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The nature of the beast: INSANE, with a side order of big brass balls

Bayou Peter has a GREAT story demonstrating what crazy-ass adrenaline junkies all pilots truly are.

65 years ago today on April 24, 1959, legend has it that an aviation stunt so bizarre it defies belief actually took place in the Mackinaw Straits between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan.

A U.S. Air Force RB-47E Stratojet reconnaissance aircraft piloted by Strategic Air Command pilot Capt. John Stanley Lappo was said to have flown underneath the Mackinaw Bridge where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron converge. As history records the event, no photos of the aircraft flying under the bridge exist, but the stunt, if it actually did happen, created enough buzz that a legend was born.

According to the website and the Wikipedia page for the Mackinaw Bridge, fitting a Boeing RB-47E Stratojet under the Mighty Mac was a tight squeeze with little margin for error. The highest place between the water surface in the Mackinaw Strait and the bottom of the Mackinaw Bridge is 155-feet at the center. The tail of an RB-47E stands 27-feet, 11 inches off the ground. If you do the math, that leaves about 127-feet of space between the water and the bottom of the bridge to play with. Considering the RB-47E stall speed in these conditions may have been as slow as 150-190 MPH, the plane would cover that distance in altitude in just over a second or two.

As the story goes, and is told in several media outlets, Capt. Lappo was, “Reported by his navigator” to some higher authority after the bridge fly-under. The legend claims that Lappo was, “charged with violating a regulation prohibiting flying an aircraft below 500-feet”. No great aviation tale is complete without details, and the story is that Capt. Lappo was permanently removed from flight status by the Commanding General of the Eight Air Force, Lieutenant General Walter Campbell.

Wow, I mean just…WOW. I’m with Peter on this:

I can see a fighter or fighter-bomber flying under that bridge, just as has been done to other famous bridges around the world (for example, see the Tower Bridge Incident in London, England in 1968). However, the much larger, less nimble and maneuverable B-47 bomber would be very difficult indeed to fly through such a confined space. If it was done, one can only tip one’s hat to the pilot in admiration.

A-yup, that’s about the size of it. Having known quite a few pilots in my day, as well as having a better-than-average amount of stick-time in various aircraft my own self, I can confirm that the above is just exactly the kind of thrill-seeker behavior one expects from pilots, especially military ones. What ordinary folks tremble at as death-seeking daredevilry, they see as an irresistible temptation—a challenge, not an impossibility.

The Gyrines famously call themselves “heartbreakers and life-takers,” but with the Brylcreem Boys one must tack on “lawbreakers” as well, in the highest, most aspirational sense of the word; not mere petty, trivial laws those guys break, but the laws of gravity, physics, and sensible behavior in the air, among many others.

Peter wonders, “did it actually happen?” I’d be willing to bet just about anything that it did; these are fucking pilots we’re talking about here, of COURSE it did!

Update! This post just wouldn’t be complete without a photo of the sleek, lovely B47 Stratojet, from back in the halcyon days when Boeing was still making serviceable, capable aircraft.

Six turbojet engines, six man crew—a high-altitude, subsonic (barely) strategic bomber mostly used as recon aircraft, in service from 1951 until 1969. Yet another exemplification of the phrase “they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”


2 thoughts on “The nature of the beast: INSANE, with a side order of big brass balls

  1. I’ve yet to see an airplane that I don’t find stunningly beautiful, as is the B47.

    I don’t doubt the story one bit. Over the years as both a racer and pilot I noticed a strong correlation among the pair. Lots of pilots go racing. And I know why that is:

    “Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty.” -Peter Egan

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