2003National Reporting

'At Least We Got to Kiss Him Goodbye'

Jeff Smith knew the Harrier was unforgiving, but he flew it with gusto. 'I'm ahead of it, Dad,' he would say.
By: 
Kevin Sack
Times Staff Writer
December 17, 2002,
Part 3

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PART III: CASUALTIES

COGGON, Iowa -- Through the viewfinder of his mother's video camera, Jeffrey Smith looked the picture of Marine Corps confidence in the moments before takeoff on June 29, 1992.

Fit and trim in his olive flight suit and aviator shades, the 29-year-old pilot flashed a Tom Cruise smile as he made his final preflight checks. He walked around the wings of his AV-8B Harrier, inspected the flaps and climbed nearly all the way into the huge conical intakes, surveying the fan blades for any hint of damage.

"No gremlins in there," he reported.

Then he pulled on his helmet and clambered into the cockpit. He fired up the Harrier's engine, which responded with its trademark screaming whistle, and gave a final thumbs-up and a waved farewell to his mother and father. Smith taxied the plane to the end of the runway, and paused like a bull getting ready to charge.

As they watched from the tarmac, Ronnie and Donna Smith could not have been prouder of their son.

After an eight-month deployment in Japan, he was thrilled to be back on American soil, reunited with his wife, Dee, and discovering the heart-tug of fatherhood with the 6-month-old daughter who had been born in his absence.

With 619 flight hours under his belt, he had recently been promoted to captain and clearly felt in command of his plane. While overseas, he had worked himself into top physical shape. His parents could feel the muscles when they hugged him goodbye.

"He just seemed invincible," Donna Smith said.

Donna and Ronnie Smith

Donna and Ronnie Smith had lingered at the airport in Davenport, Iowa, to watch their son, Marine Capt. Jeffrey J. Smith, take off in the Harrier. (photo: Tyrone Turner for the Times)

It is a word used often to describe the 45 Marines who have died in noncombat accidents involving the Harrier. They always appeared that way before they climbed into their planes, so utterly self-assured, like the all-American heroes of some old black-and-white movie.

It was part of the culture. They were among the best aviators in the country: bright, brave, ambitious, dedicated to the Marines and to the Harrier's mission of protecting troops on the ground, like airborne big brothers.

Many gravitated to the single-seat Harrier precisely because of its daredevil appeal. The pioneering aircraft can ascend like a helicopter and then speed off like a jet, and its uniqueness has made it both the most captivating and the most dangerous plane in the U.S. military.

During his training, Jeff Smith had called his father any number of times with news of Harrier crashes. With 143 major accidents in its 31 years of service, the Harrier's accident rate is significantly higher than those of comparable combat planes.

Jeff always had an explanation -- the pilot or some mechanic had fouled up -- and he promised to spend extra time in the simulator, practicing emergency procedures.

"I'm ahead of it, Dad," he'd say.

But as they watched that day, under a sky the color of faded denim, Ronnie and Donna Smith came to understand that even the most conscientious pilot can only do so much to stay ahead of the Harrier.

The Smiths, with their thick hands and sun-weathered faces, are about as Iowa as you can get. Jeff was the second of five children, all of whom pitched in on the 1,700 acres the family farmed in the "Field of Dreams" lushness of eastern Iowa.

Until they got caught short in the credit crunch of the 1980s and sold off much of their land, the Smiths planted corn and soybeans and alfalfa and raised beef cattle and hogs.

Jeff weeded beans by hand and cared for 30 or so of the hogs, including his prize pets, Pork Chop and Sauerkraut, so named because Donna had once threatened to make that meal of them if they kept rooting around in her garden.

Always mechanically inclined, Jeff loved tearing down the tractors and was captivated by the new technology of farming, like using computers to set the depth and width of the rows.

He wrestled in high school, as Iowa boys are expected to do, and narrowly missed making the state tournament.

But from his earliest days, Jeff Smith's real passion was speed.

As a youngster, he raced down country roads in his father's red Cockshutt tractor. His driver's education teacher warned his parents that their son had "the heaviest damn foot" he'd ever seen.

When Jeff got his driver's license, Donna Smith predicted that her little hellion would take no more than 30 days to smash his first car. He made it to 29, when he drag-raced his 1964 Mustang into a telephone pole and nearly sliced off his scalp.

Later in life, he would take his red Corvette into the repair shop, complaining that "it shakes a little at 130."

Cars were fast. But airplanes were really fast.

While Jeff was studying engineering at Iowa State, Ronnie Smith bought a used Cessna 170 and learned how to fly.

His father's four-seater captured Jeff's imagination, particularly when Ronnie took the kids "cloud-chasing" by pulling the nose into a steep climb and giddily slamming through puffy cumulus formations.

