When asked why he did it, he said, "why do men climb mountains? Or what motivates them to go into space? It's just a sense of adventure that some men have and some don't." He added, "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."
That triumphant ascent up from the 'Big Mac', like an eagle returning to its perch high upon a mountain top, would be ingrained in John's memory forever. When asked to describe the 'sheer exhilaration' he said he had experienced after the conquest he offered this, "How can you describe all the feelings a man experiences when he first sees a beautiful woman and falls in love? How can anyone understand what it's like on your first solo flight when first learning to fly without ever having experienced it for themselves; or the relief one feels after penetrating enemy lines, avoiding anti-aircraft-artillery while delivering your payload of bombs, and then making it back to your home base alive time after time? Some feelings are too difficult to describe or to put into words, but I can tell you this, it was exhilarating to say the least!" These thrills, this quest for exhilaration, would be the last Lappo would experience as a pilot in the United States Air Force.
On August 10, 1959 it was preordained that he would be found guilty as charged at a general court-martial. He was accused of violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, disobeying a lawful order.
Specifically, Air Force regulation 60-16 at that time stated, "Except during take-off and landing, aircraft will not be flown at less than 500 feet above the ground or water."
Lappo, representative of his honesty and trustworthiness, was quick to take full responsibility for his actions, and immediately pleaded guilty to the charges against him. Accordingly, it was not necessary for the prosecution to present witnesses substantiating guilt. John Lappo's character and integrity were above reproach, and this wasn't a court- martial about aerobatics or unsafe flying practices; his skills were superior and, for him, this feat was no more difficult or risky than taking his boots off at night. He was forthright in owning up to his actions - he was and remains a man of his word and believes that a man's word is his bond.
Character witness after character witness took the stand on Lappo's behalf, and to an officer and a gentleman, the comments echoed the same praise over and over again.
When asked whether or not he would go out of his way to recruit Capt. Lappo into his command if he were not, Colonel Finlay F. Ross, Jr., Headquarters 301st Bomb Wing stated, "I most certainly would Captain Lappo is a man's man he can serve with me any time, any place."
And when his squadron commander took the stand the defense asked, "Colonel Rees, how long have you known Captain Lappo?" "Approximately 6 years," he responded. Once again, the defense, "As his commander, and as a colleague, as an aircraft commander, will you please describe to this court your observations of Captain Lappo's abilities as a pilot and aircraft commander?" The Colonel obliged, "To make a statement, or to speak of Captain Lappo, is extremely difficult, to the extent that it's hard to find a place to start. His reliability is outstanding, and I've always known it to be so. Throughout this time I have watched wing commanders select him repeatedly for difficult missions, special assignments, classified projects of all types, difficult reconnaissance missions performed out of Iceland the nature of the mission(s) necessitates that I say no more (he) received the Distinguished Flying Cross." He continued, "On one occasion, fuel cell repair was going on one of the airmen passed out Lappo took matters in his own hands, and, in fact, was directly responsible for saving the boy's life. During this particular operation (out of Greenland) Captain Lappo's wife was expecting a child, and, operating under extremely difficult circumstances, never once (did he ask) to be with his wife (in Ohio) through this period. This is the type approach that he takes to his duties. I don't think that I can say that he puts his duties before his family, in fact, I know I couldn't, but I could say that he never lets his personal problems, his family problems interfere." Colonel Rees made this remark knowing that shortly after they returned from this particular operation, Kay had the child she had been carrying, but unlike the other five, this baby lived to be only two weeks old.
Colonel Rees' testimony continued on for sometime, but in the final analysis it boiled down to these few comments of admiration, the sort of comments only a true leader of men can make about one of his own. He said, "Go back to the front gate, and it says 'Peace Is Our Profession,' and this requires a strong force. We're all familiar with that mission. General Powers has been nailed down as to what is an adequate deterrent for us. He says no one knows. Sure, this is true. If some day SAC's mission would be boiled down to one aircraft and one crew and one weapon, I think that Lappo would qualify without a doubt to be the aircraft commander "
Major John W. Burkhart, 352nd Bomb Squadron, preferred the charges against Lappo in his capacity as the squadron's temporary commander in the absence of Colonel Rees. However, when asked to comment on Lappo's ability as an aircraft commander Burkhart said, " I have been with him for 5 ½ years I've never flown with a stronger pilot." During cross-examination when asked if he felt this was a serious violation, he responded, "I believe it's a serious violation. But in regards to the general court recommendation, I disagreed with it. But I was informed to sign these charge sheets as a matter of formality." The prosecutor probed further, wondering aloud, "Why did you prefer charges if you disagreed with this court?" Surely considering a response reflective of the majority of his peers throughout the Strategic Air Command, and wanting to express the feelings of not only the personnel in his squadron, but those of aircrews and aircraft commanders stationed worldwide, Burkhart responded, "I agreed on punishment of a lesser extent," This incident does not effect my evaluation of Captain Lappo "whatsoever."
