Washington, Oct.6 : Though Republican presidential candidate John McCain has used his war hero status to push his political ambitions over the last 40-odd years, fresh evidence has surfaced that this ex-navy pilot was actually accident prone.
He was actually involved in three major crashes during his time as a pilot, and his attempt to project them as being due to engine failure are now coming unstuck.
In 1960, McCain was training in his AD-6 Skyraider on an overcast Texas morning when he slammed into Corpus Christi Bay and sheared the skin off his plane's wings.
Recounting the accident decades later in his autobiography, he wrote that it was due to engine failure, but according to a Los Angeles Times report, an investigation board at the Naval Aviation Safety Center found no evidence of engine failure. The investigation board ruled then that the 23-year-old junior lieutenant wasn't paying attention and erred in using "a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn."
That crash was one of three in McCain's aviation career in which his flying skills and judgment were faulted or questioned by Navy officials.
In his most serious lapse, McCain was "clowning" around in a Skyraider over southern Spain about December 1961 and flew into electrical wires, causing a blackout.
In another incident, in 1965, McCain crashed a T-2 trainer jet in Virginia.
After McCain was sent to Vietnam, his plane was destroyed in an explosion on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1967.
Three months later, he was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi and taken prisoner. He was not faulted in either of those cases and was later lauded for his heroism as a prisoner of war.
The L.A. Times interviewed men who served with McCain and located once-confidential 1960s-era accident reports and formerly classified evaluations of his squadrons during the Vietnam War.
An examination of his record reveals a pilot who early in his career was cocky, occasionally cavalier and prone to testing limits.
"Three mishaps are unusual," said Michael L. Barr, a former Air Force pilot with 137 combat missions in Vietnam and an internationally known aviation safety expert who teaches in USC's Aviation Safety and Security Program.
"After the third accident, you would say: Is there a trend here in terms of his flying skills and his judgment?"
Jeremiah Pearson, a Navy officer who flew 400 missions over Vietnam without a mishap and later became the head of human space flight at NASA, said: "That's a lot. You don't want any. Maybe he was just unlucky."
The Times asked McCain's campaign to release any military personnel records in the candidate's possession showing how the Navy handled the three incidents. The campaign said it would have no comment.
Navy veterans who flew with McCain called him a good pilot.
"John was what you called a push-the-envelope guy," said Sam H. Hawkins, who flew with McCain's VA-44 squadron in the 1960s and now teaches political science at Florida Atlantic University.
The young McCain has often been described as undisciplined and fearless -- a characterization McCain himself fostered in his autobiography.
McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, had a privileged status in the Navy. He was invited to the captain's cabin for dinner on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise in 1962, a perk other aviators and sailors attributed to his famous name, recalled Gene Furr, an enlisted man who shared an office and went on carrier deployments with McCain over three years.
On another occasion, McCain was selected to make a commemorative landing on the Enterprise and had his picture taken in front of a cake in the officers' galley, Furr said.
McCain's commanders sarcastically dubbed him "Ace McCain" because of his string of pre-Vietnam accidents.
The official record includes comments from pilots in his own squadron who defended McCain's actions as "proper and timely."
About two weeks after issuing its report, the safety center revised its findings and said the accident resulted from the failure or malfunction of an "undetermined component of the engine."