: Dec. 1, 1982
Squire was the inquisitive son, the fifth of seven siblings, who was always in motion. He raised pheasants, repaired cuckoo clocks, and picked and canned 52 quarts of cherries to surprise his parents one year.
Although his father, an inventor, could comfortably send him to college, Squire insisted on paying his own way. He enlisted in the Marine Corps ROTC and graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1979 with an officer’s commission and an engineering degree.
His AV-8A crashed during a practice bombing run at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma. Squire had just completed his fifth bombing pass when the aircraft went into a fatal dive, said his father, Edward Squire.
The cause of the accident is not known. Squire was 25.
CAPT. PAUL L. SPARGO JR.
Died: April 27, 1983
A jammed control stick downed Spargo’s two-seat training plane. The TAV-8A had crashed previously and been rebuilt. Before Spargo’s crash, a pilot had reported a jammed control stick, but mechanics couldn’t find a cause and recertified it for flight.
The stick stuck again on Spargo during vertical takeoff from Cherry Point. Spargo’s student, Dwight Motz, ejected safely but Spargo was seconds too late. He hit the ground, breaking his neck. The investigation found that a spare part, a metal hose adapter, had been left beneath the cockpit floorboard and had caused the stick to jam.
A Connecticut native, Spargo, 30, had been in the Marines for 10 years, flying Harriers virtually the whole time.
His widow, Ann Spargo, said he was a well-balanced man who was bright, thoughtful, funny and sensitive.
Motz described him as a meticulous, hard-working pilot who had a gentle touch with those he was training. “He always had a positive side to a negative event,” Motz said.
1st LT. DONALD R. FLATLIE
Call Sign: Flatbush Died: April 25, 1985
Flatlie was practicing dogfighting maneuvers with another plane when he banked his AV-8A too severely. The plane failed to recover from its turn, hit the ground and exploded.
He had personality conflicts with some squadron members, including the other pilot, according to his widow, Lori Leatherbee. But investigators said those conflicts did not affect his job performance. The investigation cited “pilot error in judgment” as the cause of the crash at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev.
Flatlie, 29, was “a Marine first and a pilot second,” Leatherbee said. “It was in his blood. He was pretty loyal to the grunts, which is why he was set on flying an aircraft that would work with the men on the ground.”
A native of small-town North Dakota, Flatlie graduated from North Dakota State University. Leatherbee described him as a meticulous Marine who took pride in staying in shape and keeping his shoes shined. “His closet was organized short sleeves to long sleeves, everything in order, because of his Marine training,” she said.
CAPT. DANIEL P. CAMPBELL
Call Sign: Indian Died: Aug. 12, 1987
Campbell died of a broken neck when his seat unexpectedly ejected during a training flight over Pamlico County, N.C.
Lt. Steven J. Chetneky, a Marine flight surgeon in the other seat of the TAV-8A training plane, also died in the crash.
Investigators blamed the accident on a small, undetected fracture in the acrylic canopy that gave way under the pressure of flight. The canopy shattered, triggering the ejection seat. Investigators recommended that maintenance workers begin inspecting TAV-8A canopies weekly.
Campbell was born in Cahokia, Ill., to an Ogallala Sioux mother and Air Force veteran father. He attended Parks College of Aeronautics in Cahokia, then enlisted in the Marines. He and his wife, Nancy Campbell Jobin, had two sons, ages 7 and 9 at the time of the crash.
“I know wholeheartedly that if Dan had known on Aug. 12, 1987, what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have changed a single thing that he did,” she said. “He was dedicated to his country and to the Marine Corps and that in itself gives me some comfort.”
Campbell was 33.
LT. STEPHEN J. CHETNEKY
Died: Aug. 12, 1987
He was the flight surgeon catching a ride in the rear seat of the TAV-8A Harrier training plane piloted by Capt. Campbell. As the aircraft plummeted, Chetneky ejected too late, and his seat hit the ground before his parachute could open.
Thirty-seven years earlier, when Chetneky was 7 months old, his father was killed in the crash of his F-86 Sabre Jet at the end of a routine flight in California.
