A Marine Corp. Mechanic Took An A-4M Skyhawk On A Joyride

A McDonnell Douglas A-4M Skyhawk II displayed at Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum (Photo credit: RightCowLeftCoast / Wikipedia)

It’s not unusual for Americans to have a good time on the 4th of July, but one Marine took that a little further when he stole a military jet for a joyride over California. The Marine was a talented aspiring pilot when he was informed that he would not be able to fly for the military due to a medical issue. After this crushing news, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.

He stole a jet at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro airbase, fired it up, taxied to the runway, and took off. He spent the next 45 minutes having the time of his life.

It was 1986, and Lance Corporal Howard A. Foote Jr. was a US Marine that wanted nothing more than to fly. Lt. Tim Hoyle, the airbase’s public affairs officer, told the Los Angeles Times that “Foote joined the Marines to go the Corps’ Enlisted Commissioning Program, hoping to attend flight school.” Unfortunately, this dream would be ripped away from him after an incident during a glider flight.

“While flying at 42,500 feet in a glider he suffered an aerial embolism similar to the bends suffered by divers,” Hoyle said.

The bends, or decompression sickness as it is also known, occurs when gasses dissolved in the body bubble due to a reduction of ambient pressure. It is usually associated with divers, who are at high risk of the condition, but it can also affect aviators at high altitudes in unpressurized aircraft. The nature of this incident meant Foote was not medically cleared to fly.

Foote would not get to pilot jets. But piloting jets and piloting jets legally are two different things, as Foote would soon exploit.

In the meantime, he worked as a mechanic.

Although Foote was a novice pilot he was exceptionally talented and had a natural ability at the controls of a lighter-than-air craft. His time in gliders encompassed record-breaking flights.

Stealing an A4M Skyhawk

Howard A Foote Jr
LA Times article clipping

In the early hours of the 4th of July 1986, Foote donned a flight suit and commandeered a vehicle used to transport pilots to their aircraft. He drove across the dark runway at the El Toro airbase and arrived at an $18 million (over $40 million today when adjusted for inflation) A4M Skyhawk jet.

He climbed in, switched on the engine, and taxied to the runway. Sentries were alarmed and attempted to stop Foote but were too late. He opened up the throttle and thundered down the runway into the air.

Foote had been a newbie aviator, but he had racked up 100 hours in a Skyhawk simulator, which, combined with his natural talent, was enough to quickly master the complex flying machine.

For the next 45 minutes, he lived out his dream. He flew approximately 50 miles away from the base and put the jet through its paces over the Pacific Ocean with high-speed passes, turns rolls, and loops.

At the end of his flight, he turned the Skyhawk around and headed back to El Toro, likely fully aware of the consequences he would soon be facing. After a few attempts, he gently touched the jet down and was quickly detained.

Naturally, Foote had committed a number of serious offenses and would be punished. After all, he did steal a vehicle and an aircraft. He also took off without permission and flew the aircraft without training, just to name a few of his potential crimes.

During the ensuing investigation, it was discovered that the A4M Skyhawk Foote took was actually not fit for flight, as it had out-of-alignment ailerons and an issue with its nose landing gear.

Although he was facing a dishonorable discharge, forfeit of pay, and almost 10 years of hard labor, Foote actually received a rather minor punishment; just four and a half months of confinement and an other than honorable discharge.

Foote’s previously immaculate record in the Marines and reputation as an all-around excellent servicemember likely contributed to this light sentence.

However, this wasn’t the end of Foote and the world of flight, as he eventually became an aeronautical engineer, a test pilot qualified to fly in over 20 different aircraft. He has gone on to contribute to a number of military and civilian aviation projects and he worked as a contractor for NASA. He holds patents in aviation design and engineering technology.