In 2003, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Alan Miller and Kevin Sack of the Los Angeles Times for their revelatory and moving examination of the AV8 Harrier, nicknamed “The Widow Maker,” that was linked to the deaths of 45 pilots. Some of the men killed were my squadron mates. I think about them often. I honor their sacrifice with the following story.
After I finished Naval flight training and received my wings, I headed for Cherry Point, North Carolina. I had been selected for the AV8 Harrier and the jet’s six-month training program was based there. I was both nervous and excited, as the Harrier was the premier Marine Corps fighter jet.
I was also honored in that the pilots selected for the program were generally steely-eyed veterans, the best in the Corps. However, until my tenure, the jet was considered too dangerous for new guys. The axiom among established Harrier pilots was it took a year before one could fly the jet without being scared spitless.
If I remember correctly, my training class consisted of seven pilots: four experienced ones transitioning from other fleet jets and three nuggets recently out of flight school. It was a good group of men. Yet barely two months later three of us had crashed, presumably due to pilot error in all cases. One of us was dead, another’s career was ruined and the third had to wait weeks under the pall of screw-up until he was cleared of any missteps. I was that third.
Earlier, I wrote about my friend Tom’s death flying the Harrier. He was the casualty in our class. Another friend, a cerebral ex-CIA analyst, made the mistake of transitioning too quickly from a jet borne hover to wing borne flight. The Harrier didn’t start flying until ninety knots; getting there from the hover was the tricky part. Alas, from a steady hover position, he vectored the propulsion nozzles too quickly and crashed on the runway. Fortunately, he had ejected prior and safely landed missing the burning fireball. He never flew jets again. The scorecard now read two crashes, both pilot error.
Imagine the tension that overshadowed our flight operations. We’re wrecking these things right and left, they cost thirty to forty million in today’s dollars and the two crashes were by a new guy and someone who had been out of the cockpit for an extended time. Maybe the jet was too difficult for inexperienced or rusty hands.
I enter the scene stage left. I was scheduled to fly a basic familiarization flight and practice everything I had been taught to date. For this particular hop, I would be flying the two-seat version since an instructor pilot would be evaluating my performance. Off we went and after an hour or so, I turned toward home.
Entering the break above the airfield at two hundred fifty knots and twelve hundred feet, I turned sharply to the downwind and began to slow down and dirty up, in other words, lower the flaps and landing gear. My first landing would be a vertical one.
I was steadily increasing power with the throttle as I began to transition to a hover and lose lift on my wings. I was at an altitude of one hundred sixty feet, maybe thirty knots, instrumentation looked normal, and then I fell out of the sky like a Steinway. The engine had rolled back to idle; the jet became a paperweight.
For a brief instant I thought about ejecting, but remembering the circumstances of Tom’s death, I passed. I was going to ride it out. My life didn’t pass before me but I do recall thinking that this is going to hurt. The jet impacted like a crash at Talladega and the residual thrust from the jet nozzles flipped me over on my back. Thank God, the fuel tanks didn’t explode, which would’ve been expected, but my canopy did.
The detonation wire ignited; glass fragments shattered my visor and embedded in my eyes. I was blind. I was also upside down in a live ejection seat and unless I safed the seat, I might be launched to China by way of the subterranean express.
Groggy, sightless, a few inches shorter, smelling smoke and thinking I was on fire, I secured the seat, unhooked my harness, and dropped to the ground. I crawled some distance away, not before shredding my neck and back on the broken canopy glass. The Harrier was a complete wreck.
I could’ve had a picnic and raised a family of four in the time it took emergency crews to arrive. As my vision started to return, it was reassuring to see I wasn’t a tiki torch. Anyway, they loaded me into the ambulance and away I went. What’s weird is I don’t have any memories of my instructor pilot throughout this entire saga.
As I was sitting in the emergency room being stitched up, the commanding general of the air wing came storming in. As they hadn’t yet picked the glass fragments out of my eyes, things were a bit blurry. The general was not the angel of mercy. He asked the doctor if I was all right, received a nod and then asked everyone to leave the room. The general was not in a good mood. One of the many squadrons under his command was imploding with wall-to-wall accidents.
Time magazine would soon be calling the Harrier a widow maker. The jet was now the most dangerous fighter in the U.S. military. Walter Cronkite would do a piece on CBS News questioning whether the Harrier was too treacherous to fly. Defense appropriation committees would be second-guessing the Harrier’s purchase from the Brits and the general would, in short order, fire my C.O. and demand an entire review of the training program.
He walked up to me and pointedly asked, “Okay Lieutenant, what the [expletive deleted] happened out there?”
Now mind you, I wasn’t expecting a kiss on the cheek or a bouquet of lilacs but a hand on the shoulder or a heartfelt “You okay?” would have been a nice gesture. I had conquered death without wetting my pants but he wanted me to regurgitate events and procedures exactly as they happened. The general, truth be told, assumed I crashed his jet because I was a rookie.
The accident investigation took weeks. I mainly hung around the squadron doing miscellaneous administrative duties and was grounded pending the results. One afternoon, my new C.O. calls me into his office and tells me I’m on the flight schedule first thing in the morning for a back-in-the-saddle hop. It was official. I didn’t screw up. The jet had been sabotaged and on that particular day, I was the unlucky chap who drew the short straw (I’ve never allowed myself to think I was the target). The skipper smiled and offered his congrats. Relieved? You bet. Although I did everything by the book, one never knows until you know.
Thinking back, the night after the crash was something altogether. Knowing I had dodged a large bullet, I sat alone in my quarters, a bottle of whiskey in my hand; the booze seemed like the manly thing to do. I hadn’t changed out of my bloody flight suit and was draped in an easy chair. The Doobie Brothers were concert loud on my cheap stereo and I kept reliving all my thoughts during and after my 160-foot joyride. Then I picked up the phone and called my mother.
The urge to call my mother was primordial. I was seeking comfort where I first learned of it. From her. Listening to the sound of her voice was heaven. Absorbing her love launched a gusher of emotions. I was so spectacularly happy to be alive that nothing could have dampened my spirit. I was able to find peace that night, nourished by the love of my mother and the realization that I was given the gift of tomorrow.
Back then, I was not a spiritual man. Not for a moment would I have considered dropping to my knees or going to church to give thanks to God. Never would I have presumed God saved my life either. You see, God didn’t exist in my universe.
However, today, as a Catholic who has been on an incredible journey of discovery, I don’t think I was lucky. I don’t believe in luck. No, something else was at work. Divine, mysterious providence. I know it.
Better men than I suffered untimely and tragic deaths. My own life hasn’t been an exemplary one. Yet God spared me. But why? And what for?