Chetneky’s mother, Irene, remembered her son as a compassionate child who brought home stray animals that inevitably became family pets. “We had dogs, birds, fish, turtles, rabbits,” she said.
He attended college and medical school in New Jersey then joined the Navy. Like other flight surgeons, who perform a variety of medical duties in their squadrons, he occasionally took back-seat training flights to become accustomed to the plane.
Call Sign: Skivvies Died: March 1, 1988
Scrivenor had a photographic memory and was constantly studying the Harrier training manual, said his widow, Sharman Scrivenor. That’s why family members found the circumstances surrounding his death so befuddling.
He died while flying his AV-8B during an air-to-air combat training run that caused violent G-forces to snap his spinal cord in two places. His plane crashed in the Neuse River near Cherry Point.
An investigation concluded that Scrivenor, 28, had been flying too fast and may have improperly switched off the roll-stabilization system. Even so, the report made a point of commending him as an “aggressive and knowledgeable” pilot.
Sharman Scrivenor remains convinced the plane malfunctioned. She said her husband had not wanted to fly the Harrier because of its safety record. But once assigned to it, he devoted himself to learning how to fly it well, she said.
He was a perfectionist by nature, who made himself good at anything he tried, she said, whether cabinetmaking, landscaping, tennis or trick water skiing. He grew up in Columbia, S.C., and graduated from Virginia Tech, where he and Sharman met. They had been married for five years.
1st LT. KERRY D. DALE
Call Sign: Toad Died: July 13, 1988
The flaps malfunctioned on Dale’s AV-8B Harrier seconds after takeoff from Cherry Point. As he lost control, the plane tore through a tree line, hit the ground and exploded.
An investigation concluded that an electrical short caused the flaps to fail. But the report also blamed Dale for not landing the crippled plane safely, and noted that he waited too long to eject.
Dale’s father, Jim P. Dale, said his son was tired that morning because he and his wife, Tami, had been up much of the night with their sick 4-month-old baby.
But the elder Dale resents the finding of pilot error.
“I think it was just an extremely complex dadgum aircraft with extremely complex avionics in it,” the father said.
Dale, 26, was president of the senior class at his Texas high school and an all-star football player, family members said. He attended Baylor University, where he studied business before joining the Marines.
“Every time we’d talk and say goodbye, the last thing I’d say was, ‘Kerry, fly safe,’ ” his father said. “And he’d say, ‘I will, Pop.’ ”
1st LT. JAMES T.
Call Sign: Bullet Died: May 3, 1989
Richards apparently didn’t set his AV-8B’s nozzles properly during a short takeoff and lost control during the complicated maneuver. He tried to eject but the plane was in the process of flipping.
The lead investigator found that Richards made mistakes because he was “task overloaded” and feeling rushed by his recent transfer from a training squadron to his new flight squadron.
But the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing later rejected that finding and called Richards, who had flown only 77.9 hours in the Harrier, “a competent, though inexperienced pilot.” The crash was attributed to pilot error.
Richards, 26, grew up in Charleston, S.C., the son of a physician, and attended the University of Virginia. His parents remain bitter about the assignment of pilot error, saying their son was pushed into attempting a maneuver he was not prepared to perform. “They’ve got to protect the instrument,” said his father, James T. Richards, “because other people are going to be using it.”
1st LT. EARLE J. ANDERSON
Call Sign: Edge Died: Jan. 26, 1990
Anderson was a native of Clemson, S.C., and a graduate of the Citadel, which he attended on a Marine Corps scholarship.
“He was an all-conference, all-state wrestler,” said Richard Anderson, his brother. “You looked at him and you just thought he was invincible.”
He died while on a training flight from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Osan Air Base in South Korea. His AV-8B Harrier fell from 35,800 feet, sliced through a cloud bank and disappeared into the water. Neither the plane nor the body of Anderson, 25, was ever found.
The cause of the accident remains unknown. Investigators guessed that Anderson lost consciousness, perhaps from a depressurized cockpit. He may have missed danger signs because he had become “task saturated” while flying the plane, their report speculated.
