I Flew The Cornfield Bomber


A recent video about the famed Cornfield Bomber brought back some fond memories of that airplane for me. As a freshly minted Air Force pilot, I was lucky enough to get assigned to the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, then its home.

Tail number 58-0787 is sometimes called the Cornfield Bomber, but to us it was the Gray Ghost. Both nicknames came because in 1970, its pilot had ejected near Great Falls, Montana, after entering a spin. It was a story we heard often since our squadron commander at the time, Jim Lowe, had been an instructor on the flight and had coached its pilot through the emergency procedures.

As the plane fell through 15,000 feet with no sign of recovery, Lowe told him to eject. Curiously, after the ejection the plane recovered, and since one of the steps in the spin recovery was to set takeoff trim, the plane settled into a glide at about 200 knots before touching down in a snow-covered field. After being recovered, it was shipped to the depot in Sacramento for repairs and return to service, eventually coming to the 49th.

Everyone loved the story, and I set my sights on getting my name on its side. After all, what could be better than an airplane with survival instincts? Although I was scheduled to get a different airplane, I was able to trade for my lucky jet. I was thrilled.

I was even more thrilled to find out that the repairs were done perfectly; 787 was a very sweet flying machine. It handled beautifully and easily met factory specs on performance. As head of Quality Assurance, I flew hundreds of maintenance test flights in all of our airplanes and learned all of their individual quirks. I was delighted to see that 787 was a good, straight, flying machine; I was proud to have my name on it.

It was always fun to fly “my” jet, and once, just for fun, I decided to see how high it would go. We got to 68,000 feet before I decided that was high enough without a pressure suit. But I noted that I was the one to give up; the airplane was still climbing over 500 feet per minute at 200 knots indicated, which at that altitude was Mach 1.3.

But whenever 787 had an odd squawk, some were quick to blame its boondocking past. At one point, it developed a serious problem; when a pilot would begin to rotate, the stick would hang up. It happened at a very critical time, doing 150 knots on the ground, and it needed to be fixed. After hundreds of hours of troubleshooting and three high-speed aborts, we finally found a hydraulic cap lodged in the control linkage. Although this had nothing to do with its off-field landing, it added to 787’s mystique.

The Grey Ghost was a genuine celebrity, too. The local paper had a big article on its history, and it was often the star of squadron tours.

In the late 1980s, the 106s were retired and turned into drones. I was saddened to think that my old friend was destined to be shot down, but to my great delight, it was moved to the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base wearing the colors of the 49th, where it remains today. It is great fun to know I can visit it any time I want, either in person or through the magnificent website for the Museum of the Air Force.

James Van Laak is a former Deputy Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a F-106 and A-10 pilot and worked at DARPA and at NASA as a manager on the International Space Station.