When he was 12 years old, Howard A. Foote Jr. says, he decided to be a fighter pilot when he grew up. It's a dream familiar to a lot of youngsters that age, but for Foote it was more. It became an obsession. It became his whole life.
Everything he would do for the next nine years focused on that goal, Foote said, and so the sense of loss was tremendous when he found out earlier this year that what he thought was a minor injury would leave him physically unqualified for military flight school.
But he couldn't put it behind him that easily, he said. He had to experience flying a fighter at least once. So, during the early morning hours of last July 4, Lance Cpl. Foote climbed aboard an A-4M Skyhawk at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, started it up and taxied out to the runway.
"As soon as I pushed the throttles to go down the runway, my head snapped back against the ejection seat, and I was happy," Foote said Friday, just hours after being discharged from the Marine Corps. "It was natural. That was my home."
Recalled the Flight
After four months in the Camp Pendleton brig where he was sent after that flight, Foote gathered with his family and a few pilots who are close friends on the terrace of an oceanfront restaurant Friday. There, the 21-year-old Los Alamitos native recalled the flight and what had driven him to it.
Occasionally he'd glance skyward as fighters from El Toro passed overhead en route to the gunnery and bombing range at San Clemente Island.
"I knew I was as good as I was going to get with the training I'd had," said Foote, a record-setting glider pilot who has flown since he was 15. "I just had to fly a jet one time. And I knew if I didn't do it now, I'd never get to.
"I just didn't want to go through the rest of my life being frustrated because I hadn't done it. A lot of people do that. They say, 'If only I'd done this or that 10 or 15 years ago when I could.' Well, now I've flown the plane, and I know what it's like."
Suffered Aerial Embolism
Foote had suffered an aerial embolism--the pilot's physical equivalent of the bends that plague deep-sea divers--in February while attempting to set a world altitude record for gliders. That disqualified him from flight school, flight surgeons told him.
The decision to take a jet on an unauthorized flight in July was spur-of-the-moment, Foote said, and not something he'd been planning for a long time.
"I'd just finished midterms at the college I was going to in San Bernardino, and as I was driving back to the base that night I realized it was all going to amount to nothing," Foote said. "It had been completely wasted for what I wanted."
He went to bed but slept only until about midnight. "As I was lying there, I decided, that's it--I'm going to do it," he said.
Stationed at El Toro as an aviation mechanic, Foote knew where to get the keys to a maintenance truck, which he then drove to the flight line where the fighters of Squadron 214--the Black Sheep--were parked. He said he made thorough preflight inspections of three planes before picking the one he wanted to use.
Followed Standard Route
The control tower was closed for the night and the airfield's lights were off, Foote said, but once he was airborne he just followed the base's standard departure route and headed out over the ocean toward San Clemente Island, an area the Marines use for pilot training.
"I was in a restricted area where civilian planes aren't supposed to be, but I still kept a sharp eye out for any other traffic," Foote said.
Even though it was a clear night and there was a bright moon, Foote said, there was no time to enjoy the view because "when you're flying, you have to do that 110%. You don't have time to think about anything else."
He said he began putting the single-seat Skyhawk through standard maneuvers that had been drilled into him during 60 hours of flight-simulator instruction.
'Fat With Fuel'
Foote said he had been airborne about 35 minutes when a generator that powers the lighting and navigational systems shut down. After failing to get it restarted and switching to a backup, he realized that it was time to head back.
"I was still fat with fuel," Foote said, explaining that the plane can weigh only a certain amount when it touches down to avoid damage to landing gear. "So I decided to burn off some fuel rather than dump it. When I got back over the field, I flew the standard approach pattern they use for carrier landing practice.
"They claimed I buzzed the field five times because I was having trouble landing. That just wasn't true. I was just burning off the fuel."
Disputed Corps' Contention
Foote also disputed the Marine Corps' contention that he had used a plane that was in no condition to be flown.
"If that was true, why was that plane scheduled for a flight that same day?" he said. "And the aileron problem they said the plane had wasn't discovered until after I'd flown it."