By Di Freeze
As excited pilots prepare for the Reno Air Races, Clay Lacy remembers the very first National Championship Air Races and Air Show.
In January 1964, the 31-year-old United Airlines pilot was in downtown Reno when a poster heralding the events caught his eye. He felt a twinge of excitement, similar to how he had felt when he was a teenager, and mentor Orville Sanders told him he had an aircraft for him to ferry. So, he visited the Chamber of Commerce to gather information regarding the event organized by Bill Stead, a wealthy rancher.
“I picked up a little brochure,” he said. “The next day, I told Al Paulson they were going to have an air race in September. I said, ‘Why don’t you buy a P-51, and California Airmotive can sponsor me?'”
Through fate, or luck, Paulson had a Cessna 310 that he didn’t really want, and a customer in Montana had called just the day before, and asked if he’d take a P-51D on trade for it.
“He figured the Cessna was worth $17,500,” Lacy said. “He picks up the phone, calls this guy and says, ‘Bring that P-51 down here to LA, with $10,000, and I’ll give you the Cessna. So, he basically bought the P-51 for $7,500.”
It was a good thing time-wise that Lacy had retired from the Air National Guard, because for the next several years he’d have to squeeze in racing alongside flying for United, selling and ferrying aircraft for California Airmotive and his deep involvement with the Lear Jet.
In preparing for racing, one thing to be considered was a paint scheme. Lacy tells how the Mustang got its unforgettable color.
“Al had sold some Lockheed Constellations to some men that started an airline,” Lacy said. “They weren’t successful, and he had to repo the airplanes. Fish Salmon and his friend, Dale Robertson, the actor, told Al, ‘Let’s continue running the airline. We’ll help you run it.’ He asked his wife for a name for it, and since they were going to go to Hawaii, she came up with the name Orchid Flight.”
Once that was decided, orchid paint was needed for a colorful exterior stripe, so Paulson told his purchasing agent to buy 50 gallons of the color.
“He ordered 1,500 gallons,” Lacy said. “Al started painting everything he owned—tugs, ladders, you name it—purple. When I got the P-51, he said, ‘Have you thought about what color you want to paint it?’ I said, ‘No, I really haven’t.’ He said, ‘Good. We’ll paint it purple!'”
“Purple!” was Lacy’s response.
“Al said, ‘People remember purple. They’ll call it the Purple People Eater. They’ll love it!'” Lacy recalled. “And they did. When I repainted it later, twice, I painted it the same color.”
In fact, says Lacy, the paint fiasco would also play a role in deciding the future colors for FedEx, due to Rick Runyon, who was on Lacy’s social pit crew.
“Fred Smith hired him to do the image for Federal Express when they first started,” Lacy said. “He said to Fred, ‘Do you know what color you want?’ Fred told him he didn’t care, but he wanted a color everyone would remember.’ Rick remembered the P-51, and said, “Let’s use purple!'”
By September 1964, Lacy already had nearly two decades of flying behind him. Still, before he arrived in Reno that September, he had decided he would enter the cross-country race, and leave the pylon event to the “hotdogs” that were sure to enter. However, once he arrived, and started looking around and talking to the other pilots, he realized they were all in the same boat.
“I don’t think any of us had ever even seen a pylon race,” he said. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into; everyone knew about as much as everyone else.”
The pilots began to practice, and decided that it wasn’t that hard.
“It was a lot of fun, so everybody jumped in, and we had our first Reno race,” Lacy said.
Eight qualified for the first unlimited race. Besides Lacy, in Race 64, dubbed “Bonzai” and sporting the names of California Airmotive and Lear Jet, the other qualifying pilots were Darryl Greenamyer, Mira Slovak, Korean War Ace Bob Love, Walter Ohlrich, Ben Hall, Ed Weiner, and C.E. Crosby, who didn’t end up racing.
Old-timers there to lend support included Jimmy Haizlip, a pre-war star at Cleveland; Frank Tallman, ex-racer and Hollywood stunt pilot; Paul Mantz, stunt flyer and three-time winner of the Bendix trophy; and Bob Hoover, fighter and test pilot, as well as aerobatic wonder.
“Bob flew the pace plane and was airborne safety coordinator from overhead for 41 races, through 1998,” said Lacy.
