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Military

Oil Leak Caused Marine Jet Crash In Imperial

Firefighters stand on the roof of a neighboring house to put out flames from a house that caught fire after debris from a Harrier jet crashed into the ground in the area on June 4 in Imperial.
Chelcey Adami / Imperial Valley Press
Firefighters stand on the roof of a neighboring house to put out flames from a house that caught fire after debris from a Harrier jet crashed into the ground in the area on June 4 in Imperial.

An oil leak caused a Marine fighter jet to crash in an Imperial neighborhood last year, setting several homes on fire and destroying the aircraft, it was reported Monday.

The AV-8B Harrier went down on June 4, 2014, after a crack in an oil drain tank caused a leak that sparked a fire, engine failure and total loss of flight control, according to a Marine investigative report.

The document was obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Harrier was developed with the ability to take off and land vertically. It has been in use for decades by the Marine Corps, which has 130 of the aging planes and is slowly phasing them out in favor of a new Joint Strike Fighter.

The pilot had taken off from the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona and was flying back after daytime low altitude training when the oil leak was detected. He decided to make an emergency landing at Naval Air Facility El Centro.

He was about 15 miles from that runway when the plane became sluggish and lost altitude, followed swiftly by an engine fire, loss of engine power and then his ability to control the aircraft, the investigation concluded.

The plane banked out of control and went down in Imperial, about 90 miles east of San Diego. Two homes were destroyed and a third was badly damaged but nobody on the ground was hurt. The pilot ejected and escaped with scrapes and bruises.

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The investigation didn't determine what caused the crack in the plane's oil drain tank but the Harrier has a history of mechanical problems and crashes.

A month before the Imperial crash, a pilot was able to eject safely before his Harrier went down in a remote desert area near the Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix, Arizona.

In 1999, the planes were grounded after a series of crashes, and in 2003 the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports that found the Harrier was the most accident-prone aircraft in the military at that time.

The Times found that during its first 31 years in service, the plane's mechanical failures, maintenance deficiencies and chronic funding problems contributed to 143 major accidents and the deaths of 45 Marines.