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.
Foote, who had became a protege of Brig. Gen. William A. Bloomer, a commander at El Toro, faced a court-martial on charges of misappropriating an airplane and a truck, disobeying regulations and hazarding a vessel. If convicted on those charges, he could have faced nine years at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. Hazarding a vessel, a centuries-old maritime law, carried the death penalty.
But given an otherwise spotless record and a devotion to aviation, the Marine Corps dropped the case against Foote on the condition he apologize for the incident and be given a general discharge under less than honorable conditions.
"This was an unusual case in which a Marine with a tremendous amount of skill and great potential did a very stupid thing which could have result in a tragic loss of life," said then-Brig. Gen. D.E.P. Miller, the base commander, at the conclusion of the matter.
"I just wanted to fly it one time," Foote recalled. "I didn't want to become a line officer. I had joined up to fly. I think I'll be a lot more productive now that I am out of the service."
Once discharged from the Marine Corps, Foote attended Embry Riddle Aeronautic University in Florida and applied to the Israeli Air Force, an effort he subsequently abandoned because of the difficulty getting in.
He also turned his attention to developing a turbocharging system for a high-altitude internal-combustion engine--an idea frustrated when Boeing developed a workable design and put it in a plane called the Condor that reached 70,000 feet.
"I was really angry when the Condor went up. I thought I didn't have a future," Foote said. "But I wanted to beat 'em. 'I am going to go microwave,' I thought. No one at the time was really considering it."
Michael W. Brace, director of engineering for Flight Dynamics, said the X-21 should be capable of reaching altitudes of more than 90,000 feet, where temperatures drop to 60 degrees below zero and the air pressure is a thousandth of what it is on Earth. The conditions are very demanding on plane and pilot.
"On paper it works, but the proof is in the pudding," said Brace, a former Marine captain who flew A-6 Intruders. "We need to bolt it together and park it at that altitude. If you can get one operational, the world will beat a path to your door."
Whether the finished version ever becomes airborne depends, of course, on money. About $8 million is needed to build the first plane, but Foote says investors have been hesitant to take a risk on something new despite a potential market for the plane.
NASA too is skeptical, although it needs high-altitude aircraft for ozone-depletion research, air pollution studies and other projects that require air sampling and readings over a 24-hour period.
"If Foote's aircraft can stay up a lot longer, it would be very valuable for some science applications," said Steven S. Wegener, an NASA manager whose duties include helping to develop high-altitude research aircraft. "But his plane has to be over a microwave dish, which severely constrains it. I don't see much promise in it right now."
Wegener, who works at NASA-Ames Research Center at Moffett Field near San Francisco, questioned whether available electric motors are capable of operating for long periods at high altitude. He also said clouds might interfere with microwave transmission, and the safety of using a concentrated beam has not been established.
Foote and his supporters dismiss Wegener, saying the range of the aircraft is about 650 miles from the transmitter. It can go farther if the ground station is mobile or a series of transmitters are used to hand the plane off to each other. They contend it is especially useful if launched from a ship.
As far as equipment is concerned, Foote says he has secured most of what he needs to put "the bird" in the air, and DeLaurier admits that cloud cover can absorb some energy but that it is not significant enough to affect performance.
"NASA doesn't know anything about it," Foote said. "It is hard to break them into a new idea. We need to overcome that train of thought."