Responses to "The Vertical Vision"
Would you compare the number of fatalities/accidents with the Harrier to the rate of accidents/fatalities in other U.S. military airplanes/jets vis-à-vis the total number of each make/model in service over similar time frames?
Alan C. Miller: We did extensive comparative work regarding the Harrier and other combat jets with the standard U.S. military figures and rates for Class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. This provided the basis for our conclusion that the Harrier was the most dangerous airplane now in service.
At one time I had heard that the Marines were using helicopter pilots for their Harrier program. This, as the rumor goes, was a disaster since the Harrier can fly much faster than any known rotor craft. The Marines, according to this story, were losing quite a few pilots because they could not adapt to the difference in handling and speed. Can you tell me if there is any truth to this?
William J. Bean
Alan C. Miller: We did not hear this during the course of our reporting.
I read your fascinating four-part series on the Marine AV-8 but noticed that there was little information on its safety record with other services apart from a brief mention of a higher rate in the U.K. Do you have any information on other countries' experiences?
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Alan C. Miller: Harriers flown by the British Royal Air Force had higher accident rates between 1990 and 2000 than the Marine Corps' AV-8B. The AV-8B had 12 major accidents per 100,000 hours flown during the decade. The three similar Harrier models flown by the Royal Air Force during that time had accident rates ranging from 12 to 19 when the U.S military standard is applied.
Because there are fewer Harriers in Great Britain, and they fly fewer hours, theyve had fewer crashes and fatalities. Marine Corps Harriers suffered 61 crashes between 1990 and 2000 killing 15 pilots. Royal Air Force Harriers had 15 major accidents that killed three pilots, including one American.
One likely reason the British Harriers had a higher accident rate is that they fly more low-altitude missions, leaving less margin of error. Another explanation may be that the current British Harriers use older, less reliable engines.
At the same time, maintenance mistakes account for far fewer accidents in England. Rolls Royce, the British firm that makes the Harriers Pegasus engine, overhauls the Royal Air Force engines. The Marines handle this task themselves with the help of civilian mechanics. Also, Royal Air Force mechanics tend to be much more seasoned than the Marines and civilians who work on U.S. Harriers. Some British air force maintainers have 22 years of experience; some Marine maintainers are not yet 22 years old.
In addition to Great Britain, other countries with navies that rely on short-deck ships, including Spain and Italy, operate smaller numbers of Harriers.
The Spanish Navy reported a major accident rate of 18 per 100,000 hours for their AV-8As and 9 for their AV-8Bs. It has had eight major accidents since 1976 with four fatalities. The Italian Navy, which has been flying the Harrier since 1993, had a plane seriously damaged early this year when the pilot ejected after running into problems during a vertical landing. This was the first major accident for the Italians.
Your special multipart series on the Harrier was excellent and very professional. I would enjoy future series reports similar to the "Vertical Vision" in the future.
El Dorado Hills
You have written an excellent series. While not a Harrier pilot, I was stationed at Cherry Point from 1982 to 1990 with a stint at Edwards in 1986. I knew a lot of the Marines featured in your report.
It brings back a lot of memories. Paul Spargo was a personal friend and I flew the CT-39 to his funeral. His widow, Ann, is still a friend.
Your articles did not go into the complex "Naval" support structure for Navy/Marine Corps aircraft. A deeper look at the Naval Air Systems Command Program Office for the Harrier, as well as the associated engineering and logistics structures that support the program would be interesting. I worked for the NASC as an Assistant Program Manager and can tell you that funding for improvements and modifications for flight safety are obtained only by a ponderous multiyear POM (funding) and development process. Sometimes that funding never happens and the program goes on without making the needed fix or upgrade. Prioritization of competing requirements is usually the cause.
Another aspect that would be interesting is the flight testing of the AV-8 and B, what was really known about the aircraft back in their development stages.
Finally, mishap reports don't always tell the whole story. If you can find members of a particular mishap board you might, as Paul Harvey would say, "get the rest of the story."
Great articles. As an Annapolis grad and marine infantry captain, I was doubly impressed on how you really laid out the bare facts here. The truth is that the Harrier has always been thought of as a total disaster inside the Marine Corps. We (the grunts) rarely practiced with the Harriers, as they were 1) always broken or 2) not deployed with our units because of the inherent difficulty in getting them engaged into an exercise.
Recent advances in technology on other delivery platforms (GPS, etc.) have totally obviated the need for the Harrier. If we would permanently ground them today, we wouldn't lose one bit of capability.
Keep up the good work.
New York City, N.Y.