CAPT. THOMAS KOLB
Call Sign: Magnum Died: Feb. 12, 1990
“Magnum, you’re on fire! Eject, eject, eject!”
1st Lt. Ricardo L. Fresquez radioed those frantic instructions to Kolb while flying in formation with him near Twentynine Palms. Smoke was pouring from the hot nozzles of Kolb’s AV-8B. Seconds later, Kolb ejected and his Harrier crashed into a mountainside. He was found dead on the ground with a broken neck.
The accident investigation found a compressor blade broke, which caused a fuel leak that ignited. The report was not conclusive about Kolb’s death but suggested the ejection seat malfunctioned. An internal report found evidence that some of the lanyards that stabilize the seat had deteriorated.
“They knew of the problems previous to my brother’s dying,” said Kolb’s sister, Linda Stovall. “Why did it have to come to the point of so many young men dying?”
Kolb enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1988, two years after graduating from San Diego State University. He finished first in his flight class and chose to fly the Harrier because he wanted to support Marines on the ground, said his father, Leonard Kolb.
Kolb was 28.
MAJ. ROLAND P. WHEELER
Call Sign: Wheels Died: Oct. 2, 1990
At 37, Wheeler was an experienced Marine pilot and flight instructor with 1,759 hours of flying time, the vast majority of them in the Harrier.
He died of brain and heart injuries after ejecting from his AV-8B during a low-altitude training flight over a dense North Carolina forest. He hit the trees before his parachute opened.
The investigation could not determine the cause of the crash, though it found that “human factors must be considered.”
Another pilot and a witness on the ground reported seeing flames coming from the plane shortly before it crashed. But investigators found no physical evidence of fire before impact and concluded that the witnesses may simply have seen the detonation that launches the ejection seat from the plane.
Wheeler, father of three, had been in the Marine Corps for 15 years.
CAPT. MANUEL RIVERA JR.
Call Sign: Buick Died: Jan. 22, 1991
Rivera made 29 landings aboard his squadron’s ship in the three weeks before his crash. But on the night he died, while conducting a training mission during the Persian Gulf War, he smashed into the Omani coastline while approaching the deck of the amphibious assault ship Nassau for a landing, according to a Marine investigation.
The cause could not be determined. Investigators initially speculated Rivera may have become disoriented by a false horizon or that his vision may have been obscured by condensation on the AV-8B’s canopy. But senior officers dismissed those explanations as guesswork.
The son of a career Marine, Rivera grew up in public housing in the South Bronx as the oldest of four children. He was a champion racquetball and handball player who aspired to become an astronaut.
After his death at the age of 31, a school, a housing project, a street and a park in the Bronx were named for him. He left his estate to his mother with instructions that she use the proceeds to buy a house.
“He said flying was like going to heaven, that it was gorgeous up there,” said Lydia Rivera, a sister.
CAPT. THOMAS P. DRISCOLL
Call Sign: Biscuit Died: Nov. 11, 1991
When his AV-8B was in trouble, Driscoll steered away from the Spanish village of Villagarcia de la Torre and ejected with the plane upside down. His parachute broke away before he reached the ground.
The investigation determined that a problem with the ailerons caused the crash but offered no explanation for the parachute failure.
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.
CAPT. JEFFREY J. SMITH
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.
CAPT. MICHAEL R.
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.
1st LT. GEORGE M. ACOSTA
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.
CAPT. WILLIAM P. DELANEY
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.
CAPT. RAYMOND N. McKAY
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.”
McKay had been married less than a year when he died. George McKay said his son never expressed any fear or concern about the Harrier, though he did complain about lack of flying time.
CAPT. STEVEN E. BEGEHR
Call Sign: Booger Died: Sept. 18, 1995
Begehr was flying his AV-8B in formation during a night training run in North Carolina when his plane clipped another Harrier and crashed into the Neuse River.
The other Harrier made it safely back to Cherry Point. It took 12 days to locate Begehr’s body and the wreckage.
