Nearly 30 years ago, an enlisted USMC aircraft mechanic and record-holding glider pilot stole a VMA-214 A-4M Skyhawk attack jet from the flight line of MCAS El Toro, Ca for a 40 minute night joyride over the Pacific Ocean, and returned safely to the base, before being arrested on the spot. This is his story, in today's "little known history of aviation events".
A record-breaking young glider pilot, now an enlisted flight mechanic, took an unauthorized pre-dawn joy ride Friday in an $18-million jet fighter based at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, officials said.
He was identified as Lance Cpl. Howard A. Foote Jr., 21, of Los Alamitos. The Marine Corps said he donned a flight suit at 2 a.m. Friday and climbed aboard an unarmed A-4M Skyhawk. He took off from an unlighted
runway, flew about 50 miles and returned to the base half an hour later, officials said. They didn't know which direction he'd headed.
By the time he returned, Lt. Col. Jerry Shelton said, the lights on the runway had been turned on, but it took Foote five passes to land.
Foote was taken into custody and charged with wrongful appropriation of a government aircraft, Shelton said, a charge that carries with it a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He was taken to the stockade at Camp Pendleton.
The single-seat fighter, no longer in production, is part of the 214th Marine Attack Squadron, whose mission is to provide close air support to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Foote is normally assigned to station operations and maintenance for visiting aircraft.
Before joining the Marines in 1984, Foote broke several altitude records for glider pilots under the age of 21.
"I missed my senior prom because I was flying," Foote said in a 1984 interview before graduating from Los Alamitos High School.
Foote had hoped to be accepted into the Marine Corps' Enlisted Commissioning Program, with the ultimate goal of going to flight school, said Lt. Tim Hoyle, an El Toro public affairs officer.
However, Hoyle said Friday, while flying at 42,500 feet in a glider, Foote suffered an aerial embolism, a blockage in the bloodstream caused by lack of oxygen. It's an affliction similar to the "bends" suffered by divers.
"He found out recently that he probably wouldn't get accepted for flight school" as a result of the injury, Hoyle said.
Shelton said Foote, dressed in a flight suit, drove up to the plane in a vehicle used to ferry pilots. A sentry on duty noticed him climbing into the cockpit, Shelton said, but "he couldn't get his attention or stop him." Nighttime maintenance work on aircraft, Shelton said, was "not unusual."
Foote started the aircraft, which is self-starting and needs no assistance from the ground, and began taxiing down the runway.
"They knew something was wrong," Shelton said, since the field was closed at that time. No air traffic controllers were on duty, so the plane was not tracked by radar nor were any other planes sent up to pursue Foote. (No explanation was offered for the Marines' estimate that Foote flew 50 miles away.)
Shelton said said that it was not necessary to "talk" Foote down. "He got down on his own," Shelton said.
Foote did not seem to be drunk or under the influence of drugs when taken into custody, Shelton said, although blood and urine samples were taken. Results weren't available late Friday.
The aircraft, which was given a thorough inspection Friday, did not appear to be damaged.
While a student at Los Alamitos High School, Foote was no stranger to the inside of a cockpit. He broke his own California junior high-altitude record in 1984 when he flew a glider at 35,500 feet for 6 1/2 hours.
A number of his record-breaking efforts were sponsored by the American-British Stratospheric Soaring Project, which provided him with equipment, including a pressurized flight suit, an astronaut-type helmet and a parachute. The sponsoring group is made up of military personnel and civilian engineers.
Foote's interest in aviation began when he was 12 and started building model airplanes with his father. He joined the Long Beach Soaring Club in 1981, flying from the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center.
The club was headed by a retired U.S. Naval commander who provided what Foote said was "almost military-like training." From 1981 to 1984 Foote was also a member of the Civil Air Patrol.
"I like to fly at high altitudes because there are so many things you have to watch and monitor, like reading the instrument panel and constantly paying attention to the rate of climb," Foote said in 1984.
Some of the best conditions for high-altitude flying, he said, were above the Mojave Desert in Kern County.
All charges against an El Toro Marine corporal who took a jet fighter on a Fourth of July joy ride have been dropped and he will be discharged from the military today, the Marine Corps announced Thursday.
"This was a very unusual case in which a Marine with a tremendous amount of skill and great potential did a very stupid thing which could have resulted in a tragic loss of life," Brig. Gen. D.E.P. Miller, commanding officer of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said in a written statement.
Miller said the charges filed against Lance Cpl. Howard A. Foote Jr. "are very serious and his lack of judgment and violation of trust make it impossible to keep him in the Marine Corps.
"However, I feel that the 4 1/2 months he has served in confinement, coupled with an other-than-honorable discharge, will adequately serve justice in this case."
Shirley Foote said Thursday that she and her husband "are very overjoyed" that their son will be released today. "When we heard it, we were jumping in the air," she said.
She said she believed that what her son "went through was overkill on the part of the Marine Corps. I think they went overboard. It could have been handled a lot less detrimentally to both the Marines and our son."
The Marine Corps has said that Foote, 21, a Los Alamitos native and record-holding glider pilot before
entering the service in 1984, donned a flight suit at 2 a.m. on July 4 and climbed aboard an unarmed A-4M Skyhawk at the El Toro base. He took off from an unlighted runway and returned about 40 minutes later, flying over the base several times before landing.
At a hearing in August, an aviation maintenance officer at the base testified that the jet Foote flew was in need of repair. Maj. Frank B. Kennedy III testified that the aileron rigging on the plane was out of alignment and that the nose wheel steering mechanism was not working properly.
"From a maintenance standpoint, it was not a flyable airplane," Kennedy said.
Injury Kept Him Out
According to Foote's parents, he took the plane after finding out that an injury he had suffered during an attempt to break the world glider altitude record would prevent him from becoming a jet fighter pilot, a goal they say he had pursued since he was a young boy.
The dismissal of charges and Foote's discharge came about as a result of long negotiations between Marine Corps authorities and his defense attorneys, Michael J. Naughton of Laguna Hills and Capt. Brad Garber.
As part of the agreement, Foote wrote a letter of apology to Miller in which he said, "I realize now that my actions were not only foolhardy, but downright dangerous . . . even though I have some civilian pilot ratings and am qualified in a glider, this training is not sufficient for one to fly a high-performance military jet safely. .
"Though I would like to repay the Marine Corps for the problems I have created, I understand that it would be difficult for the Marine Corps to take me back."
Foote had been scheduled for a general court-martial next Wednesday on charges of misappropriating the $14-million, single-seat jet fighter and a maintenance truck he drove to the plane.
If he had been convicted, Foote could have faced a maximum sentence of nine years at hard labor, forfeiture of all pay, demotion to private and a dishonorable discharge.
Confined to Brig
Because there is no prison facility at the El Toro base, Foote, an aviation mechanic assigned to a base maintenance squadron at the time of the incident, had been confined in the brig at Camp Pendleton since his arrest.
Foote was originally charged with misappropriating the truck and plane, damaging the aircraft and disobeying regulations.
He also was charged with hazarding a vessel--flying without proper training or approval and recklessly disregarding the plane's mechanical condition. That charge technically could have resulted in the death penalty under centuries-old maritime law.
However, all the charges except those accusing him of misappropriating the plane and the truck were dismissed some time ago.
During Foote's pretrial hearing he was described as a dedicated Marine with a spotless service record who was highly motivated to become a fighter pilot.
Garber, his military attorney, said at that hearing that Foote's unauthorized flight should be treated for what it was--"a once-in-a-lifetime flight from reality . . . not a beginning of criminal conduct."