This week's crash of a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier attack jet, the second in five days and the fifth this year, has prompted renewed concern about the accident-prone plane at the Pentagon and in Congress.
Despite assurances by Marine officials to key lawmakers last January that the corps had taken steps to lower the Harrier's historically high accident rate, the five serious crashes this year are the most for the plane since 1999.
Each of the pilots in this year's crashes survived, but the total value of the destroyed and damaged aircraft exceeds $100 million. Four planes crashed during training exercises.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday he would direct a committee member, along with staff, to investigate the increase in accidents.
"I think we need to get a briefing, an in-depth briefing, on these crashes and see what's happening here," Hunter said. He said he would send Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) to "go over and scrub this thing with the Marines, not only with these last two mishaps but also to get a full picture of the status of the airworthiness of the Harrier fleet."
After The Times published stories last December chronicling the Harrier's record as the military's most dangerous plane, Hunter pledged in January to hold congressional hearings on military aviation safety, with a focus on the AV-8B. He said Wednesday that he dropped those plans after Marine Corps leaders reassured him that they were on top of the Harrier's problems, and after the fleet of jets went the first three months of the year without a major accident.
But on April 1, a Harrier crashed during a training mission while trying to land on a ship in the Persian Gulf. Four crashes have followed -- off North Carolina and in Afghanistan, Arizona and California.
"It obviously doesn't look like things are getting better," McKeon said. "After all the attention, there's definitely got to be something wrong there."
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office plans to ask a safety council established this year by the Pentagon to look at all aircraft systems -- including the Harrier -- with recent high crash rates, a Defense Department spokesman said Tuesday.
The Harrier, renowned for its ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, has amassed the highest major accident rate of any military plane now in service. Forty-five Marines have died in 148 noncombat accidents. More than a third of the fleet of 397 has been lost to accidents in the 32-year history of the single-seat jet.
Last week, the Boeing Co. concluded its scheduled production of the Harrier in St. Louis, with accolades from company and Marine officials.
Two days earlier, a pilot with a Harrier squadron based in Yuma, Ariz., had radioed that he was having trouble controlling his aircraft and ejected during his landing approach. The plane crashed into an alfalfa field. The pilot suffered minor injuries.
Then, on Monday, a pilot checking the engine cooling system over the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range in Southern California heard a loud bang and began to lose control of his aircraft at about 1,500 feet, said Capt. Shawn Turner, a Marine spokesman. The pilot ejected and was reported to be in good condition.
The cause of both accidents is under investigation.
The squadron that included the two planes has suspended its training flights until the crashes and the unit's operations can be examined, said 1st Lt. Kevin Hyde, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma. "You need to take a step back and say, 'What's going on?' "
The other two crashes this year came in July, the first during combat training about 40 miles off the North Carolina coast and the second in Bagram, Afghanistan, where a Harrier ran off a runway.
A single Harrier crashed in 2001 and three went down last year. No pilots have been killed since the 2001 accident, when two died in a two-seat training model.
The Marines have provided few details about this year's crashes, and they did not immediately respond to questions.
The Harrier has been used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marines have said it performed well in both conflicts.
"It became my platform of choice to find the enemy" in Iraq, Maj. Gen. James Amos, the commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, told a crowd of 600 assembled for Friday's event to mark the end of Boeing's Harrier production line, according to press accounts.
Hunter said that the Harrier's problems were illustrative of larger concerns about inadequate spending on new equipment, which he blamed on the Clinton administration.
"Even though there's always a reason for an aircraft going down, nothing has a more salutary effect on safety records than new machinery," Hunter said, "and we don't have the money in the defense budget to replace this machinery at what I would call a reasonable rate."
On the day he was elected as Armed Services chairman last January, Hunter held a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Marine officials to discuss the Harrier's accident history. Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough, the head of Marine aviation, told the lawmakers the plane's mechanical and maintenance problems had been addressed and vowed to increase pilots' flight hours. Many pilots had said they considered their flying time inadequate to master the complicated aircraft.
Nonetheless, Hunter pledged to hold "a robust set of hearings" early this year on military aviation safety. With the war in Iraq taking precedence and the Harrier managing to stay airborne, the hearings never materialized.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who heads the appropriations subcommittee on defense, had said in January that he too would inquire into whether the Harrier should continue flying, either in conjunction with Hunter or independently.
Lewis' spokesman said this week the lawmaker was "looking into the reports" of the recent crashes.
The Harrier is set to be replaced by a special version of the Joint Strike Fighter being developed for the Marines, with the ability to do short rolling takeoffs and vertical landings. But the AV-8B is expected to remain in the fleet for at least 13 years.
Military aviation experts said there may not be much more the Marines can do to prevent future accidents.
"We may be dealing with the reality of a temperamental aircraft that is difficult to fly and is not terribly forgiving," said Daniel Goure, a military analyst and vice president of a think tank called the Lexington Institute.
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A year of crashes
Wednesday's crash of a Harrier jet in Southern California was the fifth this year.
Harrier Crashes in 2003
April 1: Harrier crashes while attempting to land on a ship in the northern Persian Gulf.
July 16: Harrier plunges into Atlantic Ocean 40 miles off the North Carolina coastline after pilot ejects.
July 23: Harrier runs off the runway in Bagram, Afghanistan.
Dec. 3: Harrier crashes in an alfalfa field near the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz.
Dec. 8: Harrier crashes in a remote area of the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range in Southern California.
Note: All pilots survived. Four planes lost (total losses exceeded $100 million).
Source: U.S. Marine Corps