The day a Harrier jet landed on the Mall was either ‘barbaric’ or ‘cool,’ depending on the view.
I recently saw a photograph at a restaurant in Washington where a Harrier is landing on the Mall. Do you have any insight into when this happened and what the occasion was? — Amanda Burke, Washington Answer Man has always been partial to the Harrier, or the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B, as the jump jet is officially called. It’s what’s known as a V/STOL aircraft, capable of vertical/short takeoffs and landings.
Runways? We don’t need no stinking runways.
The plane’s ability to hover is how Capt. John Rahm of the U.S. Marine Corps was able to land his Harrier on the Mall on the morning of June 6, 1991.
Rahm was a veteran of Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War, fought under President George H.W. Bush. He flew the jet to Washington so it — and he — could be part of a giant celebration marking the end of the war and honoring the men and women who prosecuted it.
The National Victory Celebration included a static display on the Mall of the hardware that helped win the war. There were helicopters, personnel carriers, Patriot missiles and, making the most dramatic entrance early on a Thursday morning, there was Rahm’s Harrier.
Rahm flew 35 ground support missions in Desert Storm as part of Marine Attack Squadron 231, which flew out of a base in Saudi Arabia. He flew the Harrier up from his station in Cherry Point in North Carolina, landing at Andrews Air Force Base and then getting a helicopter tour of the Mall from the air so he could plan the approach he would make later in the week: right by the Washington Monument.
“From a piloting perspective it was just a vertical landing, something that all of us do all the time,” he told Answer Man. “It all went well. Thankfully I didn’t prang the landing.”
Combat engineers had installed a 96-by-96-foot aluminum pad for the Harrier to land on. Otherwise, debris blown up by the 30,000 horsepower Rolls-Royce jet engine could have damaged the jet. (The grass wouldn’t have fared too well, either.)
The parade — the biggest in Washington since World War II — was on Saturday. More than 8,000 Gulf War veterans marched up Constitution Avenue NW from Seventh Street, past the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge and then to the Pentagon North Parking Lot.
Also in the parade were missiles, personnel carriers tanks. The 67-ton M1A1 tanks and the 30-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicles left tread marks in the asphalt that had softened in the 85degree heat.
A model of an F-15 fighter jet that was being towed couldn’t negotiate a No Left Turn sign near the Lincoln Memorial. The parade stalled for 10 minutes until Mike Ferraro, a member of the volunteer parade route staff, shinnied up the light pole with a screwdriver and took down the sign.
The day included a flyover by 83 military aircraft — National Airport was closed to passenger traffic for about 30 minutes — and was capped by a fireworks display. The weekend attracted 800,000 people.
Not everyone thought the celebration, sponsored by the Desert Storm Homecoming Foundation, was a good idea. It was expensive, costing around $12 million, twice the total of early estimates. Private donations, including from defense contractors, underwrote about half that. (The postponed parade President Trump wants had an estimated price tag of up to $92 million.)
And some thought it was in poor taste. After all, 378 American men and women did not return from the war. Many more Iraqis were killed.
“It’s barbaric that they are displaying this by the Capitol,” Kerri Thompson, a college student from New York City, told a Washington Post reporter near a display of Tomahawk missiles. “The point is that these are big and bad and they kill people.”
Fellow student Andre Wilson said, “C’mon. They helped save lives in the end. This is cool.”
Rahm said most of the photographs he’s seen of his Harrier are from when he took off on the day after the parade. He hopped to Andrews Air Force Base to top up his fuel tank and then flew home to Cherry Point.
Rahm, 60, served a total of 26 years in the Marine Corps, retiring in 2008 as a colonel. Today, the only man to land a jet on the Mall lives in North Carolina and teaches sailing.
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A U.S. Marine Harrier jump jet lands on the Mall on June 6, 1991, as part of the National Victory Celebration.