AT 1:30 A.M. ON THE MORNING OF NOV. 15, 1982, 31-year-old Janet Harduvel, wife of an Air Force fighter pilot, was awakened by a knock at the front door of her suburban Tampa home. Through the window she saw the outline of a team of military officers and flung the door open to ask, "Am I a widow?"

Five hours earlier her husband, respected instructor pilot Capt. Ted Harduvel, 35, had led a flight of four F-16 fighter planes on a training mission in the sky above South Korea. Seven minutes into the flight he radioed, "I've got a problem," and a moment later flew, upside down, into a mountain.

As unreal as that grim news seemed, there was something else that Janet simply could not accept: the Air Force's official explanation 45 days later that it was Ted Harduvel's misreading of his instruments—"pilot error"—that had caused the crash.

Janet, who had served as her husbands study partner while he went over the F-16's specifications, became convinced that the true cause was a malfunction in the plane's electrical system. Prevented by law from suing the Air Force itself, Janet, in a herculean effort chronicled in the HBO movie Afterburn (first telecast: May 30. See review, page 13), did win a 1987 judgment, which found General Dynamics, the plane's manufacturer, liable for defects in the jet and awarded her $3.1 million in compensatory damages.

Although that monetary judgment was later reversed on a legal technicality, Janet—played in the film by Laura Dern—still claims victory. "It was a question of honor—Ted's honor," she says. "I couldn't live with the epitaph: 'Here lies Ted Harduvel, world's greatest fighter pilot—until he got stupid.' "

The second of four children of a Long Island, N.Y., wine salesman and his waitress wife, Janet met 1st Lt. Ted Harduvel in 1973 while working her way through the University of Tampa as a cocktail waitress in the officers' club at MacDill Air Force Base. They married in 1974, and six years later their only child, a daughter, Kiki, was born.

In 1980, Ted Harduvel (played in the movie by Vincent Spano) became one of the first pilots to fly the Air Force's new F-16, but he expressed concern about the plane's performance. "He said, 'If I crash, don't cry for me,' " Janet recalls. " 'Get yourself the best attorney in town and sue 'em, Jan, because it ain't going to be my fault.' "

After his death, Janet followed that advice, ultimately retaining Texas-based aviation attorney Myron Pappadakis (played by Robert Loggia) and spending the next 4½, years amassing the complex technical paperwork to support her case. Her legal efforts, she says, served as a kind of therapy. "When you become a widow, you're angry at him for dying on you," she says. "And if you don't channel that anger externally, six months later you take a loaded gun and try to blow your brains out."

Kiki, now a fifth grader who has only vague memories of her father, also provided a focus for her mother. "She's the reason I didn't kill myself," says Janet. "I want her to realize you can do anything if you put your mind to it."

Her mother, perhaps, was Kiki's best role model. In April 1987, the day after a federal district court awarded her $3.1 million, Janet visited her husband's grave and said softly, "Rest in peace. Your name is clear. It wasn't your fault."

Though Afterburn ends there, Janet's story does not. In 1989 a higher court—though it did not challenge her husband's blameless-ness—reversed the lower court's monetary award on the grounds that, in this case, General Dynamics shared the government's immunity from lawsuits.

Today, Harduvel, who has petitioned the courts to rehear her case, raises her daughter in their comfortable three-bedroom house in the Tampa suburb of Lutz. She makes do on her husband's $830-a-monlh pension, augmented by income from an astrology-counseling business that she runs with her sister, Mary. "I'm frugal. I'm not an expensive-taste person," she declares. Harduvel has no plans to marry again but for the last four years has dated warehouse owner Zehntner Biedenharn Gay, 33.

"Life is good," Harduvel says earnestly. "It's on a very even keel for me." For her, what really matters is that the verdict on Capt. Ted Harduvel's death leaves his honor unblemished. "I owed him that," she says. "I really did."

DON SIDER in Tampa

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  • Don Sider.