*the featured photo above is a clumsy Photoshop, folks. The landing gear gives it away*
By Tim Bean
I’ve always wanted to fly under a big bridge.
~Lt. Col John S. Lappo
There are 155 feet between the deck of the Mackinac Bridge and the Straits of Mackinac below. Affectionately known as the “Mighty Mac” or “Big Mac,” this 5-mile long suspension bridge is the primary artery connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. 12,000 vehicles go over this modern engineering marvel each day.
But one fine spring day in 1959, one man decided to go under it.
Captain John Lappo shuttled troops overseas in both the Pacific and European Theaters during World War II. He flew 28 successful bombing runs during the Korean War (and his bomber took down four Soviet-made fighters while doing it), and won the Distinguished Flying Cross during his stint as a pilot for the Strategic Air Command.
It should surprise no one that Captain Lappo decided to finally give in to this daring bridge-buzzing impulse on an April afternoon in 1959. The previous night’s mission—a mock bombing run and celestial navigation—had passed as smooth as a chocolate laxative. It had been a long, dull evening. Like any good pilot, Lappo was bored and like any good pilot, he had excelled in his career precisely because he was a risk-taker. These training missions were no fun at all.
There he was, flying over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, piloting the B-47, “the World’s Fastest Bomber” (at least until the B-58), his engines sucked in and churned the cold air so smoothly they seemed silent. Far below, the Straits of Mackinac glittered and the newly-built suspension bridge spanned the two landmasses like a massive umbilical.
The bridge had opened only two years earlier, America’s first massive suspension bridge after the disastrous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. Unlike that embarrassing design, the “Mighty Mac” could tolerate 150 mph winds, as fast as a Category 4 hurricane. 500-foot towers supported the expansive roadway, each anchored by giant caissons buried 200-feet into bedrock. The bridge was gigantic, gorgeous, and strong as a diamond rope.
There was no warning or discussion. It just happened. Captain Lappo eased the stick forward and the $2 million B-47 (about $20 million today) responded instantly, seemingly headed straight for the water.
“I’m taking her under!” Lappo announced then asked if any of the crew wanted to voice their objection. They cheered their captain on. The jet bomber chewed up the distance easily and the rippling waters quickly became ominous and close.
But the new navigator didn’t cheer. He recommended the captain maintain the legal minimum altitude. Lappo acknowledged this and promptly ignored it. The Air Force had transferred Lappo’s old navigator and installed this green one. The seasoned captain understood a young airmen usually met an anxious airmen. He’d loosen up.
In mere seconds, Captain Lappo earned his place among other Air Force legends. The B-47 plunged to the deck (the water’s surface) and then leveled out 75-feet above it. The Stratojet’s engines roared, eagerly eating the dense, humid air above the water.
**Please refer to the graphic below to fully appreciate this masterful demonstration of flight control**
Captain John Lappo held the bomber straight as it passed beneath the bridge, even when it slapped the thicker air produced by the colder water and bridge’s shadow. It was a test of nerves, control, and tip-to-tail familiarity with the jet bomber.
Time for some easy math: 155′ feet separates the Mighty Mac’s belly from the Straits of Mackinac. A B-47 is 28′ feet in height. That left the crew 52′ feet of clearance. That’s about the length of a semi trailer OR three SUV’s OR 3/4 of a bowling lane OR half the distance between first and second base. When you visualize it that way, it seems like plenty of space, right?
Speed, however, made all the difference. The B-47 was cruising along beneath the bridge around 350 mph. The jet bomber’s stall speed is 175 mph, but Lappo certainly needed to go significantly faster, since he rocketed into the sky as soon as the bomber cleared the bridge’s belly. The Stratojet shot up at a 60 or 70 degree angle and quickly returned the bomber to its cruising altitude. He had just flow a $2 million aircraft beneath a $100 million bridge. For Lappo, it was as if the world’s worst itch had just been scratched.
Amid the cheers of the bomber’s crew, Lappo didn’t notice the silence of the new navigator. The captain would recall it as soon as he returned to the air base in Ohio. This navigator’s father happened to be a high-ranking general, who would be informed of the flight the moment the B-47 landed. “Of course, I had no idea at the time that he was the general’s son,” Lappo later said, “and that he was going to go rat on me once we got back to Lockbourne [Air Base].”
