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.