Your article about Harrier deaths hit home. My brother Capt. Paul Spargo was featured in your article. Prior to his death he had many friends who had died and he was thinking of leaving but was convinced to stay, unfortunately. At the time I had John Rowland, Governor of Connecticut, look into it as a member of Congress and the Armed Forces Committee, and it was appalling the numbers of men who were dying. It's about time it's come out. Thank you.
Mary Spargo Cassidy
I want to thank you for the depth of your research and article you have written on the Harrier. Our son, Maj. Todd S. Denson, is one of the pilots killed in the Harrier, along with student pilot CPT Jason Minor. Over the years Todd complained about the lack of maintenance and flight time. On at least two occasions he said to me, "Dad, if I don't get out of this plane it's going to kill me." It did, though it might have been pilot error. The other thing that sticks in my mind is a comment he made numerous times, "If they don't know what happened, they always call it pilot error." That was the case in their crash. I don't want to appear paranoid, but TRUST is vulnerable in our society and with our government agencies these days. I will add that Todd loved to fly the plane and was proud to be a Marine pilot. I hope that this series of articles will gain attention to the severe shortage of funding for maintenance and jet fuel for training. The two of you and others have certainly brought our attention to the dangers of the Harrier. I hope it accomplishes what you intend.
... Again thank you so very much for your story. Individually we don't have a voice, but you have given us that.
T. Dick Denson
I spoke with you about a year and a half ago when you first started researching this piece after the tragic death of my best friend Capt. Jason Meiners. I'm in constant contact with his mother, brother, widow and daughter. There is not a day that goes by that I don't get a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat thinking about my friend. . . . We appreciate your time and effort in writing this article and bringing some of the major issues to print.
I visited a Harrier Squadron maintenance building at Cherry Point, N.C., four and a half years ago and two thirds of the planes were in the shop undergoing major repairs.
On one Marine deployment to the Mediterranean about three years ago, no Harriers were taken along aboard ship, and I doubt if anything has substantially improved. Aren't the Marines on any kind of a guilt trip for killing our pilots for no valid reason?
Peter M Esala
I just wanted to say thanks for an insightful, well-written, long overdue article on the Harrier. I flew AV-8's for four years in the late '90s. While the plane is a highly capable weapons platform, it suffers from incredible maintenance demands and failed USMC leadership. More than a few of the postings I read in the forum shocked me. AV-8 wives and pilots' complaints about your report are amazing. In 1999, we had a mishap rate of more than 43 per 100,000 flight hours. My wife dealt with the fact that any flight might be my last. They all knew it and took it bravely. You have captured the pilots to a T: an amazing patriotic group of men who wanted to fly and serve their country. We often did so, giving little thought to the risks.
The current crowd is riding a wave of funding born of the problems in the late '90s. They average nearly 15 hours per month versus our 6.8. They have fixed the spacer bearing issue, and have a targeting pod. Their perspective is limited. But as soon as the money runs out, they will get a new and terrible education.
Overall, your report was excellent. A flawed aircraft, maintained with a lot of heart by Marines, flown against great odds by the best men I've ever known and led by some of the worst men I have ever known.
My wife paid you all a great comment. Of your articles she said, "It was like talking to a Harrier pilot."
Steve and Christy Hamer
Fort Worth, Texas
Thank you for the wonderful exposé on the Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier. I was a Marine Aviator for 10 years, having flown first the A-4 Skyhawk and then the Marine AV-8B. I'm currently a pilot for a major airline. Your work on the Harrier was no less than amazing, so comprehensive. It was great for me to read about past friends, some of whom perished in the Harrier. Your reporting on the politics involved in the procurement of the Harrier I think was very accurate. From a pilot standpoint, though, I simply loved that airplane, it was wonderful to fly. The risks were accepted and even relished. I had several problems in my 1,000 hours flying the Harrier. You cite most in your article. Some include: nose wheel steering, fuel imbalance, hydraulic loss, etc. I never had to eject, but half of my Harrier class of six has ridden in the 'chute. My closest friend to die in the Harrier was Maj. Pat Wheeler, a great man in every sense.
I do not share the Marine Corp leadership's vision of an "all-vertical force" but I wouldn't have traded my years flying that airplane for anything, definitely the best time of my life.
Steven J. Potter
Aircraft with the unique flight characteristics of the Harrier are bound to have a higher loss rate than other "safer" types. So keep on sorting out the problems. Since when did Americans allow adversity to scare them from progressing? The unsafe Apollo program didn't stop Americans from landing on the moon. And what about all that historical frontier stuff we get on TV?