Captain Lappo’s superiors immediately confronted him. True to his honor as an officer and a gentlemen, Lappo didn’t lie or backpedal. His crew almost certainly would have backed him up, but that would make trouble for them, betraying a captain’s most important responsible: the lives and safety of his crew.
Captain Lappo confirmed the story and explained, “I’ve always wanted to fly under a big bridge. I thought it would be the Golden Gate. When I was flying missions to the Far East, I was a co-pilot, and I wanted to fly under the Golden Gate at night. But I couldn’t induce the pilot to do it.”
Captain Lappo’s Court Martial
Any court-marital is serious business, and Captain Lappo found himself staring down the business end of one in the summer of 1959. The court-martial specified Lappo had “disobeyed a lawful order” in direct violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically AFR 60-16 (see above).
Although the Stratojet had been over water, the Straits of Mackinac were not considered “open water” because of proximity of the bridge and the connected cities: Mackinac City and St. Ignace. Populated areas like this required a minimum altitude of 500 feet.
Captain Lappo had descended to 75 feet.
Captain Lappo didn’t want a dishonorable discharge. In fact, no one REALLY wanted to see him punished, save anonymous higher-ups who felt it necessary to reduce a highly decorated and experienced officer to an example. Had the flyby (or fly under) not been reported by the navigator, his stunt would become yet another Air Force legend. It was too late for that now.
His friends and fellow airmen could do nothing to avoid the court-martial’s charges against Lappo, but they could voice their unwavering respect for him as a pilot, a fellow airmen, a friend, and an American. A parade of character witnesses testified and many were high-ranking officers (Major and above)*.
*It would have been an interesting spectacle to see the modest Captain Lappo sitting the defense table and enduring hours upon hours of testimony supporting his virtual sainthood.
Still, Captain Lappo had pled and was found guilty. He readily accepted the judgment of the court. While he acknowledged his actions as unorthodox and reckless, he wasn’t contrite. This wasn’t stubborness. Captain Lappo was being himself: honest to a fault.
“Captain Lappo, it is my duty as president of this court to inform you that the court in closed session and upon secret written ballot, two-thirds of the members present at the time the vote was taken concurring, sentences you to be reprimanded and to forfeit $50.00 per month for six months.”
~Presiding officer Colonel Clyde Kelsay
Paying a $300 ($2800 today) fine after a full court-martial seemed little more than a slap on the wrist, but it wasn’t the real punishment. Nothing had been said about his future flight status, but after his court-martial, Captain Lappo had to be recertified by a review board as being physically and mentally fit. In reality, he was both, but that didn’t matter.
Before the story hit the papers, an Air Force lieutenant general (who I will not name…wink wink) had attached a scathing reprimand to Lappo’s file. This letter would plague him whenever and wherever he went as long as he remained in the Air Force. The rank of lieutenant general carried a lot of weight. Although there is no source on the letter’s content, it was cutting enough to prevent any review board from reinstating Lappo’s flight status.
Captain Lappo’s, whose purpose in life had been to streak through the “wild blue yonder,” had just been given his real punishment. His wings had been clipped. Every year, he appealed to review boards in the vain hope of being reinstated. Every year he returned home wingless.
Captain Lappo spent 13 more years in the Air Force. He first served as a maintenance officer in Vietnam, then as the Executive Officer of Elmendorf Air Force Base in southern Alaska. He retired to private life in 1972, now a prestigious and grey-haired Lt. Colonel John Lappo. He remained in Alaska the rest of his life, starting a trucking business and raising his children and grandchildren.
Lt. Col. John Lappo passed away in 2003 at the age of 82, and had proudly served for 30 years. Honored by fliers and loved by his family, Lt. Col. Lappo had no regrets. He only wanted one thing more out of life: to take a Stratojet into the wild blue yonder one more time…so he could fly under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Want to Know More?
Learn more about the Air Force’s first swept wing jet bomber, the B-47 Stratojet, straight from Boeing itself in this spec-heavy “Historical Snapshot.” Just under 2,000 Stratojets were manufactured, eventually replaced by the still-active B-52 Stratofortress in 1965.
Search through the 60-year history of the world’s 5th longest suspension bridge at the official site The Mackinac Bridge Authority. You can browse everything about the Mighty Mac here, from its earliest engineering to today’s traffic statistics.