Naval Air: Marine Pilot Improvises

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July 10, 2014: A U.S. Marine Corps carrier pilot recently landed his AV-8B jet on a carrier undamaged even though the nose landing gear would not extend. The AV-8B can land like a helicopter (coming straight down) but without the nose gear there would still be damage. To avoid that, the pilot asked for a steel “stool” was put on the deck of the amphibious carrier USS Bataan and with a little assist from the carrier flight controller the pilot landed so precisely so that the stool replaced the nose gear and the aircraft came to rest on the flight deck undamaged. This is a lot more important than it seems because the marines have been ordered to make their 140 remaining Harriers last longer than planned because their replacement (the F-35B) has suffered a lot of unexpected delays. So every Harrier counts and it was well worth the extra effort to try in get the one with a bad nose gear down intact. Carrier pilots are expected to handle emergencies like that and often do so.

The marines are currently upgrading many of their 140 AV-8B Harrier jet fighters to keep them in service at least until 2030. Extending the useful life of the AV-8Bs is possible largely because in 2011 Britain sold all its Harrier jet fighters, spare parts, and ancillary gear to the marines. The American marines are the largest operator of Harrier aircraft. Harrier production ceased in 1997, as did major refurbishment of older aircraft in 2003.

In 2010 Britain retired its fleet of 74 Harrier vertical-takeoff jets as a cost-cutting measure. The aircraft were put into storage but with enough maintenance services to keep them in shape for rapid reactivation. It was hoped that a buyer could be found. The American marines were not interested initially, because they were expecting the new F-35B to arrive in time to replace their aging Harriers. The F-35B then experienced numerous delays and is now even threatened with cancellation. This led to the purchase of Britain's Harrier aircraft and spare parts. This could keep the marine Harriers in service for at least another two decades. Without the infusion of British equipment the American Harriers would have been retired in the late 2020s. Most of the British Harriers are being cannibalized for spare parts. The British and American Harriers are largely identical. A lot of the electronics are different but the airframes and engines are interchangeable. The marines paid $180 million for the stock of spare parts and decommissioned British Harriers.

The Americans are not the only ones having problems keeping their Harrier forces going. In 2008 Britain sold four surplus Harrier aircraft to India, to be cannibalized for spare parts. In the previous twenty years, India had lost half of its 30 Harrier vertical takeoff fighters to accidents, and the fifteen remaining aircraft often could not fly because of a shortage of spares. Britain also offered help with Harrier refurbishment.

The Harrier has the highest accident rate of any current jet fighter. This is largely because of its vertical flight capabilities, which give it an accident rate similar to that of helicopters. The U.S. Marine Corps has lost a third of its 397 Harriers to such accidents in 33 years. That's about three times the rate of the F-18C. However, accident loss rates for combat aircraft have been declining over the last century. Current Harrier rates are similar to those for many fixed-wing aircraft operating in the 1970s. Harrier pilots simply accept the fact that since they operate an aircraft that can fly like a helicopter, they have to expect the higher loss rates that go with it.

Despite the higher risk of accidents the marines carefully select their AV-8B pilots and expect them to be daring and resourceful. The results of that were recently seen in the emergency landing using a stool to replace the inoperable nose gear. It takes up to four years of grueling training to become a naval aviator and only those who can cope make it. The hardest part of the course involves learning how to land on an aircraft carrier, especially at night ("night traps," with the "trap" referring to the tail hook on the aircraft snagging the cable slung across the deck to stop the landing aircraft). Training naval aviators takes from 18-48 months, depending on the type of aircraft and specific job of the trainee. The helicopter pilots, of course, do not have to learn traps, but the less tricky (but still potentially dangerous) landing on a carrier deck (which is often moving in all directions, during rough weather.) Since 1910, over 160,000 American pilots have qualified to be carrier aviators. This includes thousands of foreign pilots, who come to the United States to receive what is considered the finest naval aviator training in the world.

 


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