Stunt pilot Art Scholl was also there, but as a participant in the formula one class, in which he placed fourth out of six pilots that qualified. The winner of the 10-lap, 80.19-mile unlimited championship, which took place on Sept. 20, was Slovak, who won with the highest points, at a speed of 355.520, in Race 80, an F8F Bearcat dubbed “Smirnoff.” Love actually won the final race, but placed second in points, in Race 8, a P-51D Mustang named “Bardahl Special,” at 366.820. Lacy took third at 354.740.
Lacy again raced #64, this time dubbed “Cal Airmotive,” in 1965, duplicating his third-place standing in the unlimited championship. After that race, Paulson sold the Mustang to Lacy, along with spare engines, for $12,500. Lacy left the name of “Cal Airmotive” on the P-51 the following two years, when he again took third place in the unlimited championship. In 1968, the Mustang sported the name of “Conroy Aircraft Special.”
“To tell you the truth, Jack never paid me a dime, but I wanted someone’s name on it, so it would look like I had a sponsor,” grinned Lacy.
Once again, Lacy, flying with his mascot “Snoopy,” placed third. His continual third-place standing prompted Don Downie, sportswriter for “Air Progress,” to write a humorous piece in 1968 about the “passionate purple P-51” and Lacy’s dream of being number one. Downie revealed that Lacy was the only “big-bore pylon polisher” to fly in all seven events since that class of air racing was renewed in 1964, and quoted Lacy’s lament of being “always the bridesmaid, and never the bride.”
Besides Reno, Lacy participated in other races, coming in second at Lancaster, Calif., in 1965, and fifth at Boulder City, Nev. He led for eight and a half laps during the Lancaster races in 1966, and only had half a lap to go when he felt his racer slowing down, and then realized that his prop governor had blown. He also participated in a race in New Jersey.
“Add to this starts in two Trans-con events, without one win, and you can understand why Lacy feels a bit frustrated,” wrote Downie.
Lacy again placed third in 1969, in “Miss Santa Barbara.” Perhaps the reason “Miss Van Nuys” is the name most remembered for the purple P-51D is that the Mustang was sporting that name in 1970 when Lacy became the unlimited class champion, with a speed of 387.3420, for a purse of $7,200. “Miss Van Nuys” also won the last cross-country race held for piston airplanes, in 1971, although magneto problems during qualification put Lacy out of the running for the pylon races.
The last Reno race for Lacy was in 1972. Piloting “Miss Lois Jean,” he placed fourth in the championship race. The name worn by the Mustang that year signified a big change in Lacy’s life. That was his relationship with Lois Jean, a flight attendant he met on a United 727 flight, whom he would marry in 1973.
Lacy also entered the Fighter Pilots Air Tournament, held in St. Louis, Mo., in 1971, which included a cross-country race in a WWII-type aircraft, an unlimited race, aerobatics, and a time-to-climb challenge. Lacy took first place in three areas, including the cross-country race, the last unlimited one held. He was second in aerobatics.
Another event he participated in during that period was the California 1000 Mile Air Race at Mojave, a 1,000-mile unlimited race of 66 laps around a 15-mile pylon-marked course that would represent the longest distance to be raced during an unlimited event on a closed course. The particulars of the race didn’t daunt several pilots from entering Sea Furies, Mustangs, Corsairs and Bearcats. But Lacy, at the time president of the Professional Race Pilots Association (a title he held for three years), decided not to race his P-51 due to the strain put on the engine while winning Reno in September, and the length of the Mojave race. He again approached Paulson, this time about the possibility of flying one of his surplus four-engine DC-7s, believing the aircraft would be more capable of enduring the race nonstop. He also felt that it would generate publicity for the event, and for the sport in general, which it did.
“Al had two or three DC-7s,” Lacy recalled. “He agreed, because he thought it would be fun. He was my copilot.”
For such a large aircraft to compete, it was necessary to waive the usual 21,000-pound gross weight limitation on unlimited racers. A former American Airlines DC-7 was adorned with Lacy’s usual race number, 64, plus the name “Super Snoopy” on the nose. A large stuffed Snoopy wearing a Superman costume traveled with Lacy, Paulson and flight engineers Joe Matos and Dick Daues.
Competing against aircraft that included a Douglas A-26 “Invader,” the DC-7 finished sixth place in a field of 20, at an average speed of 325 mph. The winner of the race was a Sea Fury, clocking 2 hours, 52 minutes, 38 seconds, at 344.08 mph.
