At Cherry Point last month, the pilot of a Harrier jet became the third to die this year in an accident involving the plane, but Cherry Point pilots insist the Harrier is safe.

``I have absolutely the fullest confidence in the airplane,' said Col. John B. Dempsey, a veteran Harrier pilot at the Cherry Point Marine Air Station in Havelock, where about 110 of the jets are stationed.But U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., says he finds plenty of problems with the plane.

Harrier jets are among the most technologically advanced bombers in the U.S. arsenal, but their accident record is bringing them under increasing fire from congressmen like Conyers.

According to Conyers, at least six pilots have died since a new model began flying six years ago and 20 Harriers have been lost in accidents.

Defense officials acknowledge that only 179 of the 207 AV-8B Harrier jump jets delivered to the Pentagon were still flying last month, The News and Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday.

``It defies my imagination that the Navy finds acceptable these losses and continues to operate a system with such a high fatality rate and proven record of severe reliability problems,' Conyers said. ``I am concerned for our young pilots and I question whether a system with so poor a track record contributes to our national security.'

The Marine Corps, which has about 200 Harrier jets and is adding more, says the jet's Vertical-Short Take-Off and Landing capabilities are ideal for land and sea operations. On land, the Harrier doesn't need air bases and long runways, so the aircraft can use bomb-damaged runways, roads, grass strips or any hardened area with dimensions no larger than a tennis court.

At sea, the Harrier takes off without catapults and lands without stopping gear. Fully loaded, the Harrier weighs in at 14 tons, carrying 9,200 pounds of bombs and missiles.

Conyers, chairman of the U.S. House Government Operations Committee, last month accused the Northrop Corp. of ``major fraud' in the testing of systems for Harriers and cruise missiles. He chastised government agencies for continuing to buy parts from the company.

Military officials maintained during the hearings that they had to buy parts from Northrop to maintain supplies until another source could be developed.

Northrop Corp.'s Precision Products Division was suspended from doing business with the military after pleading guilty to falsifying tests for components, called a ``rate sensor assembly,' that help the jet remain stable in flight.

Dempsey, who flew the earlier version of the Harrier for several years and has been in the new model about 14 months, said the accident rate for Harriers was comparable to similar jets. He said there was no trend in the cause of the crashes.

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