9 Astounding Facts about the "Cornfield Bomber", the Plane That Flew Itself

In February of 1970, one U.S. air force jet actually managed to fly and land itself without causing any damage.
Christopher McFadden
The photo credit line may appear like this12

One fateful day in February of 1970, a jet plane of the United States Air Force astounded authorities and locals alike when it, seemingly magically, touched down safely in a field. While this might sound like your average emergency landing, the plane was completely pilotless.

Forever known as the "Cornfield Bomber" after that day, this is the amazing story of the F-106A that refused to crash.


What was the "Cornfield Bomber"?

The famous "Cornfield Bomber" was a Convair F-106A-100-CO "Delta Dart" that, somehow, managed to land safely in a field pilotless on the 2nd of February 1970. The "Cornfield Bomber's" pilot, Captain Gary Faust, was forced to emergency eject after the plane stalled and entered a dangerous spin to the ground.

cornfield bomber at museum
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Despite doing everything he could, including deploying the plan's drag chute, the only thing he could do was attempt to save his own life. Amazingly, soon after ejecting, the plane managed to level out and slowly drop altitude as it zoomed off on its own.

Eventually, the forsaken aircraft belly-flopped and came to a complete stop in a field -- much to the amazement of local onlookers. What's more, it had sustained very minor damage.

This event forever earned the aircraft the nickname of the "Cornfield Bomber" -- despite the fact it was not a bomber nor did it land in a cornfield.

It has a nice ring to it though.

What are some interesting facts about the "Cornfield Bomber" airforce jet?

And so, without further ado, here are some interesting facts about the U.S. Airforce jet that, miraculously, landed itself safely. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The "Cornfield Bomber" was a Convair F-106A, tail number 58-0787

cornfield bomber delta datrt
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The so-called "Cornfield Bomber", was one of the U.S. Airforce's venerable Convair F-106A-100-CO "Delta Darts". First deployed to the air force in the 1960s, these supersonic, all-weather, single-engined, delta wing interceptors would continue to serve the United States until the late-1980s.

They were developed and manufactured by the Convair Division of General Dynamics and would see active service all around the world. "Delta Darts" were described as "Ultimate Interceptor" in their day, especially bombers. 

2. The "Cornfield Bomber" was in a mock dogfight when the pilot lost control

cornfield bomber drag chute
Image of a drag chute being deployed from an F-106A, Sourcef-106deltadart.com

On that fateful day in February 1970, the soon-to-be-called "Cornfield Bomber" took off from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana with three other F-106As. Originally part of a flight of four, one of its number malfunctioned and deployed its drag chute by accident. 

Its day was over before it had begun. As it turned out, that would not be the last time one was deployed that day.

The other three, including the "Cornfield Bomber", continued on as planned. The other two planes were flown by Major Tom Curtis and Major Tim Lowe.

After arriving at their designated objective, the pilots began their practice dogfight. Accelerating to combat speed, the pilots settled in for what they thought would be a routine practice session.

But the fates had other plans in mind.

3. Major Curtis went after the "Cornfield Bomber" first

cornfield bomber vertical scissors
Source: Combat Aircraft

Major Curtis was the designated enemy combatant that day and set about engaging the other two fighters in a high-speed dogfight to test their mettle and skill. His first target was Captain Faust's F-106A. 

After accelerating to Mach 1.9, Major Curtis' plan was to force Captain Faust into a vertical engagement to put him at a disadvantage.

Upon engagement, Major Curtis put his plan into action and began the death-defying aerial maneuver. The other two followed, but since Curtis had entered the climb first he had the advantage -- but not forever.

Once committed, Major Curtis switched tactics and performed a "vertical scissors" maneuver -- using his speed to climb and dive in a spiral, while doing a barrel roll. This, he hoped, would force his comrades to break out of their own dives prematurely -- leaving them at his mercy. 

4. Captain Faust took the bait and suffered the consequences

With Major Curtis' maneuver complete, he performed another dogfighting tactic called a high-G reversal at around 38,000 feet. By turning and rolling his aircraft to reduce his airspeed, he hoped that his compatriots would be "forced" to overshoot him.

His gamble paid off and Captain Faust took the bait, but that was not the end of this mistake. His plane, tail number 58-0787, would soon become the most famous "Delta Dart" in history. 

5. The "Cornfield Bomber" stalled and began to spin uncontrollably

Almost as soon as Captain Faust overshot Major Curtis, his plane began to shudder and entered an accelerated stall. This forced the aircraft to suddenly drop its nose downwards and head straight for terra firma

Major Curtis saw the whole thing and described how, from his angle, Captain Faust's plane appeared to be doing a slow circuit around its wobbling nose. Called a flat spin, this is usually a death sentence for any F-106A. 

But all the pilots in the air that day were seasoned veterans. Captain Faust and his comrades began to attempt various ways to correct the spin --  including deploying her drag chute.

But nothing worked. Captain Faust had only one choice left -- eject and leave the interceptor to its fate.

6. The "Cornfield Bomber" managed to save itself

cornfield bomber museum
Source: D. Miller/Flickr

Amazingly, Captain Faust's final action appeared to be the very thing the F-106A needed. As soon as he ejected, the plane broke out of its spin, leveled off, and resumed its flight in a straight line, more or less.

What is more, one of the actions Faust had attempted was setting the plane's trim to take-off, which is similar to that used by pilots to land. He had also set the throttle to idle setting the "Cornfield Bomber" on a slow, steady descent trajectory. 

But there was only one problem, the plane had no pilot in it. Amused by the situation, one of the other pilots, Major Lowe, remarked "Gary? You better get back into that thing!"

7. Captain Faust was rescued shortly after

cornfield bomber bear paw mountains
Bear Paw Mountains, Montana, Source: Peggy Ray/Twitter

Faust, dumb-struck to see his plane fly on without him was helpless to do anything about it. He slowly, but steadily descended onto the snow-covered Bear Paw Mountains to await rescue.

His comrades radioed in his position and flew back to base, hoping the "Cornfield Bomber" wouldn't crash in a populated area. Captain Faust was later rescued by a snowmobile.

8. The "Cornfield Bomber" managed to land itself safely

cornfield bomber field
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Apparently enjoying its newfound freedom, the "Cornfield Bomber" continued on at around 175 knots (324 km/h) and headed for the town of Big Sandy. Thankfully for all involved its final destination was a snow-covered alfalfa field

Eventually touching the ground, the plane continued to slide on its belly and made a 20-degree turn before traveling through an opening in the field's wall and coming to a complete stop. The astonished farmer immediately called the local Sheriff, who in turn contacted the nearest military base.

9. Despite the ordeal, the "Cornfield Bomber" was surprisingly unharmed

cornfield bomber in field
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The Sheriff attempted a few times to assess its damage, as requested, and attempt to turn off its engine. But every time he did, the plane jiggled as if attempting to escape. 

The authorities eventually told everyone to leave it be -- it would run out of fuel eventually. And that it did. 

When authorities finally arrived, they were amazed to find that the plane was almost in perfect condition. So-much-so, that one pilot remarked that he would happily fly the thing back to base. 

The plane was partially dismantled, sent for repairs, and put back into active service. The "Cornfield Bomber" now resides at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio.


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