High-Flying Heist! When A U.S. Mechanic Took A Military Aircraft For A Joyride Over California On 4th July

On July 4, 1986, while most Americans celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and barbecues, Marine Lance Corporal Howard A. Foote Jr. marked the occasion in a way no one could have anticipated.

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The 21-year-old mechanic from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California took an A-4M Skyhawk, a military jet worth $18 million at the time, for an unauthorized and unforgettable flight.

Foote, who had never flown a fighter jet, seized the opportunity to live his dream of piloting such an aircraft. The young Marine arrived at the plane in a vehicle typically used to transport pilots to their aircraft, fully dressed in a flight suit to look the part.

Despite sentries’ efforts to stop him as he taxied the jet for takeoff, Foote remained undeterred and took to the skies. News reports at the time described his flight as both audacious and skilled, highlighting his execution of loops, rolls, and high-speed maneuvers over San Clemente Island.

Foote’s adventure lasted about 45 minutes before he returned to MCAS El Toro. The base was alerted, and the runways were brightly lit in anticipation of his return.

After multiple landing attempts, Foote successfully brought the Skyhawk down and was promptly detained upon exiting the cockpit.

The incident was not merely a youthful prank; it was a desperate act fueled by a shattered dream. Earlier that year, Foote had experienced an aerial embolism while attempting to set a glider altitude record.

Military doctors subsequently informed him that the condition would disqualify him from ever flying a Marine Corps fighter jet. Facing the end of his aviation aspirations, Foote’s joyride was a final bid to realize his lifelong ambition, even if only for a brief moment.

Foote’s flight, though reckless and dangerous, showcased his exceptional flying talent.

A seasoned glider pilot who had set world records at a young age, he maneuvered the A-4M Skyhawk with remarkable skill for someone with no prior fighter jet experience. No fighters were dispatched to intercept the rogue jet, and Foote brought it back without help.

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The A-4M, a tailored variant of the Skyhawk, was engineered to meet the Marine Corps requirement for an attack aircraft capable of delivering close air support from compact airstrips near the front lines.

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Foote had logged around 100 hours in an A-4 Skyhawk simulator. Combined with his knowledge of the jet’s maintenance and his exceptional natural flying skills, this was sufficient for him to execute his late-night flight and survive to tell the tale.

The jet Foote used for his escapade belonged to VMA-214 “Black Sheep” and was later found unsafe for flight. Testimony during the investigation revealed that the jet’s ailerons were misaligned and its nose-gear steering was malfunctioning, adding significant danger to Foote’s flight.

Lance Corporal Foote was charged with a multitude of offenses, including misappropriating the vehicle used to access the aircraft and the Skyhawk itself, damaging the aircraft, and disobeying regulations.

He was also charged with endangering a plane, flying without proper training or approval, and recklessly ignoring the plane’s mechanical issues.

A VMA-211 “Wake Island Avenger” A-4M firing an AGM-45 “Shrike” missile. Twitter

While many charges were dropped, Foote could have faced nine years of hard labor, forfeiture of all pay, demotion to private, and a dishonorable discharge.

However, in November 1986, Foote received a much lighter sentence: four and a half months of confinement (which he had already served) and an other-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.

This leniency was likely influenced by his close relationship with retired El Toro chief Gen. William A. Bloomer, who had mentored Foote and encouraged his participation in the gliding challenge that ultimately ended his dreams of flying Marine Corps fighter jets.

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Despite the gravity of his actions, Foote’s previously exemplary record as a Marine played a role in the final decision. After his discharge, Foote applied to the Israeli Air Force to fly fighters but was unsuccessful.

He then transitioned to a career as a civilian test pilot and engineer, contributing to various projects, including a microwave airplane concept and several initiatives for NASA. Foote became a contractor for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and even held patents in aviation design and engineering technology.

Foote’s post-military career is noteworthy, especially considering his daring theft of an operational jet. His accomplishments in aviation design and engineering highlighted his remarkable skills and resilience, underscoring the complex legacy of a man who once stole a fast jet from the Marine Corps.