General LeMay was more determined than ever to expand his network of bases where SAC subordinated reconnaissance bombers, RB-47E'S, could strike an intelligence gathering offensive against the Soviets and their iron curtain strongholds, without fear of retaliation. Greenland offered such a place and squadrons from as far as Lockbourne AFB, where Lappo was stationed, began arriving en masse. Air bases, radar telemetry, and other order-of-battle information was the target of these 'Spies in the Sky' - all gathered for the highly classified, and extremely sensitive operation known only as 'Home Run!'
Shortly after Capt. Austin survived the onslaught of those MIG-17's, Capt. John Lappo and 26 other aircraft commanders were divided into three groups and were tasked to fly three similar, yet very different missions. Each mission consisted of nine aircraft and their crews, and all were flown over the polar ice cap from Thule, Greenland deep into the Soviet Union. Their goal, to conduct a unified broadbrush intrusion into the Soviet Union in an attempt to light up Soviet radar's throughout the northern hemisphere and to conduct photo reconnaissance and ELINT collection operations against Russia's nuclear testing facilities at Novaya Zemlya and other tactical and strategic military facilities in the area. They were further responsible for locating naval bases, airfields, new construction facilities, and other military and industrial targets in the Northern, Baltic and Pacific Fleet areas of operation and evaluating Russia's Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), capabilities.
Sergei G. Gorshkov, 'Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union,' was primarily responsible for the huge buildup of the Soviet Navy and it was General LeMay's objective to know all he could about Russia's order-of-battle, the location of its war machines, and their electronic nomenclature, including the offensive and defensive capabilities of each.
All three missions were a huge success, but only 26 of the 27 aircraft returned to Thule as prescribed. Major Lappo's experience would be different. Launching 900 miles from the North Pole and only five hours from Russia's industrial hub, Lappo refueled his RB-47E over the vast wastelands of the arctic, but could not zero in on his primary target once he penetrated Soviet airspace because of thick cloud cover. As the aircraft commander, he had to make a critical decision between aborting the mission or doing the dangerous and time-consuming 360-degree circuit to accomplish his objective. During a recent account of that mission in a documentary film, titled "Spies in the Sky" and aired on the History Channel, Lappo said, "We went in there about 30 miles, and solid undercast, and I looked over to the left about 15 miles and there was our target. So, I asked the crew if they were with me on making that 360-degree and they told me, well, the general told us not to make the 360, and I told them, well, hey, if we don't get that target he's going to have to send another airplane after it." When Lappo and his crew finally returned to Thule, the general approached him and said, "John we told you not to make that 360." Lappo explained why he did what he did and the general exclaimed, "Yup, you shouldn't have, but I wished I had a squadron of (aircraft commanders just like) you!" 'Major' Lappo had just won the Distinguished Flying Cross!
Lappo and his crew would fly many more missions to exploit Russian radar's, and order-of-battle targets, but unlike Austin, Major Lappo was engaged but never fired upon by the MIG's reacting to his overflights, in all likelihood because they were probable Fagots and unable to maintain the altitude and speed of the reconnaissance configured Stratojet.
Kay didn't know where her husband even was. All she knew is that her and the kids were stuck in Canal Winchester, Ohio and Major Lappo was off on some mission - weather related as far as she knew. But not in her wildest dreams did she imagine he was busy flying spy missions over Russia. She was so frustrated by the lengthy periods of TDY, her pregnancy at the time, and the secrecy of his service that the thought of returning to Muskegon, Michigan crossed her mind on more than one occasion. Five children, Suzette, John III, Leo Edward, Michael, and Helena all wondered with their mother when their father would return home. Was he in Labrador or perhaps Keflavik participating in yet another 'Operation Weather Stop'? Possibly it was another special operation like 'Project Monticello' with Lockheed in Marietta, Georgia, or 'Project Snow Flurry'. It could have even been another photo intelligence mission against the bases in the Soviet Far East along the Kamchatka Peninsula that ultimately had Lappo and his fellow aircraft commanders landing at Eilson AFB, Alaska. In fact, it could have been one of dozens of secret missions John has flown over the years, and she would have never known. Lappo's loyalty and trustworthiness to his country, to his service, was unquestionable. But her love for John never wavered, and soon, although not in the way she would have hoped for it to have happened, she would see John a lot more than she had been accustomed to.
