On the 4th of July, 1986, Lance Corporal Howard A. Foote Jr., USMC, unofficially became one of the last enlisted fighter pilots to have flown in the United States military. Now, when I say “unofficially”, I mean that he wasn’t actually authorized to fly a fighter aircraft… but he did so anyways.
Already halfway through his enlistment in the Marines as a flight mechanic and plane captain, Foote was an accomplished glider pilot before he enlisted with dreams and ambitions of becoming a military pilot. Sadly, an aerial embolism sustained in one of his record-setting glider flights ended that dream and he was denied acceptance into the Marine Corps’ Enlisted Commissioning Program, preventing him from going to flight school. Crestfallen but undeterred, Foote took matters into his own hands.
In the early-morning hours of Friday, July 4, 1986, Foote donned a flight suit and drove up to a parked A-4M Skyhawk at MCAS El Toro. The aircraft belonged to VMA-214, The Black Sheep of WWII fame. Having received close to 100 hours of training in a simulator, Foote felt prepared to fly. Already knowledgeable of the start-up procedures, he quickly fired up the unarmed fighter, closed the canopy and taxied over to a nearby unlit runway, pushing the throttle forward and executing a textbook takeoff. At 2:00 AM, Foote was living out his dream, albeit very illegally.
More than 50 miles away from base, Foote was flying loops and rolls over the Pacific. After nearly 30 minutes of flight time elapsed, he aimed his nose towards El Toro. By now, crew on the ground were fully alert and quite aware of Foote’s “appropriation” of the Skyhawk. With the runway lights now on, he made a few passes before he was able to land, whereupon he was summarily arrested and imprisoned in the brig, charged with wrongfully taking a government aircraft. Normally, a charge like that carries a sentence of 2 years of confinement and a dishonorable discharge from the military, but by November, the charges were dropped and Foote was give an other-than-honorable (OTH) discharge from the Marine Corps. Unbeknownst to our unauthorized pilot/dreamer, the Skyhawk he borrowed was in severe need of repair. Issues with the ailerons and landing gear had previously grounded the aircraft. This came to light during the court hearings convened to determine Foote’s future with the military.
After his stint in the Corps, Foote became an aeronautical engineer after attending the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and immediately set to work on a number of aviation projects, including a microwave-powered aircraft. Also qualified as a test pilot in 20+ different military and civilian aircraft, he now contracts privately to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and holds a number of patents in aviation design and engineering technology.
All’s well that ends well, right?