Lieutenant Gary Foust has lost all control of his jet fighter. He has gone into what is known as a “flat spin” – the body of the aircraft rotating repeatedly around its nose. Foust has no choice but to press a few more of the vessel’s controls before hitting one final button — eject. He’s shot out at 15,000 feet above the ground and survives. Even more unbelievable is what happens to his Delta Dart.
Foust’s day should have been a two-on-two training session for himself and his fellow Air Force servicemen, Captain Tom Curtis and Major James Lowe. However, the fourth assignee to the training had to leave when their aircraft’s drag chute deployed. This left the rest of the trainees without a fourth player in their air combat course.
So, rather than practicing air combat, Foust, Curtis and Lowe engaged in a two-on-one race through the skies. It wasn’t a straight-shot battle to the finish, either. When Foust and Curtis crossed paths at 40,000 feet, the pair started airborne acrobatics, flipping around one another in a vertical scissors pattern.
Although this move went off without a hitch, Foust soon flailed as he tried keeping up with Curtis’ maneuvers. His plane went into a post-stall gyration, which, according to website History Net, the Captain described as “a very violent maneuver.” Foust tried to straighten out his aircraft, but couldn’t manage to level the Delta Dart.
Foust had no choice but to eject from his aircraft at that point. He flew into the ice-cold Montana skies at about 15,000 feet, making a safe descent back towards the earth. His Delta Dart’s fate was still in the balance as it spun in the sky — and no one could have imagined what the plane would do next.
In combat, interceptors serve a very significant purpose. These fighter aircraft get in the way of the enemy’s offensive, specifically defending against reconnaissance planes and bombers. Smaller, lighter aircraft can jet to defend at short range, while heavier-weight interceptors travel long distances for defensive purposes.
In 1954, the newly formed U.S. Air Force — created to replace World War II’s U.S. Army Air Force — began to restructure itself with a handful of internal organizations. Two of them, the Air Defense Command and the Tactical Air Command, were keen to create fighter planes that could be mobilized swiftly to defend the country.
The ADC had the task of keeping the country safe from enemy attacks — in other words, they would cover defense. Meanwhile, the TAC focused on offensive methods that the Air Force could adopt. They still needed fighter planes to protect the assets that they created and built, though.
And that’s precisely where the interceptor came in. At the time of their creation, interceptor aircraft played an important role in the Cold War, which began in 1947. They could keep an eye out for Soviet bombers and other long-range dangers. The ADC focused their efforts on creating a vessel that could intercept such threats at a supersonic speed.
The ADC had very specific requirements in creating interceptors, too. They wanted each aircraft flown by a single pilot in spite of the very complicated radar system they hoped to install. As such, the new range of interceptors would have autopilot features to make the vessels easier to fly. Making their task even tougher, the ADC wanted these vessels in the air by 1954.
The 1954 interceptor program yielded the Convair F-106, also known as the Delta Dart. At first, the aircraft disappointed Air Force officials for its less-than-stellar performance. The military branch ultimately cut its order for F-106s from 1,000 to 350 planes, although the model did receive a redesign.
The Delta Dart — often referred to as “The Six,” for its model number — made an impression in 1959, though. That year, Major Joseph W. Rogers sat in the cockpit of an F-106 and hit a world record for speed, flying at 1,525.96 mph. Charles E. Myers beat that record in the same year, zooming to 1,544 mph in the same aircraft.
Ultimately, the F-106 served as a domestic defender, zipping around the contiguous states, as well as Alaska. It did see some international patrolling in Iceland, South Korea and Germany, but The Six never saw combat. The Air Force never lent the interceptors to foreign allies, although Canada considered purchasing some of the planes.
Perhaps most importantly, though, pilots loved the Delta Dart for its muscular performance, which had been honed after initial testing failures. One scary shortcoming uncovered in the early models was the plane’s ejection seat. The first dozen pilots who used this feature were all killed as they attempted to exit the aircraft.
By 1970, though, many of the Delta Dart’s kinks had been ironed out, and engineers enhanced the plane’s features. So, when a trio of Air Force pilots set out for training in February of that year, they couldn’t have predicted what would happen next. They were only meant to be training, after all.
Taking off from the Malmstrom Air Force Base meant that Captain Tom Curtis, First Lieutenant Gary Foust and Major James Lowe would be met with freezing cold skies. Indeed, the USAF hub sits just outside of Great Falls, Montana and snow covered the ground on February 2, 1970.
Initially, Curtis, Foust and Lowe were supposed to have a fourth member of the Air Force joining them on their training excursion. Their lesson was to be in combat training, a two-versus-two battle in the skies. However, the fourth aircraft’s drag chute ejected prematurely on the ground, meaning it couldn’t participate as planned.
Luckily, Captain Curtis — the instructor pilot — had another idea. The remaining three pilots could stage a two-on-one air combat training instead. Their simulation would have them splitting up as they flew to the far end of their training airspace. Then, they’d turn their vessels and pass each other — head on.
Of course, the two-on-one battle had rules. Curtis, Foust and Lowe agreed not to try and take the lead until they had completed the planned pass. The point of the whole exercise? As Peter Grier put it for Air Force Magazine in 2009, the flight would enable them “to outmaneuver one’s opponent, and gain a valid firing position.”
Curtis spoke to the F-106 Delta Dart website on the fateful flight that he, Foust and Lowe were about to take. Regarding the wargame, he said, “Of course, this was a big thing, who was the winner, etc.” The Captain “figured [he] could handle [Foust] pretty easy,” but said he “did not trust [Lowe]” in the intense exercise.
