This Marine Lance Corporal Once Stole an A-4M SkyHawk Jet Fighter

Faye Higbee

Throughout history, there are some Marines that do really well, and others that seem bound and determined to mess up their military careers. Lance Corporal Howard A. Foote Jr was a promising glider pilot. He set several records before joining the Marine Corps, and he had a dream to become a Marine Fighter Pilot. It wasn’t to be, since he decided to steal an A-4M Skyhawk. It was a measly few million dollar aircraft. But there is a happy ending.

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An aerial embolism

Howard’s good friend, General Bloomer, was commander of El Toro at the time. He tried to get the high altitude runs as a USMC sanctioned event, but was turned down. After encouraging the budding pilot, “Buddy” (Howard Foote Jr), the 21 year old pilot got into his glider without a pressure suit, and reached over 41,000 feet. But during the flight he got “the bends,” or “decompression sickness.”

Foote joined the Marines to go to the Corps’ Enlisted Commissioning Program, hoping to attend flight school. However, while flying at 42,500 feet in a glider, he suffered an aerial embolism similar to the bends suffered by divers.

Lt. Tim Hoyle, an El Toro public affairs officer

The incident sank his hopes of ever becoming a Marine Corps Fighter pilot. He became a mechanic instead, but was angry that his dream had been taken away. So one day, July 4, 1986, he took matters into his own hands.

July 4, 1986, theft of an A-4M Skyhawk

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.


What Howard Foote did not know when he completed his “joyride,” was that the VMA-214 “Black Sheep” plane itself was in severe need of repair. The jet’s ailerons were out of alignment and its nose-gear steering was not working properly. He could easily have been killed for his dream of piloting a jet fighter. (FoxTrotAlpha)

All’s well that ends well

But that wasn’t the end of Howard A. Foote Jr. He attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and became an aeronautical engineer. He was a test pilot for over 20 military and civilian aircraft, and holds patents on aviation designs and technology. He also became a contractor for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

His dream of becoming a Marine pilot may have been lost with an aerial embolism, and nearly derailed his life with a stolen aircraft, but his love of flying and his resolve to keep going brought a promising pilot an excellent career in aviation. Never give up.


Featured photo: the A-4M Skyhawk

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