Lacy says he’s done many things that didn’t actually “advance aviation,” but were a lot of fun. His experience during the Mojave 1000 with daredevil Rick Rojatt, aka “The Human Fly,” a Marvel Comics character, falls under that category. The stunt performer, intent on proving he was the “greatest superhero that ever lived,” put his life in capable hands when he flew above the Mojave Desert on top of a DC-8 piloted by Lacy.
“We made a mount for him,” said Lacy. “He couldn’t have gotten off if he wanted to. He always told people he was up there at 300 mph, but we never flew that fast. The fastest I ever flew him was 220 knots, once, just for a short burst. Most of the time, we were flying at 175 knots.”
Lacy flew Rojatt two days at Mojave, and later in Texas, where the daredevil was to be filmed for a television special, which was cancelled due to weather. However, Rojatt made one harrowing flight there.
“He was in a little bit of rain,” Lacy said. “Actually, they were big raindrops. When they started hitting, it sounded like golf balls. It really beat him up; he said they felt like bullets.”
By then, said Lacy, The Human Fly traveled with his sidekick, Mercury, both wearing colorful costumes.
“Mercury had a three-wheel motorcycle and he drove him to the airport,” Lacy said.
On that day in Texas, the battered Fly was removed from the airplane and taken to a makeshift dispensary.
“His legs were just raw,” Lacy said. “I waited until they got over there, about 15 minutes, and I called for the Fly. They gave me Mercury, and I told him, ‘You have to get him back over here! The weather is clearing up.’ He said, “What!” I was just kidding with him. He said, ‘I don’t know… Well, okay.'”
A dismal Fly agreed, and the duo appeared at the airport 30 minutes later.
“He was hurting,” Lacy said. “We got a cherry picker, and acted like we were going to put him back up. I went over there, and I said, ‘Now, I don’t want you to do it, if you can’t, but, I think you can.’ He said, ‘Okay.'”
Lacy finally had pity, and told Rojatt they weren’t really taking him up.
Getting back to more serious aspects of Lacy’s flying, in mid-1971, he participated in “The Great Race,” from London, England, to Victoria, British Columbia, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of British Columbia and included various classes, such as prop aircraft and jet.
“The smallest airplane was a Cherokee 180,” Lacy said, adding that the first day of the handicapped race was incredibly long for those flying piston aircraft.
“It was London to Quebec,” he said. “I think the people in the Cherokee flew 30 hours. It was a social event. We stopped at every province in Canada for at least one day, maybe two.”
Lacy had persuaded some friends to come along and pitch in for expenses.
“There were a couple of pilots,” he said. “I told them, ‘If we win this, we win $25,000 bucks, and it won’t cost us anything. We’ll surely win second, third or something.”
Lacy and four others each pitched in $5,000.
“We won first, so it didn’t cost anybody anything,” he said.
“There goes one of those Lear Jets!”
It’s been two decades since Lacy, driving Allen Paulson home, saw a man pointing out a Gulfstream taking off to his younger companion.
“Look!” exclaimed Lacy to the Gulfstream Aerospace owner. “He’s telling his son, ‘There goes one of those Lear Jets!'”
“Up until just recently, all John Q. Public knew was the Lear name,” Lacy said, as he recalled that day.
Going back in time to the mid-sixties, Paulson, owner of California Airmotive, the Lear Jet distributor of 11 western states, and Lacy, sales manager, were doing a good job making sure the Lear Jet was getting attention and becoming synonymous with the term “business jet.” In fact, they had been so persuasive that they had earned a business partner. By the end of 1966, actor Danny Kaye had joined the team, and the distributorship had been newly renamed Pacific Lear Jet.
Celebrities that enjoyed the Lear Jet experience through Lacy during that period included friends of Bill Lear’s, such as Art Linkletter, as well as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., actor John Gavin (who later became the ambassador to Mexico) and actresses Shirley MacLaine, Carroll Channing, Jill St. John, Lana Turner and Mia Farrow.
Early in 1966, Paulson and Lacy persuaded Bill Lear to transform their demo, N1965L (s/n 23-012), from a Model 23 to a Model 24. The 24 had already set three speed records by the time it received FAA certification under Far Part 25, on March 17, 1966, becoming the first “business aircraft” to be certificated.
Although there were plenty of pilots that loved the jet, still, it had already developed a reputation as a demanding and unforgiving aircraft for the average pilot to fly. The new model resulted in a campaign to show the world its many benefits. One proof was a May 23-26 flight, during which the Model 24 became the first business jet to circumnavigate the globe, traveling 22,993 miles in 50 hours, 20 minutes, while establishing or breaking 18 world records.
