Articles

4 times enlisted troops stole planes from the flightline

It must be so tempting, staring down an awesome piece of military hardware... just sitting there, waiting for someone to take it for a spin. The maintainers know everything about their plane, tank, or other vehicles, right down to the last detail.


Imagine anyone's surprise when one of these vehicles just up and leaves when its not supposed to. Sounds unlikely, but it's happened a lot more than one might think.

1. Sergeant Paul Meyer gets sick of his wife, steals a C-130

On May 23, 1969, Meyer, a U.S. Air Force crew chief stationed at RAF Mildenhall, England, took off in a C-130E, and very quickly crashed into the English Channel. His body was not found, but he was assumed to have died on impact.

The USAF investigation showed Sgt. Meyer was "under a considerable amount of stress" in the days leading up to the theft. He was married just eight weeks before his deployment to England and his wife constantly badgered him to come home – because she was being sued by her ex-husband.

On top of his marriage difficulties, he failed to pass for promotion despite allegedly being better qualified than his peers who did get promoted. Meyer was grounded and restricted to barracks for being arrested in an alcohol-related incident.

The same night he was arrested, he called the fuels unit on the base to fuel up his C-130. He then took an officer's flight clothes and GOV, then drove to the flightline.

A C-130E at REF Mildenhall in 1984.

He did not crash on takeoff. He climbed, turned north, and made his way over the Channel. He called his wife over the radio until he lost control and crashed.

2. An Army PFC takes a Huey to the White House

Army Pfc. Robert K. Preston washed out of Army flight school in 1973. The 20-year-old was apparently determined to get under the rotors of an Army aircraft – by any means necessary. On Feb. 17, 1974, Preston stole a Bell UH-1 Huey Helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, and flew it down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, stopping at a trailer park along the way.

Screenshot of NBC's coverage of the incident.

Preston, who held a civilian pilot's license for fixed wing aircraft, completed 24 weeks of Army aviation training before washing out for "deficiency in the instrument phase." Yet, Maryland State Police pilots who chased Preston called him "one hell of a pilot."

Preston (center).

The helicopter buzzed the Washington Monument and the White House itself before touching down amid a hail of Secret Service buckshot. Preston was injured in the gunfire, sentenced to one year in prison, and fined $2,400.

3. A USAF Mechanic steals an F-86 Sabre, regrets nothing

When the F-86 Sabre appeared in the Air Force fleet in the 1950s, pilots needed a year of training to fly it. Airman 1st Class George Johnson, however, took the initiative. On Sept. 20, 1956, he hopped in the cockpit of a Sabre and went for a ride.

Airman George Johnson in a T-33 in late 1955. (George R. Johnson)

Johnson was a mechanic with dreams of flying. Unfortunately, a burned retina from staring at an eclipse meant a plane like the F-86 was forever out of reach. As part of a routine functional check one day, he asked the tower to clear the runway for a high-speed taxi test, which was actually a thing.

Except when it reached the right speed, Johnson took off with the plane – literally. But he had no way down. No chute. No experience. The officers of the day had to talk Johnson down. Johnson was court-martialed and fined almost $200, sentenced to six months confinement and loss of rank to Airman Basic.

He later served the rest of his enlistment.

4. A Marine becomes a mechanic – then steals an A-4M Skyhawk

Lance Cpl. Howard Foote couldn't become a Marine Corps pilot because he got the bends during a glider test. He had to settle for becoming a mechanic.

But the dream of flying a USMC fighter never left him. One day in 198 he gassed up a Skyhawk and took it for a joyride.

Read More: That time a Marine mechanic took a joyride in a stolen A4M Skyhawk >

Foote landed his plane much easier than anyone else – he was an accomplished pilot already. But he still served time in the brig for his chicanery.

BONUS: U.S. Army soldier steals a tank, goes on a rampage

In 1990, a California veteran named Shawn Nelson lost a medical malpractice suit to a local hospital, who counter-sued for thousands. His wife filed for divorce in 1991. Both parents died of cancer in 1992. His brother became hooked on meth.

By 1995, his business went defunct and he lost everything and was facing homelessness. In April of that year, his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose.

On May 17, 1995, Nelson calmly drove to a California National Guard armory in San Diego and forced his way into a 57-ton M60A3 Patton tank. Though unarmed, Nelson still drove the tank off the base.

For 23 minutes, he led police on a slow-speed chase through local residential neighborhoods as he rampaged over utility poles, hydrants, and at least 25 cars.

Eventually, the tank got caught on the median of State Route 163, where police ordered Nelson to leave the vehicle. When he instead tried to free the tank, the police shot him. Nelson died from his wounds, the only fatality.

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