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Operational Pause Ordered for Harrier Squadron After Crash in Pacific

AV-8B Harrier
AV-8B Harrier

The commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force in the Pacific ordered a squadron of AV-8B Harrier aircraft to stop operations temporarily after one of the jump jets crashed off Okinawa on Thursday.

The pilot ejected safely with injuries requiring brief hospitalization, but the aircraft -- attached to Marine Attack Squadron 542 out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, and deployed with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit -- was destroyed.

It's not clear what caused the crash, and the incident remains under investigation.The name of the pilot has not been released.

III MEF officials announced Friday that Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson had ordered a "temporary operational pause" for Harriers assigned to the command in the wake of the mishap. Currently, VMA-542 is the only Harrier squadron operating under III MEF. The announcement did not make clear how long the pause will last, or whether squadron leaders have discretion in when they can observe the pause.

Thursday's crash was the third major Harrier mishap in just seven months for the Marine Corps.

In March, a Harrier from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 (Reinforced) and deployed aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge in the Arabian gulf caught fire on the deck of the ship upon takeoff. The pilot was able to egress safely and the fire was extinguished, but the incident caused at least $2 million in damage to the aircraft.

And in May, another Harrier attached to VMA-542 crashed off the East Coast. The pilot ejected, but the aircraft was lost.

The causes of the two previous crashes have yet to be released.

The Harrier, which entered service for the Marine Corps in 1985, is set to be replaced by the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter as new squadrons activate over the next decade.

The aging platform was the first to be chosen for an independent readiness review by the Corps' deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns told Military.com in a statement.

Launched in August 2014 and wrapped up in December 2015, the review identified key "degraders" or parts especially vulnerable to age and stress, and improved the supply chain for these parts, Burns said.

Officials also established a target of 66 ready basic aircraft as the fleet goal and benchmark for readiness.

As of July 31, Marine Harrier squadrons have an average of 9.4 ready basic aircraft out of the goal of 11 per squadron, and pilot flight hours, hit by limits on available aircraft, are at 13 out of the 15.4 average hour goal, Burns said. These numbers represent a 26 percent increase in pilot hours per month and a 23 percent increase in squadron ready aircraft since 2014, she said.

This Harrier operational pause is the second in as many months for Marine Corps aviation. In August, Davis ordered that all F/A-18 Hornet squadrons undergo a 24-hour operational pause, taken over the course of a week, following a series of three Hornet crashes in the span of 12 months.

Commandant Gen. Robert Neller would later tell Military.com the pause was designed to address smaller-scale ground mishaps.

"We're working really hard on aviation, because we've dug ourselves a deep hole," Neller said in a brief interview. "We're digging ourselves out. It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to happen if we get consistent, stable funding of parts and sustainment, and we get new airplanes."

-- Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Lt. Gen. Nicholson's job title.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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