A Marine report attributed the crash to a momentary distraction. “Operating within the demanding environment of flying a close parade formation position, at night, left very little room for error,” it said.
Begehr’s parents, German immigrants, said he loved flying. “He said to me one time, ‘You know, Mom, I can’t believe they’re paying me for it,’ ” said his mother, Lore Begehr of Danville, Calif.
A graduate of San Jose State University, Begehr had been married three years. He was 28.
CAPT. RONALD C.
Call Sign: Wiggy Died: Feb. 16, 1996
Walkerwicz was one of four Harrier pilots involved in the daring rescue of a downed Air Force pilot, Capt. Scott O’Grady, in Bosnia in 1995. The Harriers provided cover for the helicopter that plucked O’Grady from hostile territory.
Walkerwicz , 30, a Marine for eight years, had been obsessed with the Harrier ever since studying its use by the British in the Falkland Islands War, said his father, William Walkerwicz. He said his son “knew they were flying the most unforgiving aircraft in our arsenal.”
His AV-8B crashed after apparently being struck by lightning shortly after takeoff from Cherry Point in foggy and windy conditions. The lightning set fire to one wing, then part of the wing broke off. He never ejected from his plane.
Walkerwicz, who grew up in New York state, died two months before he was to be married.
CAPT. DALE W. MULKEY
Call Sign: Pops Died: Oct. 7, 1996
Mulkey was blown out of the sky when three bombs, all with expired fuses, detonated prematurely aboard his AV-8B as he flew a training mission over California’s Chocolate Mountains. One fellow pilot compared the descending plane to a meteorite.
Investigators initially blamed Mulkey for flying too slow at too steep an angle when he tried to release the bombs. Higher-ranking officials rejected that finding and harshly criticized the ordnance handlers who had loaded the bombs.
“My feeling is it never should have happened and I don’t want it to ever happen to another family,” said Judith Long, Mulkey’s mother. “I’m just disgusted with the military for the way it was handled, and I hope they corrected the problem.”
Mulkey, 32, was born in Pueblo, Colo. He was a diligent student, won varsity letters in track and football, and spent his summers as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at a local park.
He met his wife, Katherine, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Their daughters were 5 and 4 at the time of his death.
LT. COL. PETER E. YOUNT
Call Sign: Gator Died: April 22, 1998
Yount ejected after his engine failed during a training flight over the Imperial Valley. He was killed when his seat rotated out of position and his parachute harness straps snapped against his helmet, breaking his neck.
He was 42, a venerated Marine pilot who was about to become a squadron commander. He had two daughters, 4 and 2.
The investigation concluded that an “incorrectly installed” fastener on the gas turbine starter led to the engine flameout that crippled Yount’s AV-8B, and the ejection killed him. The crash led to changes in the ejection system.
Yount graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in nuclear engineering. “He told me once, ‘When I’m in the plane, you don’t have to worry because I’m in control of what’s going on,’ ” said his widow, Janet Yount.
“Pete Yount was one of those rare guys who was very, very smart, very outgoing and a great pilot,” said retired Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, chief of Marine aviation at the time. “Here was a guy who did every single thing correctly and still the airplane ended up letting him down.”
COL. KEVIN E. LEFFLER
Call Sign: Snatcher Died: Aug. 30, 1999
Three years before Leffler’s death, the Marines discovered that a wrong-sized washer had been installed in some Harrier engines. The error caused two nonfatal crashes.
The Naval Air Systems Command ordered a partial inspection of the Harrier fleet for the problem part. The engine in Leffler’s AV-8B was never checked. Investigators say the washer caused Leffler’s plane to lose power over Death Valley National Park, forcing him to eject into high winds. He landed hard in rocky terrain and died of a head injury.
A highly experienced pilot with nearly 3,000 hours of flight time, Leffler, 49, was nine months from retirement. He was commanding officer of the Marine Aviation Detachment at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, Calif.
He had survived a midair collision of A-4s in 1979, and Kathy Leffler had lived since then with the foreboding that her husband was flying on borrowed time. He left two sons, one of whom has followed him into the Marine Corps.
