A Unique Capability

Actor Christopher Lloyd presents the Emmy for Art Direction onstage during the 34th Annual Daytime Creative Arts & Entertainment Emmy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Grand Ballroom on June 14, 2007. GETTY IMAGES/Frazer Harrison

The Marines know all about the hazards of operating an aircraft that can both fly like a plane and hover like a helicopter. In the 30 years they've been flying the Harrier jump jet, 140 have crashed, killing 46 pilots, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin. The earliest model went down so often it was called "the widow maker."

The Harrier fought hard in both Kosovo and in the Gulf War, but still the head of Marine Corps Aviation, Lt. General Fred McCorkle, says, "I haven't been satisfied with the performance of the Harrier over the long run."

The Marines make no bones about it. The Harrier has an unacceptably high accident rate. In fact, a 1998 report warned that if the Marines didn't figure out a way to reduce the accident rate they would start running out of Harriers.

Troubled Transition
The MV-22 tri-motor Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that can take off and land vertically, hover like a helicopter and fly like an airplane. Its average cruising speed is 276 mph and it is able to reach speeds of more than 400 mph, flying twice as fast as a helicopter.

Introduced in May 1999, the Marine Corps had planned to use the Osprey as their primary troop-transport craft. Tragically, problems have caused two crashes since then and have killed 23 Marines. One crash happened outside of Tucson, Ariz., on April 8, 2000, and the other occurred in Jacksonville, N.C., on Dec. 11, 2000.

After the second crash, the Corps grounded its initial fleet of eight remaining Ospreys and the defense secretary appointed an independent panel to review the program.

Click here to learn more about the Osprey.
Since that report, ten more Harriers have crashed, leaving the Marines with only 133 to fly — that is when they're not grounded. Over the past 10 years, part or all of the Harrier fleet has been grounded 29 times. One of the worst occurred last August when a defective bearing in the engine had to be replaced.

"It really took the breath out of me. I didn't know exactly how we were going to get out of the hole or what we were going to do," said Cpl. Cody Culler, USMC.

The Harrier's unique take off and landing capability also makes it uniquely hard to work on.

"To pull an engine and actually put one in, it takes 600 man hurs. It's a very tedious process. There's a lot of stuff involved," said Sgt. Bradley Whaley, USMC.

The bearing is buried deep inside the engine and will cost the Marines $2.5 million to replace.

"There's many nights where it's, nights and days, where you want to give it all up but you can't do it," admitted Sgt. Joseph Bonnin, USMC.

The mechanics got most of the Harriers flying again but the pilots had lost so much training time their ships had to sail without them. The Harriers won't be ready for overseas duty until the end of this summer. It seems Harrier pilots are always waiting for the plane's chronic problems to be fixed.

"It requires positive immediate action, not band aids, not telling them the situation's not as bad as you think, but action," said retired Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, a former pilot.

Asked if he has seen those problems fixed, Anderson replied, "Not all of them, no."

Anderson worked on a 1998 report which concluded the plane is "challenging to fly," "difficult to maintain," "lags other aircraft in war-fighting capability" and that the pilots and crews "have lost faith in the ability and or desire of the system to make needed improvements."

"I think that's a remarkable statement. It's an open acknowledgment that we have to change how we're doing business," said Anderson.

But the Marines are not about to give up on the Harrier. They believe it's crucial to their mission of hitting the beach as a self-contained fighting unit that does not have to rely on the Air Force or Navy for air cover.

"It gives you the ability to put your jet aircraft with your helicopters where you can support the troops on the ground," explained McCorckle.

It's a unique capability, but the fact is the Harrier has the worst accident rate of any military jet and even the Marines admit it is held in low regard by the rest of the military's top combat commanders.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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