Lappo was promoted to captain five times! Back in the 50's, an incentive program referred to as 'spot promotions,' more of a mathematical nightmare according to some, caught Lappo in a roller coaster ride between Captain and Major that wouldn't end until January 1961 when he was permanently promoted to Major. In most cases, squadron commanders were given a quota of 'spot promotion' slots. One month Lappo may have deserved the promotion, but there was no guarantee it was his to keep. If he failed to maintain minimum proficiency standards he was demoted and in some instances, the pilot had no control over meeting those standards. Following one such demotion Lappo recalls stopping by his favorite Hardware Store in the small Columbus suburb of Canal Winchester and the clerk saying, "Are you a Captain, again, Lappo? Did you screw up again?" It was a running joke between the two of them and the merchant meant no disrespect to John, as he fully understood the inherent quirks of the spot promotion system.
In one case however, he credited his demotion to his dear friend and otherwise 'Ace' navigator, Harry B. Wolfe. While simulating bombing runs out of his home airfield at Lockbourne, Wolfe failed to accurately steer his pilot to the initial aiming point and when all was said and done, the crew was amazed that they had missed the target by nearly 14,000 feet. Until now, no one ever really knew why. In Wolfe's own words he recently offered this account, "It was an offset bomb run and I put the information in backwards. Unfortunately it was a competition run and my radar photography sent the wheels into ecstasy. Then the results came in. The thud of my stomach falling was heard round the world." According to Lappo, "the navigator could make you, or break you back in those days." How prophetic those words were to become.
According to historical weather data available for 24 April 1959, it was clear and mild that Friday as Capt. Lappo and his crew were returning from a routine nighttime simulated bombing run and celestial navigation mission. It was early afternoon when their flight home neared the Mackinac Straits over Lake Michigan.
The sun glistened off the occasional mild whitecaps of the great lake below, almost a mirror reflection of the sky that held Capt. Lappo's RB-47E aloft, like a glider gently floating, lifting slightly with every burst of air. The roar of the bomber's six engines seemed silent in contrast to the serenity of the moment. After all, the world's first swept-wing Stratojet should perform no less gracefully then it was at that very moment in time.
RB-47 at U.S.AIR FORCE MUSEUM. Lappo flew the same type of plane under the
"BIG MAC" bridge.
This was precisely the reason Capt. Lappo joined the Army-Air Corps. Where else could a man retreat and see all the mountain tops at a single glance, borderless land masses of green pastures, deep blue lakes, and flowering meadows, and forget the hustle and bustle of the asphalt jungle below? The world's longest suspension bridge was located in Michigan and connected Mackinaw City in the south with St. Ignace in the north. It appeared no larger than a one-lane country road from high aloft in Lappo's cockpit. He observed that only two vehicles were on the bridge, a car and a truck, both heading north. The bridge's dual towers looked like stairways to heaven and climbed more than 500 feet into the sky; and her wire cables spanned the strait for more than a mile and a half, linking the sandy shores in the south with those in the north.
Then, quicker than the sun's rays could cast the bomber's shadow onto the waters beneath it, the silence was broken. The Strategic Air Command bomber headed nose first toward the blue surf below, its wings stretched like a majestic eagle, defiantly making its descent toward the mighty 'Big Mac.' The thrusts of its engines were deafening, but everyone aboard heard Capt. Lappo exclaim, "I'm taking her under!"
The crew was filled with excitement, save one. On this day his trusted friend and usual navigator, Harry B. Wolfe, wasn't onboard. He had transferred and a new navigator, not yet brought into the fold, had augmented the crew instead.
The RB-47 continued to descend and came within 75 feet of reaching the deck when Lappo, heading east with the afternoon sun at his back, leveled her out and raced his way above the whitecaps at speeds that seemed to leave the plane's shadow in its jet stream.
Then at the blink of an eye it was all over, he had shot through the 199-foot clearance beneath the bridge's deck and flew the plane up in a trajectory ascent reminiscent of an Apollo take-off from Cape Kennedy. The crew gave out a reverent, yet subtle hoorah knowing that they had just participated in one of the most beautiful pieces of flying ever undertaken by an Air Force pilot.
When asked whether there were any objections to him doing it, Lappo repeated what he had said during one of many newspaper interviews that followed, "Yeah, the navigator recommended against it. Of course, I had no idea at the time that he was the general's son and that he was going to go rat on me once we got back to Lockbourne."
This wasn't Lappo's first demonstration of flying bravado. A few years earlier he gave a booming salute to his old community back in Muskegon when he swooped down over the town's airfield in another Stratojet just to say hello. The switchboard at the police station stayed lit up for nearly an hour after that stunt.