Your observations that the Harrier brings nothing to the battlefield that other types can't also bring applies to all the other types as well. As you said yourself, what the Harrier gives you is the unique ability to operate from unprepared strips ashore and in situations where conventional carriers and aircraft can't go. Remember that famous American song line "Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone." Lose the capability Harrier brings and step back four decades!
Might your views be motivated by a desire to support "larger Navy" lobby groups in justifying big-deck conventional carriers where the aircraft are completely dependent on other machinery to allow launching and landing? The concept of smaller, flexible carriers operating STOVL types must frighten the "old Navy" Luddites to death. Much the same as machine guns frightened the cavalry.
America has its chance with the STOVL JSF to make things right.
Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia
I have seen biased reporting, but this is over the top. The decision of what light to paint the Harrier in was decided long before the research was done. Show me an aircraft that can do the air-to-ground role better than the Harrier. Don't say the A-10, F-16 or the F-18, because they are not even close, nor can they dream of working off the LHA's or LHD's. We do not have enough big-deck carriers, so the amphibious ships have to pick up the slack and the Harrier is the only thing that can do that. As for safety, all of your mishap numbers are about the AV-8A, which is a different aircraft than the AV-8B. This is like using Huey mishap numbers to talk about the AH-1W. You cannot compare the AV-8A's and the AV-8B's, they are completely different aircraft. I will give credit where credit is due, you do have small visions of clarity when it comes to the funding problems. The point you seem to miss is that we must accomplish our mission regardless of the funding we are given.
I understand that you are biased toward the Marine Corps and the Harrier, it is your right to have those opinions, but the fact is that most of the people in our country do not have the inclination to do the research. They trust the media to present the truth. With this being the case, you have a moral obligation to at least try to tell the truth and allow people to make up their own minds instead of trying to sway people to your point of view. After seeing things first hand and then reading the media's account, the one thing I have learned is that you cannot believe the media, they are purely out for the tear-jerking story and not the facts. I see the Harrier every day, and safety is the highest priority.
Cherry Point, N.C.
This was the most interesting, informative and well-written piece that I have ever read. Even though I knew there wouldn't be one, I looked for a Part 5 in today's paper. I especially enjoyed the Part 3 feature on Jeffrey Smith. For once, a story caused me to imagine that I was there watching everything the day he crashed. And that is writing at its best. Thank you both for such an amazing series.
Thanks for your thorough and thoughtfully written series on the Harrier.
My father flew the AV-8A for VMA-542 at Cherry Point from 1974 to 1980, then returned to fly the B in the late 1980s with VMA-223. With 223 he served as maintenance officer, XO, and ultimately commanding officer before retiring from the Marines in late 1990. Since then he has continued to work as a civilian Harrier instructor at the base, training pilots on the Harrier simulators there.
I was about eight years old in 1977 when so many pilots were dying in Harrier accidents, and I vividly remember my dad spending the day calling the other pilots and families to let them know another plane had gone down. He came very close to being the subject of such calls himself. Sometime in the late 70s (I don't remember the year) he was training near Fallon, Nev., and had an engine problem very similar to Peter Yount's -- the engine shut down, he tried to restart it, and it caught fire. Fortunately, his ejection system worked. I remember that the ejection seat manufacturer gave him a plaque. When we met him off the transport plane a few weeks after the accident, he had tiny cuts all over his face and neck (from the canopy shattering, I think). Your portraits of the men who have died in the Harrier really brought home to me how close I came to losing my father that day.
I know the danger put enormous stress on my parents' marriage and those of their friends. A few years ago my mother told me about the "Widow-Maker" label given to the AV-8A. It felt strange to see something that was part of our family history depicted as part of the nation's history through your article series.
My father read the series and seems to feel that you got a lot of things right but exaggerated others as part of the exposé format. In particular, he's been on a lot of Harrier crash investigations and knows/knew many of the pilots you profile. He took issue with the idea that investigators were too quick to assign causes to human error; as pilots themselves, the investigators knew full well what a pilot error designation would mean to the survivors.
The term "pilot error" encompasses everything from incompetence to split-second mistakes even the best pilots could make to situations in which flying the plane might be beyond human capabilities ("task saturation"). I think the emotional toll on surviving families comes partly from using the same phrase to describe all of these situations. Training can overcome inexperience, but the other two categories really should be considered features of the aircraft that must be corrected by better design.
To some extent, that was done with the AV-8B, but the AV-8A really should have had an X designation for "experimental." I wish the Marines had done a proper experimental development phase with this aircraft rather than pressing it into service as quickly as they did. Many lives might have been saved. It certainly was interesting living through that time and seeing it now through the lens of history. I'm still fascinated by the Harrier. But I can only say that because my father is still alive.
Thanks again for your articles.