The incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday he will hold "a robust set of hearings" early this year on military aviation safety, focusing on the Marine Corps' accident-prone Harrier attack jet.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who is expected to be elected chairman today, said the Harrier's safety problems have placed a spotlight on a broader concern that aging U.S. aircraft are putting pilots at undue risk.
"We send these people out," he said in an interview. "We should give them the best equipment, and that means you have to spend money. Sometimes there is no substitute for money, and this is one of those times."
Hunter criticized the Clinton administration for inadequately funding defense modernization and said he will use the hearings to call for additional spending.
The decision to hold hearings followed a 90-minute closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with top Marine officials just hours before the 108th Congress was sworn in. Hunter said he summoned them to discuss revelations about the Harrier's safety record in a four-part series published in The Times in mid-December.
The report detailed the Harrier's history as the most dangerous plane in the U.S. military. It has been involved in 143 major noncombat accidents during its 31 years of service, killing 45 Marines and destroying a third of the jump jet fleet.
The Harrier is unique among active military jets for its ability to lift straight off the ground like a helicopter, hover in midair, and then blast off into conventional flight.
But that innovative technology has placed a tremendous strain on the plane. Recurrent failures of the engine, wing flaps and ejection system have led to fatalities, as have mistakes by inexperienced and undertrained mechanics. Inadequate flight time for pilots has also contributed to the plane's high accident rate.
Hunter expressed particular concern about the lack of flying time for pilots, typically a result of groundings after mechanical failures.
The Marines say Harrier pilots need, at minimum, 15 to 20 hours of flight time a month to remain proficient in the plane, which is notoriously challenging to fly. As recently as 2000, Harrier pilots averaged 8.2 hours a month, though the figure has since increased to 13 hours.
Hunter said that Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough, the head of Marine aviation, pledged in the Tuesday briefing that the Marines would further improve average Harrier flight time, to 17 to 20 hours.
"That's critical to keeping pilots proficient," Hunter said. "He's going to fully fund it. We're going to make sure that happens."
Although three Harriers have crashed in the last year alone, Hough told the Armed Services Committee members that the plane's mechanical and maintenance problems have been corrected. The Marines also reported they had hired more seasoned mechanics and increased spending on spare parts, the lawmakers said.
"They assured me that the engines have been changed, the flaps have been fixed, the mechanical problems are down," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), a committee member.
McKeon said the panel would be watching the Harrier closely. "I don't want to see an inordinate amount of accidents with one plane," he said.
Hunter and McKeon said the hearings were prompted by The Times' series.
They will concentrate on the Harrier, but the committee also will examine other aircraft flown by other services, Hunter said.
The Pentagon is only slowly compensating for years of inadequate funding for new war-fighting equipment during the Clinton years, he said.
"We're going to have to spend more money on modernization across the board," Hunter said.
The Harrier's travails, however, have endured for three decades, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Despite periodic blue-ribbon commissions and special review panels, the Harrier's rate of serious accidents has remained far higher than that of other Navy, Air Force and Marine attack and fighter planes. Parts of the fleet, which now numbers about 154, have been grounded 31 times since 1990 alone.
The Marines are pursuing two more aircraft that combine the attributes of helicopters and airplanes.
The V-22 Osprey, a troop transporter that is still in testing, has crashed four times, killing 30. The Pentagon is developing a special vertical version of the Joint Strike Fighter to replace the Harrier, which is expected to remain in service another 13 to 17 years.
The Marines declined to comment on the prospect of hearings. Hough described Tuesday's session with lawmakers as focusing on "a myriad of issues" concerning Marine aviation, including the Harrier, a Marine spokesman said.
Officials previously have said that accidents are often the price of technological progress in military aviation, and that the Harrier has played a valuable role in combat.
But The Times' investigation found that the plane has rarely performed missions that could not have been handled by safer and more conventional aircraft.
Hunter said The Times' series reaffirmed "how critical aircraft safety is and the duty that we owe to our pilots and all of our service personnel to have the very best equipment and to work on that challenge in an unceasing and unswerving manner."