U.S. Air Force Captain John S. Lappo had the heart of a jet pilot–skillful, bold and committed. However, the personality traits that served him so well on bombing missions during the Korean War and covert spy-in-the-sky missions over the Soviet Union also â€œgroundedâ€ him after a playful-but dangerous-stunt that involved the Mackinac Bridge.
On April 24, 1959, Lappo, a Muskegon, Michigan, native and his five-man crew were returning from a routine simulated bomb run to the Lockbourne Air Force base near Columbus, Ohio. As Lappo later confessed, â€œI always wanted to fly under a big bridge. I thought it would be the Golden Gate.â€ Suddenly, the Mackinac Bridge came into view. Lappo polled the crew about his scheme to fly under the bridge. After the crew responded affirmatively with a 4 to 1 vote, Lappo declared, â€œI’m taking her under!â€ At a speed of 425 miles per hour, the RB-47 Stratojet raced through the 150-foot clearance between the roadbed framework and the Straits. In Lappo’s words, â€œIt was exhilarating to say the least!â€
However, the one naysayer among the crew was not amused. Two weeks after the â€œfly under,â€ the navigator snitched. Lappo pleaded guilty to charges of violating an air force regulation that prohibited flying an aircraft less than 500 feet above the ground or water, except during takeoffs and landings. Besides a forfeiture of pay ($50 a month for six months) and a formal reprimand, Captain Lappo was forced to surrender his wings.
Lappo contended that flying under the Mackinac Bridge posed no danger to the crew or the aircraft. According to the veteran pilot, every flight was a risk, and he saw this as no greater a threat than many others. Larry Rubin, Mackinac Bridge Authority executive director, disagreed. â€œIt is a dangerous thing to do. . . . There were cables hanging from the deck. They were there when work was being completed and then they were there off and on after construction. They would have cut the plane in half.â€
Despite the blemish on his record, Lappo remained in the air force, serving as an aircraft maintenance officer in Vietnam and other bases. After thirty years of service, he retired with honors as a lieutenant colonel. Although he never again flew for the U.S. Air Force, Lappo piloted his own private plane after moving to Alaska with his wife Olive Kay (also from Muskegon).
For more on the history of the Mackinac Bridge, including the full story on Lappo’s flight under the bridge, look for Michigan History magazine’s â€œ50 Years of the Mighty Macâ€ issue, available in July. Visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or call toll free, (800) 366-3703.
Photo provided by Michigan Department of Transportation.