The Crash – Divine Providence?

October 1, 2012 — 9 Comments

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 and close friends. I think about them often. I honor their sacrifice with the following story.

AV8s Afghanistan - The Crash

After I finished Naval flight training and received my wings, I headed for Cherry Point, North Carolina. Since I had finished at the top of my class, 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 they always did in crash events –  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 over a rocky road, 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 Marines than I suffered untimely and tragic deaths flying a unique machine. They were good, decent men who deserved so much more. And then I consider my own life which hasn’t been an exemplary one. God spared me. But why? And what for?

  • Es

    I was shaking, physically shaking, as I read your post.

    My uncle, a Navy pilot in Vietnam, died on a training run in 1965 or thereabouts
    Sabotage possibly. No one ever told us anything official.
    To see that word, sabotage, brings that sad time to mind, which has never been satisfactorily resolved. He was divorced from my aunt and they had no children, so she had no right to any information…but he was the only uncle I ever had. He’s not on the Vietnam Wall, even though he died in Vietnam (or off the coast of it), probably because he didn’t die in action. (Which makes me mad – he would NEVER have been in Vietnam for a pleasure trip in 1965: why the heck isn’t he on that wall.)

    But back to your post. It IS incredible that you lived through it. Truly, “Our lives are in God’s hands.” I am sorry just thinking of that General: where’s his heart for his men, that he couldn’t spare a spark of feeling for you.

    God bless you.

    • Thank you for your kind words. But I have to say I’m surprised that your uncle does not have a place of honor on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. You might want to take a further look and see what you can uncover. I would think that some veteran’s groups would be more than happy to assist.

  • nocountryforoldmen

    That jet has killed more marine pilots that the enemy. Glad you made it.

  • The_Monk

    Marcus Steele – quite a narrative. Glad you have your sight and general health restored. And, not least, it seems obvious now that the Good Lord preserved your life here with us for His own reasons. But I have a question about the finding of ‘sabotage’ – was there any conclusion as to the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of that sabotage?

    • There were suspicions as to the “who”and “why” –– perhaps a Marine in maintenance who was disgruntled for some reason. At me? Don’t know. But nothing could be definitely proven. But they did identify a problem with Quality Assurance in that they missed a fuel control unit that was negligently out of spec and out of sync with the turbine water injection system. The perfect storm of inspection failures was one of the reasons the C.O. was sacked.

  • KBS

    Sorry to drop in with a straight question like this, but I just toggled over here from New Advent, and it’s my first visit, so I have no background with you or your blog. But something you said caught my eye. Was the second pilot who crashed, the “cerebral” one, named Carl G. by any chance? That’s a former coworker of mine about whom I never heard after he left, and have often wondered.

  • Spock

    Mark – you probably don’t remember me but I was a Harrier Pilot in Cherry Point back in the day. My class started in January of ’76 – no simulator and no two-seater – the results were as one might have expected even though we were all at least second tour guys. It took me a while to find Christ, but you and I sure got close to God every time we hit the start button! I’ve been retired for 20 years now and a Christian for over 30 – I’ll try to follow yur blog – keep up the good work – Spock

    • Spock, great to hear from you! It really means a lot. I often think about those great Marine pilots who were husbands, fathers, brothers and friends––and on more than one occasion, I’ve been ashamed at my selfish histrionics (when things aren’t going well) so I remember those good souls who are no longer with us and count my blessings and wonder why. God bless.