When Howard A. Foote Jr.'s head snapped back against the ejection seat as he guided a military jet off the runway at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on the Fourth of July, 1986, euphoria swept through his body.
The 21-year-old Los Alamitos native was fulfilling his lifelong dream of being at the throttle of a fighter jet, albeit a stolen one. "I had worked my entire life for this flight," Foote said. "There was nothing else."
Fifteen months after being discharged from the Marine Corps for this unauthorized predawn joy ride in a $14-million A-4M Skyhawk, Foote is still trying to become a military pilot.
"I'm waiting to hear if the Israeli Air Force will take me," said the former lance corporal, who now lives in Canyon Country in Los Angeles County and is a pilot for a charter airline. "And if that doesn't work out, I'm going to see if I can fly for Honduras. I've heard they recently got some Skyhawks."
At 23, he feels misunderstood by his parents, who want him to return to college, and betrayed by the retired Marine Corps general who was his mentor.
His parents, Bud and Shirley Foote, and William A. Bloomer, the retired commanding general at El Toro, say they hope he doesn't become a fighter pilot for a foreign country. They fear that it would be as foolhardy as the impetuous theft of the jet that caused his present dilemma.
"I'm not sure becoming a pilot for Israel is that feasible for him," said Shirley Foote, a 58-year-old retired savings and loan vice president who lives in Palm Springs with her husband.
While stationed at El Toro, Foote continued his exploits as a glider pilot. He and Bloomer met in the summer of 1985, not at El Toro but at Tehachapi in the Mojave Desert where Foote stored his glider and Bloomer taught aspiring pilots how to fly them.
"If that general had left Buddy alone, everything would have turned out fine," said Bud Foote, a 62-year-old retired aerospace engineer.
"Bloomer was a glider pilot enthusiast, and they got to be real pals," he said. "He got Buddy's head all turned around, getting him special flying clothes and talking to him about what a real great flier he was and how he was just the person to set a new altitude record. . . . Buddy got hurt doing what the general wanted him to do."
In February, 1986, Foote suffered an aerial embolism, a form of bends, while attempting to set a glider altitude record. In late June, doctors told Foote that the injury would prevent him from being able to qualify as a Marine Corps pilot. Several days later he stole the Skyhawk.
Echoing his father, Foote blames Bloomer for his plight, frequently drawing parallels to himself and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
"Like Oliver North, I was given a job to do," Foote said. "My job was to break (glider) records. Well, I went out and broke records and got hurt doing it. But when I needed a helping hand, none of the people in command would come forward and get me a medical waiver so I could fly (jets)."
Bloomer, who retired from the Marine Corps four days before Foote took his joy ride, now is the regional head of Anaheim-based American Protective Services, which employs 1,500 security guards.
"Buddy was a sterling Marine with an unblemished record who had done a lot of things that people a lot older could only dream about doing," Bloomer said. "I regret that he screwed up a good career."
Bloomer said he failed in his attempt to get formal corps sanction for Foote's effort to set a new glider altitude record, which meant that Foote did not have much of the necessary equipment, including a pressure suit.
He said he tried to talk Foote out of the February, 1986, record attempt, which was made while Foote was off duty.
"I tried to discourage him because going above 30,000 feet without a pressure suit is dangerous," Bloomer said. "And he ended up going up to 41,000 feet before the bends forced him to come down."
Bloomer, who has not talked to Foote since he retired, said he was puzzled by claims by Foote and his parents that he let his former protege down. He noted that he had arranged for the best possible medical care after Foote's injury.
Bloomer said he did not seek a medical waiver for Foote immediately after he suffered his injury in February because "he never asked me" and "it did not appear that he was not going to recover."
Bloomer said he wishes that Foote would put his past behind him. "I would encourage him to get a college education," Bloomer said. "There are a lot of other things he can do in aviation besides being a fighter pilot. He could become an engineer or go into aircraft manufacturing."