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Harrier Crash Due to Pilot Error

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I'm always reluctant to post these stories and I always get a lot of flak from them, but I think it's important for folks who might not have access to them that are involved in some way with aviation to see what happened and get some "lessons learned" data that can maybe help them down the road.

A Harrier crash on Feb. 13 near Cherry Point (the second in a series of four so far this fiscal year) was initially thought to have been caused by engine failure. But according to the Judge Advocate General Manual investigation I got my hand on through FOIA the cause was a far simpler -- and more correctable one.

According to an official investigation report released after a Freedom of Information Act Request from Military.com, the pilot, Capt. Ian Stevens, failed to move the jet nozzles of his Harrier to the position required for conventional flight during a Feb. 13 mission to practice aerial refueling and ground attack runs near Cherry Point Marine Air Station, causing the plane to drop from the sky.

That's from a story we're posting today on Military.com (there've been some technical snags so publishing is delayed). Here's a bit more:

"This mishap was caused by the mishap pilot not positioning the nozzles back to the aft position after positioning them ... to the hoverstop position in order to ... stabilize in a proper formation position with is lead," the investigating officer stated in the report. "The thrust remained vectored below the aircraft until the aircraft impacted the ground." ...

Stevens executed several successful aerial refueling runs on a KC-10 Extender tanker, the report said, before peeling away with the other two Harriers to practice using his targeting pod during mock ground attacks. As he was trying to slow down and join up with the lead pilot of the flight, whose name is redacted from the report, things started to go wrong.

"The engine sounded like it was spooling up ... but the lead [pilot] continued to pull away from me," Stevens -- whose name was removed from the report but released to local media at the time of the crash -- told investigators in a statement. "I ... increased power to 'mil' but did not feel a corresponding acceleration. I decided that I had a problem."

After several successful mid-air engine restarts but with no resulting forward thrust, Stevens was out of options and decided to eject as his plane plummeted toward Earth.

"I had tried all the emergency procedures I could think of and could not figure out what the problem was," Stevens told investigators. "After the second airstart, I still wasn't getting acceleration from the engine and I was out of ideas, so I decided to eject."

Investigators who examined the wreckage of the plane and downloaded flight data from an onboard diagnostics recorder found that Stevens had redirected the thrust nozzles -- which can be shifted about 90 degrees to allow the Harrier to hover or fly conventionally -- downward to slow down enough to meet up with his wingman. But as he approached the other Harrier, Stevens forgot to move the nozzles aft, resulting in a functioning engine but no forward thrust.

"I'm pretty sure I put the nozzles back to the aft before I powered up, but looking back now I'm not absolutely positive," Stevens told investigators.

It's a rookie mistake from a rookie pilot who did everything right when he was presented with and diagnosed the problem. Thing is, the idea to check the nozzle angle wasn't in his decision tree. I'm sure it is now, though.

I talked to a long time Marine buddy of mine who's a Harrier pilot and currently an instructor and he said the Harriers -- after a pretty shaky track record -- are performing very well lately given their high optempo. That jet is notoriously difficult to fly and just qualifying to get in the cockpit is a huge feat.

My thoughts go out to this young pilot and I hope the mishap didn't scuttle a budding career. But it is important that aviators worldwide who operate this complex aircraft keep this kind of mistake in mind. Sometimes its the simplest explanation that solves a life-threatening problem.

-- Christian

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