How much could a Marine Corps fighter cost? That was probably one of the questions running through 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Howard Foote's mind as the enlisted flight mechanic climbed into an unarmed A4M Skyhawk in the middle of a July night.
An A4M Skyhawk taking off in 1989. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
In case you were wondering, the cost is roughly $18 million. Rather, that was the cost back in 1984, when Foote stole one of them from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Today, that would be the equivalent of $41 million, adjusted for inflation.
Sentries tried to stop Foote as he taxied the aircraft for takeoff, but they just couldn't get his attention.
"Foote joined the Marines to go the Corps' Enlisted Commissioning Program, hoping to attend flight school," Lt. Tim Hoyle, an El Toro public affairs officer, told the Los Angeles Times. "However, while flying at 42,500 feet in a glider he suffered an aerial embolism similar to the bends suffered by divers."
The bends is the divers' term for decompression sickness, where gasses in the body (like nitrogen in the compressed oxygen tanks used by divers) come out of the blood in bubbles because the body doesn't have time to adjust to the pressure around it.
Flight school was not going to happen. Foote became a mechanic instead. Still, he had to realize his dream of going up at the helm of a fighter.
"I had worked my entire life for this flight," Foote told the LA Times, four years later. "There was nothing else."
An LA Times Clipping of the incident. (Tactical Air Network)
The young Marine drove up to the plane in a vehicle used to take pilots to their aircraft. He even wore a flight suit to dress the part.
He flew the fighter for 50 miles, roughly a half hour, doing loops and barrel rolls over the Pacific Ocean. He then landed it after making five passes of the runway.
No one tracked the plane. They didn't send any other fighters to intercept it. Foote brought it back all on his own.
Foote was sent to the stockade at Camp Pendleton. He served four and a half months of confinement and was served an other-than-honorable discharge.
He tried to fly for Israel and for Honduras after his discharge. Foote later qualified as a test pilot in more than 20 different military and civilian aircraft, and became a contractor to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He holds patents in aviation design and engineering technology.