Jeff Smith already sensed that farming was not going to be demanding enough for him. Flying, he thought, just might be his escape.

He started going to air shows around the Midwest. As soon as he graduated from college, he joined the Marines and trained as an aviator in Pensacola, Fla. He finished high in his class and was assigned to fly the Harrier. He liked that it was a single-seat airplane that forced the pilot to rely on his own instincts and skills.

He had himself photographed in the cockpit of a Harrier and sent the picture back home with an inscription: "Eat your heart out, Chuck Yeager."

When his wife once remarked that he could have made more money as an engineer, Smith responded, "Yes, I could have, but not one of them will ever pull four Gs in his life."

On that June weekend in 1992, it was Smith who was featured at the air show. After returning from Asia, he had wrangled a trip home by offering to fly a Harrier to the Quad City Air Show in Davenport.

His parents flew the Cessna in from Coggon (population 745 -- "Some Bigger, None Better") and they spent the weekend catching up in a shared motel room and attending the wedding reception of a close friend.

Jeff kept the groom up so late in the hotel bar, regaling him with tales of Marine Corps adventures, that the bride finally surrendered and retired to bed alone.

Smith was as happy as he had ever been. Everyone could see it.

After all his world travels, he seemed nostalgic for Iowa, and remarked on how green the fields were.

"Of all the people in the world," he told his parents, "Iowa people are the best." His friends noticed a new maturity about him, an interest in family and future that seemed almost ill-fitting.

"I really feel lucky," he told Doug LeClere, a high school wrestling buddy. "I feel like I've got the world by the tail."

On Sunday night, after the air show had closed, Smith told his mother he couldn't believe how happy he was.

"Oh, Jeff, don't say that," she responded. "That's just what Jay said to me."

Jeff's grave

Ronnie Smith visits son Jeff's grave at Mount Clark Cemetery near the family home in Iowa. (photo: Tyrone Turner for the Times)

Three years earlier, Jeff's 17-year-old brother, Jay, had been driving a car that was T-boned by a pickup truck. One of his sisters watched the crash from another car. Donna Smith, who was following only minutes behind, came upon the wreckage in time to see the paramedics loading her youngest child into an ambulance.

Jay didn't make it. That left just the three girls and Jeff.

On the Monday morning after the Quad City Air Show, Ronnie Smith, by then a part-time home-builder, had hoped to fly home early. He had work to do. But his wife persuaded him to stay long enough to see Jeff soar away toward his base in Yuma, Ariz. After all, they had never seen him fly the Harrier.

The Smiths walked down the runway with their son as he picked up rocks and other debris and tossed them to the side, like a golfer preparing the green for a long, clean putt.

Looking at the farmland around him, Jeff joked to his parents: "Well, one thing about it, if I have to abort, at least I'll be in an Iowa cornfield."

His mother chided him for even thinking that way.

"Well, Mom," she recalled him telling her, "that's what they teach us. You have to think about the possibilities. If you have to abort, where can you go, because the main thing is public safety. They don't want you to hit buildings or anyplace people will be."

Donna Smith didn't want to think about that. "This is ingrained in his head from his training," she told herself. "Why would anything go wrong?"

As Smith began his race down the runway, everything seemed normal. But as the plane reached 134 mph, the engine's roar seemed to roll back, as if someone had pulled the plug on a vacuum cleaner.

"He's lost power," Ronnie Smith said.

By the time Jeff started to brake, he had sped halfway down the 4,800-foot runway. With his left hand, he pulled the throttle to idle, then yanked back the nozzle control lever so the Harrier's four thrusters rotated as far forward as possible, blasting exhaust out ahead of the plane. Then he throttled back up while pressing the rudder pedals fully forward to activate the antiskid brakes on the main landing gear. His right hand gripped the stick, controlling the steering.

Donna kept filming as a whirl of white smoke enveloped the plane.

"Abort, abort, abort!" Smith yelled into his radio. "I'm aborting!"

But the pilot quickly ran out of runway, and his Harrier veered left across a field and then dipped into a shallow drainage ditch abutting Slopertown Road, shearing off the nose and the main landing gear.

"He's off the runway!" Ronnie Smith screamed. He began chanting beneath his breath, "Eject, eject, eject!"

crash 1 crash 2

After skidding of the end of the runway and into a farm field in Davenport, Smith appeared to be out of harm's way when he ejected from his AV-8B Harrier (top). But the wind carried the Marine pilot over the huge fireball from the burning plane (bottom) melting his parachute and dropping him more than 30 feet to the ground. (Photos: Tom Mack)

Though his parents could no longer see him, Smith did eject just as his plane, loaded with 11,000 pounds of fuel, crossed the two-lane blacktop. Seconds after his ejection seat shot him 106 feet high and 151 feet forward, the Harrier jumped another drainage ditch and exploded in a farmer's field, sending up a massive ball of orange flame and billowing black smoke.

