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Cornfield Bomber: The Fighter Plane That Landed Without Its Pilot

One of the strangest aviation mishaps that ended happily happened on February 2, 1970. That morning, three F-106 Delta Darts took off from the Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, in Montana, the United States, on a routine training mission, when one of the F-106, piloted by Captain Gary Faust, entered into a flat spin—which happens when an aircraft stalls and rapidly loses altitude while spinning from wing to wing. Once an aircraft enters into flat spin, it is usually very difficult to recover. As Gary’s aircraft fell, his team mates tried to help giving him spin-recovery instructions. But when the aircraft dropped below 15,000 feet, Gary decided it was time to abandon his stricken aircraft.

Cornfield Bomber

Once Gary ejected from the plane, the reduction in weight and change in center of gravity caused by the removal of the pilot, coupled with the blast force of his seat rocketing out of the plane pushing the nose of the aircraft down, changed the dynamics of the falling aircraft causing it to miraculously recover from the spin.

Major Lowe, one of the other pilots, seeing the aircraft recover itself to straight-and-level flight, radioed to Gary Faust descending by parachute—“Gary, you’d better get back in it.”

But of course, Gary couldn’t. From his parachute, he watched incredulously as the now-pilotless aircraft glided down gently and skidded to a halt on a wheat field near Big Sandy, Montana. Gary drifted into the nearby mountains, and was later rescued by local residents.

Shortly after the landing, a local sheriff arrived. He telephoned the base at Malmstrom for instructions on how to shut down the engine. Confident that he would able to pull that off, the sheriff climbed into the cockpit of the plane when the F-106 began to jerkily slide forward. Alarmed, the sheriff quickly bailed out and decided that waiting until all the fuel had been expended would make more sense. Eventually, the F-106 skidded some 400 yards on its belly before it ran out of fuel.

Cornfield Bomber

The event drew a small crowd, but they smartly stood back, away from the unpredictable aircraft. Soon a recovery crew from McClellan Air Force Base arrived on the scene and began to dismantle the aircraft. The damage to the aircraft was so minimal, that one officer on the recovery crew said that if there were any less damage he would have simply flown the aircraft out of the field.

After the misadventure, the aircraft earned the name of the “Cornfield Bomber”, which doesn’t make much sense because neither it was a cornfield where it landed, nor the aircraft was a bomber. In any case, the Cornfield Bomber was repaired and returned to service. In 1986, after its retirement, the plane was presented to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where it remains on display.


Related: Dietmar Eckell’s Photos of Plane Wrecks With “Happy Ends”


Cornfield Bomber

Cornfield Bomber

Cornfield Bomber

Cornfield Bomber

Stories of pilot-less aircrafts are rare, but they happen. Another well-documented case happened in 1989 in Belgium, when a Soviet Air Force pilot ejected to safety, somewhere inside Poland, when his MiG-23 began to malfunction. At that moment, the aircraft was merely 500 feet from the ground. The sudden forceful removal of pilot, altered the center of gravity of the aircraft, besides making it lighter, and the MiG-23 began to climb before levelling off at 35,000 feet. It left Polish airspace and crossed into East Germany and then into West Germany. NATO at once scrambled two F-15s to intercept the unknown intruder. The pilots reported back in disbelief that the plane was pilotless.

The MiG-23 crossed the Dutch’s airspace and entered Belgium’s when it ran out of fuel. It eventually crashed into a farmhouse near Kortrijk, tragically killing an 18-year-old man. The aircraft had flown over 900 miles without a pilot.

1989 Belgium MiG-23 crash

The tail of the Soviet MIG-23 rises from the rubble after it crashed into a house near the French border, July 4, 1989.

References:
# F-106 DELTA DART, https://www.f-106deltadart.com/580787cornfieldbomber.htm
# National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-russian-mig-23-ended-crashing-inside-belgian-farmhouse-65521

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