A pilot’s fateful, career-altering flight under Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Everyone has seen a flyover, right? The fighter jets that are somehow timed up to fly over the stadium right as the national anthem singer finishes the lyrics, “home of the brave.”

But have you ever heard of a military flyunder?

It’s not a technical term. Merriam-Webster doesn’t recognize it as a real word, and the U.S. military would like to pretend it has never happened, but there has been at least one military flyunder on record: when a West Michigan pilot flew his Air Force B-47 Stratojet bomber underneath the Mackinac Bridge.

There are not a lot of details confirmed on the record, but it happened. John Lappo, from Muskegon, lived the tale. And while the Air Force may not have anything to say about it, the late Lappo’s story lives on 65 years after the controversial flight.

The B-47 Boeing Stratojet, the world’s fastest bomber with a top speed of more than 600 miles per hour, is powered by General Electric J-47 engines. The Stratojet holds the cross-country speed record of 3 hours and 46 minutes for a flight between Moses Lake, Washington, and Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. (Photo by Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

‘I’M TAKING HER UNDER’

On April 24, 1959, Captain Lappo, 39 years old at the time, and a 12-year Air Force veteran, was up early to take part in a nighttime simulated bombing run. As the crew flew near the Straits of Mackinac, heading back toward Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio, Lappo decided to fulfill one of his pilot fantasies.

Lappo confessed to the Detroit Free Press in 1976 that he had always wanted to fly under a Bridge.

“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,” he confessed.

This time, in the lead driver’s seat, he decided to indulge himself. He told his two crewmembers, “I’m taking her under.”

Lappo said everyone was excited about the idea except his navigator, who warned him against it.

To be fair to the navigator, he had a good point. There are plenty of reasons not to do it.

For one, you are unnecessarily putting lives at risk — the people on the plane and on the bridge. Two, if you damage government property, whether it was the million-dollar bomber or the Mackinac Bridge, you are in for a world of trouble. And three, it’s illegal.

Need another excuse? It’s a death-defying feat. Never mind the science that allows a giant hunk of metal to soar at great heights and speeds. The Mackinac Bridge, connecting lower Michigan to its Upper Peninsula, hangs approximately 150 feet above the Straits. A B-47 is nearly 28 feet tall with a wingspan of 116 feet and would be coming in at screaming speeds. There is little margin for error.

Still, Lappo pressed on.

He remembered there were only two vehicles on the bridge at the time — a car and a truck, both heading north toward St. Ignace. While it was a clear, sunny day, he was flying in a “stiff breeze” that whipped up “whitecaps” in the straits. Lappo took his dive, leveled off at approximately 75 feet, and made his legendary pass under the Mighty Mac. The rest is history.

An evening shot of the Mackinac Bridge from the south. (Getty)

A FLIGHT TO REMEMBER

There were no cameras that captured the stunt. It didn’t even make the local newspapers. Still, word of mouth spread through the ranks. Eventually, top brass caught wind of it.

Remember that navigator? Lappo believes he was the one who turned him in, telling the Free Press, “I didn’t know at the time that his father was the general and he was going to go rat on me when we got back.”

Lappo was grounded in more ways than one. The Muskegon native faced a court martial hearing, at which he admitted to his antics. Several character witnesses were presented to try to save face, testifying not only to Lappo’s skill and bravado, but to his integrity, highlighted by the fact that he confessed to the accusations.

One colonel called Lappo a “man’s man” and that “he can serve with me any time, any place.” Another military leader said he had never met a better pilot. Yet another described the stunt as dangerous in the hands of an amateur, but for a professional like Lappo, it was “no more difficult or risky than taking his boots off at night.”

The Strategic Air Command removed Lappo from flying duty and imposed a $300 fine to be paid off in monthly $50 increments. His salary was also cut from $860 to $660 per month.

That December, the SAC affirmed its ruling. Lappo would never fly for the Air Force again.

While he was grounded, his military career wasn’t over. A 2017 profile by MLive says Lappo served in the Air Force for another 18 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1972.

He lived out the second half of his life in Alaska. He didn’t have a B-47 bomber, but Lappo had smaller planes that he used to cruise the skies once again.

Before Lappo’s death in 2003, writer Kenny Shepherd pressed him again. Why take the risk? Why put your career — and your life — on the line?

“Why do men climb mountains? Or what motivates them to go into space?” Lappo said. “It’s just a sense of adventure that some men have, and some don’t.”

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