A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 January 2012    

Pilot 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 engine running”. 

         “What about the pilot ….what’s he sayin’?”

          “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 either.”  

          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 way.”

         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?” yelled Sam. 

                 “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 off again.

              “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 duplicate.                                                                          

(Names and some details have been fabricated for entertainment value.  The story is true.)

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