msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 3/1/2004 5:59:56 PM ET 2004-03-01T22:59:56

The Navy has temporarily grounded all Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier attack aircraft after tests showed potential engine problems that could lead to catastrophic engine failure and aircraft loss, Navy officials told NBC News on Monday.

The Naval Air Systems Command’s flight restriction, issued Saturday, affects all 217 Harriers in the Marine fleet. The aircraft are to resume flying once they pass mandatory inspections, the officials said.

The British-designed aircraft, distinctive for their ability to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, are being checked for an improper high-pressure compressor configuration in the engine, officials said.

Navy and Marine officials said that the mandatory inspections would have no significant impact on flight operations and that the tests should be complete later Monday. Seventy-five percent of the fleet has already been inspected, they said, adding that 11 suspect engines had been identified so far.

The Harrier, manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas, is under congressional investigation after records showed that it was the deadliest aircraft in the U.S. military.

Records released last month at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee showed that the jet’s accident rate in 2003 was 11.05 per 100,000 hours, more than five times the average rate for all military aircraft. More than one-third of the fleet has been destroyed in crashes in the 32 years the Marines have flown the single-seat jet; five Harriers crashed last year alone.

All told, 45 Marines have died in 148 noncombat accidents.

The House Armed Services Committee last month appointed a task force, headed by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., to assess the safety of the Harrier, which was previously grounded in 2000.

By NBC associate producer Scott Foster and MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson.

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