SAN DIEGO — Days after an aerial embolism from a high-altitude glider flight ruined his boyhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot, Lance Cpl. Howard A. Foote Jr. of Los Alamitos flew into Marine Corps history and the end of his military career.
Under cover of darkness five years ago, the 20-year-old aviation mechanic stole an A-4M Skyhawk from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and put the aging fighter-bomber through a series of high-speed maneuvers over the black waters of the Pacific.
The unauthorized hop by a young enlisted man without formal flight training captured the public's attention, stunned the Marine Corps all the way to the commandant's office and pointed out security flaws at the base.
But his dismissal and near court-martial have not grounded the once impetuous Foote's resolve. The same skill, ambition and audacity he put into the flight of the Skyhawk has now gone into an attempt to develop the world's first microwave-powered aircraft, the X-21.
If it is built, Foote, 25, says he plans to break a world altitude record of 85,000 feet set by Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird, a matte black dagger with titanium skin capable of going three times the speed of sound.
"It's not just all money," said Foote of San Diego, whose vocabulary is filled with technical jargon about flight parameters, thermodynamics and gigahertz. "I really want to see what I can get done."
With $10,000 in savings and the help of a former Marine Corps bomber pilot, Foote established Flight Dynamics Design and Development Corp. in Palm Springs and attracted the attention of several companies, including Arco, which has offered to provide expensive microwave transmitters.
They will be used to power a relatively inexpensive manned or unmanned aircraft capable of staying aloft for days at altitudes above 70,000 feet. In effect, the plane would be a poor man's satellite, useful for a host of surveillance and scientific research missions.
On the drawing board, the X-21 has a glider-style airframe of carbon fiber and Kevlar powered by two 35-horsepower motors mounted in pods, one under each wing. Plans call for microwave-receiving antennas to be embedded in the wings to receive a beam from a transmitter on the ground.
To keep the cockpit from turning into a microwave oven, considerable shielding would be installed to protect the pilot during manned flights.
Foote, who is the project engineer and test pilot, says that suitable engines and a state of the art airframe built by a Canadian concern have been found. More work needs to be done on a set of special propellers capable of providing enough power in the thin air found at high altitude. Test flights are at least a year away.
"The idea has potential," said Prof. James DeLaurier of the Institute for Aerospace Studies at the University of Toronto, which has worked on the concept of microwave-powered flight for almost 10 years. "The technology for high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft is finally coming together today."
All that is needed are a couple of diesel generators on the ground, a lightweight airframe and high-quality motors. Theoretically, an unmanned microwave aircraft can stay aloft as long as the electric bill is paid, DeLaurier said.
The Institute for Aerospace Studies already has built an experimental model called the SHARP with a 15-foot wing span that has flown successfully. Further research to perfect automatic controls for long duration flights is under way using a larger plane with a conventional internal-combustion engine.
Foote's design, however, would be the first full-size microwave aircraft in the world and, if feasible, would be cheaper to operate than satellites or other conventionally powered designs used as high-altitude instrument platforms.
"I don't doubt the fact that Howard is involved in something like this," said Bradley N. Garber, an Irvine attorney and former Marine Corps defense lawyer who represented Foote after he stole the Skyhawk. "It's up his avenue of taking a risk and his desire to keep learning about flight."
Before entering the Marines in 1984, Foote was a record-holding glider pilot as a teen-ager. His soaring continued in the corps until February, 1986, when he suffered an aerial embolism, a form of the bends, while attempting to set an altitude record.
His undoing in the military began a few days after a flight surgeon declared him medically unfit for flight school because of the embolism, which has the potential to recur. With his boyhood dreams ruined, he donned a pressure suit at 2 a.m. on the Fourth of July, climbed aboard the Skyhawk and fired it up.
Foote, who had received about 100 hours of training in a simulator on the ground, took off on an unlighted runway. Forty minutes later he returned from a jaunt to San Clemente Island. Cockpit instruments showed that he executed several high-speed maneuvers.
"He had some fun up there," a major testified during the young man's disciplinary hearings.