"Oh, God, no!" Donna Smith cried as she dropped her camcorder and ran toward the smoke.

As Jeff descended, he made one full swing under an open parachute. But then the wind blew him toward the flames, which melted the orange-and-white parachute panels and cut the pilot loose for a drop of more than 30 feet.

He landed head-first, possibly hitting a fence post, and was found unconscious, his breathing labored, his heart and kidneys bleeding, a leg broken.

When Ronnie Smith got near enough to see his son's helmet, all dented and smashed, he knew the prospects were grim. At Mercy Hospital in Davenport, the doctor told the distraught parents that Jeff's brain "was just scrambled."

Before sunrise the next morning, Jeff's wife, Dee, and infant daughter, Skylar, flew in from Yuma. The couple had married three years earlier after a courtship that began when Smith visited Dee's hometown of Pensacola on spring break.

The baby was born in Yuma while Smith was in Japan, but Dee scented her crib sheets with his cologne and played audiotapes of him reciting nursery rhymes. When he returned, only a month before his accident, he fell quickly in love with his "princess," even when she was smearing mashed carrots across his chest.

Once the family had gathered at the hospital, the doctor informed them there had been no sign of brain activity. They paid Jeff a final visit, with Dee holding his blistered hand and kissing his swollen forehead.

Then they ordered him removed from life support.

They buried him on the Fourth of July at Mount Clark Cemetery, near his hometown of Coggon. His slate-gray tombstone bears etchings of his portrait on one side and a Harrier on the other.

A Marine Corps investigation concluded that even though Smith was an attentive and knowledgeable pilot, he probably stayed with the plane too long in trying to minimize damage and protect bystanders. Had he ejected sooner, the investigators wrote, he might have survived.

Other pilots speculated that an initial second or two of indecision in his 25-second abort may have cost Smith his life. But Ronald V. Deloney, his commander in Yuma, said there "was no indication of any pilot error."

In the months before the fatal crash, mechanics had noted a number of minor problems with the plane that had not been fixed -- fluid leaking from a nose strut, worn rudder mounts, a light that needed replacing.

But only after a detailed engineering analysis did investigators identify the most likely cause of the engine's deceleration: a tiny L-shaped piece of plastic debris, 7/100ths of an inch long and 2/100ths of an inch wide, that had choked the flow of fuel.

The Marines never determined exactly how the shard of plastic found its way into the engine. But the Smiths are, in Ronnie's words, "disgusted" that it was not discovered.

"If it's something that broke loose, it's one thing," he said. "But if they just didn't clean it or get the piece out, that'd be pretty hard to take."

Donna Smith remains bewildered.

"The Marines are so meticulous about everything," she said. "I couldn't believe something like this could get by."

The Smiths' friends wondered how much heartbreak the family could bear. For the second time in three years, they had witnessed the death of a son.

But in some odd way, Donna Smith was glad she was there. While Jeff was overseas, she had always feared getting one of those solemn calls from a faceless colonel or chaplain.

"This way," she said, "at least we got to kiss him goodbye."

A decade later, Dee has remarried, had another child and divorced. She lives in Cedar Rapids, not far from the Smiths. Five years ago, she was a bridesmaid in a wedding in which both the bride and the maid of honor were also Harrier widows.

Skylar, now 11, is increasingly curious about the father she never knew. Her teacher recently assigned her to write a paper about an American hero. She didn't have to look far for her subject.

Donna and Ronnie deal with Jeff's loss in different ways. Ronnie likes to watch the video, over and over, to see his handsome young son flash him that confident thumbs-up. Donna, by contrast, has never brought herself to view it.

Ronnie likes to fly the Cessna to the airfield in Davenport, where a stone monument erected by family and friends now stands as "an eternal salute from a pilot to his colleagues" in Yuma's famed Black Sheep Squadron.

Donna sobs at every telling of the story, as if she is seeing it all again, and dissolves on Memorial Day when the bugler blows taps.

Even as they wonder whether greater vigilance by the Marines might have saved their son, the Smiths have tried to move on. They comfort themselves with the embrace of friends and the regularity of work. They still have three daughters to cherish.

But it hasn't been easy.

"After Jay was killed, I didn't think I was ever, ever going to get over that," Donna said. "And after Jeff was killed, I couldn't believe that God was doing it to us again. A lot of people fall back on their faith. We didn't. We abandoned it."

Once devout Catholics, the Smiths stopped going to church. It's not that they don't believe in God. But they do think he sometimes turns away.

And so even on the days when she feels God's presence in the tallness of the corn or the pink sunset over the fields, Donna Smith cannot help but ask why she lost both of her boys.

"I guess," she said, "I'm still waiting for his answer."