MAJ. TODD S. DENSON
Call Sign: Cuddles Died: Feb. 3, 2001
Denson, 32, son of an Army chaplain, grew up in an era when young men were lured into military aviation by the movie “Top Gun.” He enlisted after graduating from the University of Tennessee.
He wanted to fly the F/A-18, which he considered a safer plane, said his widow, Melissa Denson Rankin, but he quickly became a Harrier enthusiast after being assigned to the AV-8B. He had some close calls in the Harrier before his fatal accident.
He had been flying the Harrier for a decade and had been an instructor for two years, yet he kept emergency procedures written on flash cards and studied them constantly, Rankin said. “He knew it was a dangerous plane and he took it very seriously.”
He died when he and his student, Capt. Jason K. Meiners, lost control of the two-seat training Harrier they were flying to their base at Cherry Point. Denson, in the rear seat, ejected too close to the ground. Meiners also was killed. It was unclear which pilot had control.
CAPT. JASON K. MEINERS
Call Sign: Coal Died: Feb. 3, 2001
Meiners’ and Denson’s TAV-8B training plane was landing at Cherry Point when the nose of the plane dipped. They couldn’t correct it in time, investigators said.
Meiners’ body was found in the wreckage, still strapped to his ejection seat. His body could not be removed immediately because of the risk that detonation devices still attached to his seat might explode. The wreckage was shielded from the rain with a tarp and protected by an honor guard until a special team arrived the next day.
His wife was three months’ pregnant at the time. “Their little girl is inquisitive and outgoing, just like her father,” said Carol Meiners, the pilot’s mother.
Meiners, 27, was so determined to fly that he reapplied to the U.S. Naval Academy after being rejected the first time. He finished in the top 10% of his class and joined the Marines. “He liked the camaraderie of the group,” Carol Meiners said, “how they stood up for each other and how they never left a man behind.”
CAPT. JAMES N. “TREY”
Call sign: L.Z. Died: Feb. 23, 1991
Wilbourn’s AV-8B Harrier was shot down over central Kuwait during a night attack in Operation Desert Storm.
He had been flying missions since the first day of the Gulf War, when he attacked Iraqi rocket launchers and artillery positions, according to news accounts.
A native of Huntsville, Ala., and the son of a Navy veteran, Wilbourn received a degree in aviation management from Auburn University in 1984 and then joined the Marines, earning his wings in 1987. He first flew the A-6 Intruder, switching to the Harrier in 1990.
Wilbourn kept a photograph of Army Gen. George S. Patton on his bedroom wall at home. As a high school football player, he would motivate himself before games in the locker room by playing a tape of the theme music from the movie “Patton.”
While in the Persian Gulf, Wilbourn regularly wrote to his parents and his sister back home. He often signed the letters: “Love, Trey, pilot, patriot and defender of freedom.”
He was 28.
CAPT. REGINALD C.
Call Sign: Woody Died: Feb. 27, 1991
Underwood died on the final day of the Persian Gulf War when his AV-8B was hit by a heat-seeking Iraqi surface-to-air missile. He left a 5-month-old daughter he had never met.
“He said he would fly even if he was not paid for it,” said his widow, Donda Hill Rhodes. “It was his passion. The Harrier was a challenge and you could not fly it unless you were at the top of your class.”
Underwood grew up in Lexington, Ky., and had flown since he was a teenager. He graduated from the University of Kentucky and then joined the Marine Corps. His squadron went to war and he flew nine combat missions before his final one.
On that day, he was flying in formation with three other planes after taking off from the amphibious assault ship Nassau. The mission’s target was a convoy of military vehicles traveling north toward Basra. The pilots decided to fly beneath cloud cover at about 8,000 feet to get a clear view, making their Harriers easier targets.
When the missile hit, the commanding officer of Underwood’s squadron was flying 1,000 feet away. In retrospect, says Lt. Col. Jerry W. Fitzgerald, it was a mistake to be flying so low. The plane crashed in a huge fireball. Underwood’s body was later found in the wreckage of the plane just inside Iraq.
Underwood was 33.
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