The Marine Corps' love-hate relationship with the AV-8 Harrier

av-8b harriers flying over desert

Capt. Jonathan Lewenthal and Capt. Eric Scheibe, AV-8B Harrier pilots with Marine Attack Squadron 231, Marine Aircraft Group 14, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), fly over southern Helmand province, Afghanistan after conducting an aerial refuel Dec. 6, 2012. VMA-231 deployed to Afghanistan to provide close air support for counter-insurgency operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory Moore)

Dubbed the “widow-maker” in some aviation circles, the AV-8 Harrier is as dangerous to America’s enemies as it is to the pilots who commandeer it.

From its commissioning to as recent as 2013, there have been about 110 fighters involved in Class A mishaps — accidents causing death, permanent injury or at least $1 million in losses.

Related: This Marine pilot makes landing his Harrier fighter on a stool look easy

“Measured by its major accident rate per 100,000 flight hours, which is the military standard, the Harrier is the most dangerous plane in the U.S. military,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Alan C. Miller in the video below. “Overall the Marines have lost more than one-third of the entire Harrier fleet to accidents.”

The first Harrier model, the AV-8A had a Class A mishap rate of 31.77 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. The Marines improved the rate to 11.44 per 100,000 hours with the introduction of the AV-8B in the mid-1980s, according to Miller.

By contrast, the Harrier has more than twice the accident rate of the F-16, more than three times the rate of the F/A-18, and about five times the rate of A-10.

Despite its astronomical accident rate, the fighter is beloved and remains in service more than 40 years since its introduction in 1971.

“One Marine general who flew the plane early on described it as an answer to a prayer,” Miller said.

av-8b vertical takeoff

An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft assigned to the air combat element of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (13th MEU) performs a vertical landing on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer June 16, 2013. Boxer is conducting amphibious squadron and MEU integrated training.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Mark El-Rayes)

The Corps’ need for an aircraft with a vertical landing and short takeoff capability can be traced to the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal. The Marines lost over 1,000 men during that fight and felt abandoned by the Navy to fend for themselves.

“Since then, the precept that the Marines in the air should protect the Marines on the ground has been an essential part of the Corps’ ethos,” Miller said.

This History Channel video shows how the Harrier supports the Marine Corps’ mission to fight anywhere, anytime regardless of the risks:


Engineering Channel, YouTube

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