"Sir, the defense would like to call as its next witness, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Bachtell," Squadron Commander of the 99th Air Refueling Squadron at Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts. "Sir, how long have you known Captain Lappo?" asked the defense counsel. The Colonel replied, "Approximately three years...I was in the 26th Wing as an aircraft commander (with him) (then) as squadron commander which is now the 353rd Bomb Squadron, (and then) I became squadron commander of the 352nd Bomb Squadron " The defense followed up, "Would you please tell the court what your observations have been of Captain Lappo as an aircraft commander and as a pilot?" Bachtell began, "First of all, I will refer to an operation which I commanded at Goose Air Base in Labrador in 1957. I had the B-47s up there in support of SAC USEM I had an airplane that was damaged we cut off the wing tip, to rid it of the torn metal. At this time, I had most of the un-highly qualified crews with me. So, the Wing Commander (back at Lockbourne) had to select somebody to come and get the airplane. He selected Captain Lappo to do this, because of his professional ability as a pilot. He flew the airplane back without incident. Second I refer you to Operation Home Run the third instance Operation Weather Stop and the fourth and last item was a proposed trip around the world over the poles with approximately 5 or 6 air refuelings, nonstop. And I had planned to send 3 crews. I had chosen Captain Lappo, Major Burkhart, and Major Comerford " The defense continued, " did you have any occasion to question his reliability?" Bachtell, as though he sensed Lappo would one day join other pilots only of the elite kind, those enshrined in air museums around the country, said this in response: "As far as I'm concerned I would like to make a real strong statement in regards to ability and, particularly, in Captain Lappo's case, because of his ability which I feel is a bit unique over and above the rest of us, he has been able to maintain our careers and our proficiency line by averageability. I have followed, I don't know whether you Gentlemen are familiar with it or not, I followed the career of General Doolittle; lots of people called him lots of names; but he, by far, contributed more to aviation, and the Air Force, from the cockpit, than any man that I know, and I personally compare Captain Lappo's type of flying ability with this man."
It was a few minutes after 5p.m. (1709 hours to be precise), on that Monday afternoon when the jury returned their findings and the President of the court-martial, Col. Clyde B. Kelsay, read the sentence:
"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."
With the trial at his back, Lappo wasn't thinking about what Kay was preparing for dinner that night, although she weighed very heavily on his mind. His honor, his reputation and the reputation of his loving wife and five children had also been on trial, or so he had thought.
Kay greeted him with loving arms when he returned home that evening, reassuring him that he was still her knight in shining armor. But he wouldn't sleep well that night, or the next, or the next. He was a pilot, but he was not allowed to fly.
He had to get the okay of a flight review board before he could ever fly for the Air Force again, but the harsh written reprimand handed down to him from the Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force, Lt. General W.C. Sweeney, Jr., although only a mere formality resulting from the court-martial, was sufficiently damaging for an independent review board to deny his request. Who was going to defy the reprimand of a General, the man who approves officer promotions?
Crushed, but not broken, Lappo appealed to the hierarchy of the Air Force year after year in hopes of being reinstated as a pilot, to once again serve his nation aloft rather than on the ground.
But in the end, it was that urge of adventure that some men have, and some don't, to climb mountains, mush dogs to the north pole, and fly airplanes under bridges that caused John Lappo's serenity in the sky, at least while flying for the United States Air Force, to come to an abrupt halt.
Colonel Lappo and Kay continue to live in Eagle River, Alaska. And over the many years
here, John has taken several planes aloft, most fondly his Cessna 185 and his trusty Super Cub. Up above
where the eagles fly, above the mountains high, over the open tundra and beyond Mt. McKinley, just him,
his plane and the serenity that only pilots have come to know. From aloft he's watched the caribou roam,
the orcas and belugas swim the Pacific Ocean, up Cook Inlet and into Resurrection Bay. He's seen the
Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) up close and personal from time to time, but it's this one thing he
dreams more than any other - "will I ever get the chance to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge at
night, or the 'Big Mac' - just one more Stratojet flight?"
|WEBSITE HISTORIAN'S COMMENT: It is with great humility
that I must inform you that John Lappo has made his last flight.
He passed away in his sleep on Nov. 15, 2003 following a long illness.