Ejects, Military Jet Lands Itself Safely
Not much besides the occasional blizzard
ever happens in northern Montana in the winter. It’s a long way
between the tiny hamlets and towns that cling to life along the
roads and interstate highways. Typical of these settlements is
Big Sandy, population about 600. Fifty miles south of the
Canada-U.S. border, the grain elevators are visible first in the
distance as you drive southwest along State Route 87. A short
time later, you’re in a speed zone going by a motel, a kids
playground, the back side of the Wells Fargo Bank, and a one-bay
car wash with a broken down soda machine outside of it.
Drive off the highway down the towns’
main street and you pass the uninspired architecture featuring
the Bear Paw coffee shop, the city hall, a food store, Pep’s Bar
and Bowling Lane, a boarded up hotel, and a few other quiet,
empty businesses. In winter there’s no one on the street.
That’s how it is today. It wasn’t much different forty years
ago when the following incident occurred.
The Sheriff in the tiny country town was
at his desk when the phone rang.
“Sheriff? This is Sam Hilton out at my
place along Route 87. I’m about 12 miles from town, and I
thought I should call you about this.”
There was no urgency in his friends’
voice, but the Sheriff stopped what he was doing, leaned back in
the chair and put his feet up on the desk. He had a warm cup of
coffee in his hand. “What seems to be the problem Sam?”
“Well Sheriff, you ain’t gonna
believe this, but there’s a military jet parked in my field out
back. It’s just sittin’ there with the engine running”.
That got the Sheriffs attention.
“What are you talkin’ about Sam? How come a jet is sittin’ in
your field? How’d it get there?”
“Well Sheriff, I’m not sure, but by
the looks of it, the thing just flew in, plowed up the snow for
a few hundred feet, and now it’s just sittin’ there with the
“What about the pilot ….what’s he
“Sheriff, that’s the funny part.
There ain’t no pilot. I can see for miles in every direction
out here, and there’s nobody around. No footprints in the snow
Now the Sheriff had his feet back
on the floor, and as he grabbed his coat, said into the phone,
“Sam, you get back out there and guard that thing. I’m on my
By the time he arrived at the Hilton
place, Sam was a short distance off the highway, standing beside
the jet. Sure enough, it was sitting in the snow, on its belly
with the engine idling. From time to time it would move ahead
slightly as the snow under it melted.
“What in tarnation is goin’ on
here!?” The Sheriff was plodding through the snow with a
shoulder hunched into the cold February wind. He had to yell
over the sound of the big jet engine idling in front of the two
men. “Can’t you shut that thing off so I can hear you?”
“How do you shut off a jet?”
“How should I know?!”
The aircraft moved ahead another
five or six feet, and both men stepped back slightly. They shot
a glance ahead to see where it might go if it decided to take
“How the hell did this thing
get here with no pilot on board? Jeeeeeez Sam, what are we
gonna do with it?”
“Sherrif, I think we better
call the military. There’s that air base down at Great Falls.
It could have come from there. Maybe somebody can tell us how
to shut it off.”
By now the Sheriff was
getting a bit excited. He told the rancher to stay with the
plane and watch it. Unsure what he expected Sam to do if it
tried to take off again, he hoped that wouldn’t happen as he
made his way back to the ranch house to get on the phone.
Malmstrom Air Force base was
indeed the departure point of the F-106 Delta Wing interceptor.
It was on a training mission near Great Falls that day, February
2nd, 1970. The F-106 was one of the first U.S. Air
Force fighters capable of supersonic speed. It became known as
the Delta Dart, due to its Delta wing configuration. But to most
who flew it, the aircraft was referred to as “the Six”. It was
designed in the 1950’s to be the ultimate interceptor, and was
capable of almost Mach 2 speeds at an altitude of 57,000 feet.
U.S. defense officials were
concerned about the Soviet Union’s development of faster,
long-range nuclear bombers. The Six’s job would be to intercept
the intruders. The plan was to destroy the bombers with their
own bombs by firing a small, nuclear-tipped rocket at them. It
was a basic, manual approach to downing the bombers, but
precision air-to-air missiles had not been invented yet.
On that afternoon in Feb.
1970, three hot-shot, top-gun pilots were burning up the big sky
at around 38,000 feet, in a mock dog fight. The pilot of this
particular aircraft was a First Lieutenant by the name of Gary
Foust. From twenty miles apart, the Sixes hurtled toward each
other, passing at 1,000 feet separation. Then the fight was
on. The point of the exercise was to outmaneuver one’s
opponent, and gain a valid firing position.
Somehow Lt. Fousts plane began to spin out of
control as he tried to stay on the others tail. The aircraft
stalled, and suddenly “swapped ends”. The fighter went into a
flat spin at 35,000 feet, a deadly situation which is usually
impossible to recover from. Foust did everything he could to
recover as his aircraft descended to 15,000 feet. By then he
had the trim on all control surfaces adjusted to take-off
settings, which were very similar for landing. Unable to break
the spin, it was time to eject.
Just as Foust was clear and under
a full parachute, he and the other two pilots flying close by
watched in surprise as the Six headed off straight and level
toward the horizon. Perhaps it was the change in balance, or the
force of the ejector seat against the fuselage. No one could
say, but the jet had recovered normal flight. Foust drifted
down to safety, landing in a mountainous area where he was
picked up by snowmobilers.
Meanwhile, the F-106 slowly descended
at a speed of about 170 knots, finally touching down in the
field and coming to a stop about 400 feet from the highway in
the ranchers field. The gear was still up, but there was very
little damage to the aircraft. The wings were untouched, the
radar scope was operating, and the engine was idling.
Eventually, the local Sheriff had
put through his call to Malmstrom AFB, to report there was a
fighter on the ground near his town with the engine running. He
wanted to know how to turn it off. Someone at the base told him
to just let it run out of fuel.
“Sam, we can’t shut it off”.
The Sheriff was out of breath from hustling through the
knee-deep snow back to where his friend was standing, watching
the jet. “They told me to just keep folks away from it, and do
what we can to keep it from moving too far ahead. It will run
out of fuel pretty soon.”
And that’s what they did.
Two Montana citizens guarded the scene on that freezing February
afternoon as the engine ran for another hour and forty five
minutes. Eventually the military showed up to take control. In
time, they disassembled the plane, loaded it on trucks and
hauled it away. The damage was so minor that the Six was
repaired and put back into service later that year.
In the 1970’s, the Soviets
were adopting other means of delivering nuclear weapons,
specifically intercontinental ballistic missiles. That forced a
change in operations for the U.S., and pretty much made the 106
obsolete. Next came the F-15 in 1972 and the Six was phased
out, with the last one retired from Air Force service in 1988.
The interceptor had never
fired a shot in anger. But it proved that on at least one
occasion, it could fly and land itself, gear up, without a
pilot. That particular F-106 is now a museum piece. And two
Montana cowboys have a story to tell that not many others can
(Names and some details have been fabricated
for entertainment value. The story is true.)