To prevent Lowe from taking the advantage, Curtis decided to come at his trainees “in full afterburner. I was doing 1.9 Mach when we passed.” And that’s when the combat training truly took off. The instructor whipped his aircraft to 38,000 feet and pulled both Lowe and Foust into a move called the vertical rolling scissors.
In such a twisting maneuver, the aircraft with the best rate of ascent will come out on top. Curtis likely had the upper hand, as he recalled sending Foust into “a high-G rudder reversal” after the scissors. At that point, the Captain said, “He tried to stay with me — that’s when he lost it.”
Rather than staying with his opponent, Foust went into what is known as a post-stall gyration. Curtis described it as “a very violent maneuver,” a rotation in which the plane is spinning on all three axes. In some spins, an aircraft like the Delta Dart could even itself out, though.
In Foust’s case, however, it seemed that the F-106’s post-stall gyration was too much for him to reverse. Curtis said, “His recovery attempt was unsuccessful and the aircraft stalled and went into a flat spin, which is usually unrecoverable.” That’s because the plane starts to rotate much like a frisbee disc or a boomerang — and it can’t stop.
Foust tried his best to recover the aircraft, and he had Lowe to help him. The Pilot Major shared techniques with the First Lieutenant, instructing him to activate the aircraft’s takeoff trim button. The switch reverts the plane to its takeoff settings, which are similar to the ones needed for landing.
However, the Delta Dart continued to spin with Foust at the helm. He stayed descended to 15,000 feet before pressing the eject button and ditching his interceptor aircraft. The Lieutenant had, indeed, tried his hardest to re-balance the vessel — he covered four altitudinal miles attempting to right the plane to no avail.
After Foust launched himself into the frigid Montana air, must have wondered what would become of his F-106. The plane slowed down to 175-knots, the correct speed for the interceptor’s landing. And then, the impossible happened — the Dart stopped spinning and righted itself to the proper flying position.
At that point, Lowe made an unforgettable witticism to Foust as he floated through the air. “Gary, you’d better get back in it,” the Pilot Major quipped. Of course, the Lieutenant could not make such an ambitious return to the cockpit. Instead, he glided safely to the ground, thanks to the parachute on his back.
As for the F-106 itself, its fate hung in the balance as it made its way toward the ground, too. Its descent was a decidedly gentle one, but that wasn’t the only factor in its safe return to earth. If the interceptor collided with something — or someone — on the ground, it could be a disaster.
However, somehow the F-106 landed as though a pilot still sat in its cockpit. The plane made a soft landing in a wheat field close to Big Sandy, Montana, sliding across the snowy terrain until it stopped. Soon enough, a local sheriff attended to the strange vessel, who found it running without anyone at the helm.
Fortunately for the sheriff, the Delta Dart’s main pilot had penciled his name onto the aircraft’s canopy. So, the lawman knew exactly who to call about the unmanned aircraft that he had just found in a snowy field. Major Wolford instructed him over the phone so that he could turn off the interceptor’s running engine.
But the sheriff couldn’t just pull a key from an ignition and call it a day. Instead, he had to get into the cockpit, pull a lever and then turn off the plane’s master switch. Once he climbed into the aircraft, though, the plane began to move across the ground. Its engine had melted the snow that cradled it upon its landing.
So, as the Delta Dart skittered across the snow-covered field, the sheriff had a decision to make — like Foust, he’d have to bail from the cockpit. The big question was when? Without any Air Force training, he made the wise decision to stay at the helm until the interceptor ran out of fuel.
Somehow, the Delta Dart managed to slide over a 400-yard stretch until its fuel tank finally ran dry. While the sheriff defused that situation, Foust got a hand, too. Some snowmobilers found the pilot who had parachuted from the now-stalled interceptor. They rescued the uninjured Lieutenant from his landing spot.
And then, there was the crowd who gathered to see the downed interceptor plane — they, too, walked away unscathed. They had the good sense to back away from the Dart, even after it came to a halt. This was vital, as the plane’s nose was still sending out its radar with the intensity of a microwave oven.
Eventually, a team from the McClellan Air Force Base made their way to the wheat field to retrieve the downed aircraft. It only had damage on its belly — the structure remained intact. As such, one pilot commented that, if the bottom of the vessel hadn’t been affected, he would have flown the F-106 back to base.
The plane’s next destination was much less glamorous than its time spent zipping across the Montana skies. Instead, it ended up on a railroad flatcar on a journey to the Davis Monthan Air Force Base just outside of Tucson, Arizona. There, it went into storage for nearly a decade until it was time for the famous vessel to re-emerge.
At that time, the Delta Dart received a slew of upgrades before returning to U.S. Air Force service once again. This time, it joined the 49th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron’s fleet. And, interestingly enough, Foust got a chance to fly the very same plane while training with the 49th, a jaunt that presumably went off without a hitch this time.
By the 1980s, though, the Air Force began to replace its F-106s with a new model, and the Delta Darts became part of the Air National Guard units. As for the one Foust flew and flipped that fateful day, it eventually ended up in Dayton, Ohio’s National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. And the vessel has earned a pretty peculiar nickname – the Cornfield Bomber.
In a February 2016 video posted to the ArmedForcedUpdate YouTube channel, Foust gave his critique of his former plane’s current name — and what he thought it should be called. He joked, “Someone named it the Cornfield Bomber, not being a bomber and not being in a cornfield… it’s interesting that it was named that. I don’t know who named it that, how it got that name. It should be the Wheatfield Fighter.”