Tuesday, 5 April 2005

Harrier jet shakes off past to prove itself in Iraq

Harrier jet shakes off past to prove itself in Iraq
Chicago Tribune March 19, 2005

Harrier jet shakes off past to prove itself in Iraq

By James Janega, Tribune staff reporter.

Lt. Col. Robert Kuckuk helped redesign the Harrier fighter jet after a series of deadly accidents killed 45 of his fellow Marine pilots. Now he is helping rebuild the plane's reputation.

With every hour in the air, he believes, his VMA-311 Tomcat squadron is slowly vindicating the single-seat Harrier, which can take off vertically but has been plagued by a checkered history.

A decade ago, the Harrier was known as the most accident-prone aircraft in the American arsenal, a mark that sidelined it from many major missions in Operation Desert Storm and Afghanistan. But since the invasion of Iraq nearly two years ago, and especially after November's fighting in Fallujah, Marines say the Harrier has played a key role in the fighting in Iraq's Anbar province, and in ways few envisioned.

Just after midnight last Sunday, Kuckuk tipped his Harrier over the provincial capital of Ramadi, high above Marines under mortar attack.

The Marines thought the incoming rounds were coming from insurgents in a car, moving from spot to spot to fire mortars--a common tactic to evade counterfire. But the Marines on the ground couldn't see for themselves, and in a heavily populated area they were worried about shooting back.

Hovering above, Kuckuk looked down "and sure enough, there's a car going by," glowing gray-green on the cockpit monitor by Kuckuk's right knee. It was flouting a curfew and bouncing off-road through the desert, fleeing an area where the Marines thought their assailants had been.

Kuckuk called in an artillery strike. Moments later, the shells began landing. "No more car," he said.

Such are the successes that make Harrier fighter pilots say they are at last living up to the promises made a generation ago.

Of British design
The Marines first bought the British-designed Harriers in 1971, replaced them with a newer model in 1985, upgraded them in 1993 and fixed them in 2000.

But safety issues have plagued the aircraft, notably problems with the engine that allows the plane to take off vertically.

As engine program manager for the Marines' Harrier program office, Kuckuk helped redesign both the Harrier's engine and its maintenance program.

Congressional overseers have said that while they are satisfied with the new engine, rigid attention to its maintenance is key to the Marine Corps' seven squadrons of Harriers. No more are being made, and the aircraft is expected to be replaced with another vertical-takeoff fighter in a decade.

After the Harrier's most recent engine redesign overhaul, serious accidents dropped from 39 every 100,000 flight hours to 3.17 per 100,000 flight hours in 2001.

The Navy reported two serious accidents in 2004, comparable to previous years. During the current fiscal year, there have been two more: an engine fire in Arizona and a crash at sea. Both pilots ejected safely.

But in Iraq, Harriers have now flown nearly 11,000 hours without a mishap since May 2004.

Jet's strong points
Though the Harrier's nemesis has been its engine, its best systems include a 2-year-old camera pod attached like a torpedo under its stubby right wing.

The tool was designed to guide bombs but can spot enemy fighters and vehicles in almost any weather, at distances unlikely for subjects to know they are being watched. In a war that has often involved guerrillas fighting in urban areas, the camera has proved more useful than even its designers believed it would be.

"Certainly the utility of the improved sensors to manage close air support has attracted attention in certain parts of the Pentagon," said John Pike, a military expert at watchdog group GlobalSecurity.org. "They are being noticed in some places."

The Marines on the ground are noticing too. Within hours of landing at Al Asad last November, the Harriers were flying missions over Fallujah. They brought "total confidence," said Maj. Andrew Hesterman, air officer for Regimental Combat Team 7, part of the Marine force that attacked Fallujah last fall.

Of the 170 air strikes RCT-7 called in, half were delivered by Harriers. It was a remarkable step forward, Hesterman said. "I was calling ordinance drops within 150 meters of friendlies," he said.

Still, for every one hour the Harrier flies, a crew of maintenance technicians spends an average of 25 man-hours working on the plane's frame and engine.

A status board in the maintenance office of Kuckuk's squadron tells the tale. Of 16 Harriers, four were ready for flight Thursday night. Among the others, one had a radio altimeter problem, another needed a routine inspection. There was a troublesome hover mechanism, a fuel meter problem, one with lingering gripes after an engine replacement, one OKd as a backup.

In a repair hangar a short walk away, two Harriers were being dismantled and reassembled. "This aircraft requires a lot of attention to details," said Sgt. Francisco Martinez, part of the repair crew. "Anything you might miss would really take a toll. . . . It's a great job if you like to turn a wrench."

So far, so good
When the Tomcats shipped to Al Asad from Yuma, Ariz., they took over the former home of an Iraqi MiG-21 squadron. Arab lettering and unit insignias still cover the walls.

Shortly after arriving, Kuckuk added a document called the Commander's Intent to the bulletin board just inside the unit's front door. His Tomcats were beginning what would be their current 4,700 flight hours without a serious accident.

"KEEP DOING WHAT YOU'RE DOING," Kuckuk wrote in capital letters.

A few paragraphs later: "I see our critical vulnerability as complacency," he wrote. "We are one mishap away from being heroes to being goats."