Cold War Era

That time a Marine mechanic stole an A-4M Skyhawk attack aircraft for a joyride

The A-4 Skyhawk

Douglas built 2,960 A-4 Skyhawk aircraft between 1954 and 1979. Built small to be cost effective and so that more of them could be accommodated on a carrier, the lightweight, high-speed bombers were affectionately nicknamed “Heinemann’s Hot Rod” (after Douglas designer Ed Heinemann), the Bantam Bomber, Mighty Mite and Scooter. Skyhawks provided the US Navy and Marines and friendly nations with maneuverable, yet powerful, attack bombers that had great altitude and range capabilities, plus an unusual flexibility in armament capacity.

Marine mechanic steals an A-4M Skyhawk

On Ju. 4, 1986 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Howard Foote, a Marine mechanic at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, stole an A-4M Skyhawk, an $18 million military jet, for a 45 minute joyride during which time he performed several aerobatic maneuvers. He had wanted to be a fighter pilot but an injury prevented him from qualifying.

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 to Los Angeles Times. “There was nothing else.”

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Foote, who flew gliders in his spare time, suffered an aerial embolism, a form of bends, in February 1986 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.

According to Military.com, Foote drove up to the plane in a vehicle used to take pilots to their aircraft wearing a flight suit to dress the part.

He flew the A-4 for 50 miles, roughly a half-hour, doing loops and barrel rolls over the Pacific Ocean. He then landed it after making five passes of the runway.

No one tracked the plane. They didn’t send any other fighters to intercept it. Foote brought it back on his own.

His stunt cost him over four months in the brig and an other-than-honorable discharge.

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A legend on a small scale

A former VMA-242 A-6 Plane Captain who served with Foote remembers: ‘I personally knew Lcpl Foote as he and I became friends. I very much remember this event. We both served in VMA-242 as Plane Captains on A-6 Intruders at MCAS El Toro. I helped train him when he first came to the squadron and we became friends. Thereafter, I learned he was a gifted and talented high altitude glider pilot with aspirations to be a Marine pilot. The upper leadership on base got introduced to him and began grooming him to be a future pilot […]. After finding out he was no longer qualified to be a Marine pilot, he stole the Skyhawk and became a legend on a small scale. I rarely spoke about him to others because I thought people would not believe the story.’

Foote tried to fly for Israel and Honduras after his discharge. Foote later qualified as a test pilot in more than 20 different military and civilian aircraft, and became a contractor to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He holds patents in aviation design and engineering technology.

The following video by The History Guy tells Foote’s story.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • I was there working on a purge of an inferred radar when something ripped down the runway towards Saddleback Mt. No lights only thrust. (?) Jarhead or not, it was an obscure event one cannot forget especially the excitement of how bad the MP's were going to beat him. It seemed like no time at all before he returned and everyone on night crew knew his story and his error! Not an Outstanding Marine but nor was I, just couldn't imagine the set of balls that other LCPL had for a class A ticket to Levenworth was all I could think of for making us airwingers look sillier than we already looked to the Corps in general. That's what I thought that night and kinda still do. God Bless The Corps, America and you!
    M. Snetsinger
    LCPL (84-88) VMP-3 MAG-11

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