Model 25 made its first flight on Aug. 12, 1966. However, as the private jet market became more competitive, Bill Lear continued to struggle financially. Finally, in April 1967, he agreed to sell the available 65 percent of Lear Jet Industries to Charlie Gates, CEO of the Gates Rubber Company.
Lear would serve as chairman of the board for two years after Gates acquired the company, which eventually would be renamed Gates Learjet Corporation, and go from a distributorship program to factory direct sales, under the direction of aviation pioneer Harry Combs.
Besides knowing that closed territories often resulted in “border fights” and had “a lot of criminal opportunities,” Combs decided to redesign the sales and distribution system based on the fact that anywhere in the country was now easily and quickly accessible from Wichita, in a Lear Jet. Also, dealers couldn’t afford to carry inventory, and all they really needed were “good sales reps.” Factory direct sales, said Lacy, made sense at that point, although it didn’t for Lear earlier.
Although some distributors weren’t happy with the decision, it was an answer for Paulson. He hadn’t been getting along well with Kaye, and had considered disassociating himself from Pacific Lear Jet. Also, he had a dream that had been on the backburner for a while.
Paulson had been thinking about the Hustler, a push-pull corporate aircraft featuring a nose-mounted turboprop for short runway use, and a tail-mounted turbofan, a Williams Cruise Missile engine, for high-altitude cruising and safety, in the event the turboprop engine ever failed. He formed American Jet Industries at Van Nuys Airport in 1970, to try to move his dream forward.
“Al was a very interesting person,” Lacy said. “He had lots of nerve to get in all kinds of different businesses. They didn’t always work out, but he never looked back; he always looked ahead.”
Eight years later, Paulson was “at the right place at the right time.”
“Grumman wanted to sell its Gulfstream division,” said Lacy. “It was like the mouse taking over the elephant, but that was Al.”
In 1982, Paulson created the modern Gulfstream Aerospace by combining Gulfstream American Corporation with Rockwell’s Oklahoma City-based general aviation division. He later sold the business to Chrysler Corporation, but repurchased it in 1992, with Teddy Forstmann.
Clay Lacy Aviation
As for Lacy, the end of Pacific Lear Jet motivated him to form his own company. However, he wouldn’t initially stray far from Bill Lear’s creation.
Lear, said Lacy, “shot high.” The early Lear Jets flew at Mach .82, or 500+ mph, while cruising at 41,000 feet.
“The speed and altitude capability of most business jets has stayed much the same,” Lacy said, adding that Lear set the standard.
“In the 1965 to 1980 period, at the NBAA you’d hear people say, ‘It’s not as fast as a Lear, but it’s got more range,’ or, ‘It’s got a bigger cabin than a Lear.’ The Lear was a measuring stick,” Lacy said.
In 1968, with a leased Learjet 24, Lacy started an on-demand charter company.
“I loved that little airplane and just wanted to be associated with it,” he said.
Due to its location and clientele, the charter company soon earned the nickname of “Hollywood’s private airline.” Lacy said starting his own charter company was relatively easy, since he had demonstrated the Lear to so many people.
“All I did was send letters to people I had flown in the Lear, saying I was starting a charter company,” he said.
He believes he probably flew about 35 charter hours the first month, and recalls that his was the only jet charter company in the LA area for at least the first three or four years, and that he didn’t have any real competition until around 1976. In the beginning, he rented a small hangar at the north end of Van Nuys Airport.
“I had an office there,” he said. “Then it just started building up, and we had another airplane and another.”
When it came time to buy his own jet, a Lear 24, in 1970, he was able to finance it 100 percent himself.
“I borrowed money from a bank, but no one ever put money into Clay Lacy Aviation except me; we never had a month where we were in the red,” he said proudly. “We were always profitable.”
Fellow employees at United asked him how he found time to do everything, especially during that period.
“I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know; it doesn’t seem to be a problem,'” he said. “But when I think about it now, I don’t know how it all worked out.”
In 1975, he bought Bill Lear’s personal Model 25. Six years later, in 1981, he opened his all-turbine fixed base facility, at the location on VNY where his operation is now.
“That included corporate headquarters and several hangars,” he said. “Other hangars were built a few years later.”
Lacy has continued to develop a distinguished client base. An example of that clientele is Sydney Pollack, pilot and director. Lacy sold him his first jet, a Lear 25, in the mid-eighties.
“Since then, he’s had an airplane based here with us all the time,” Lacy said. “He went from a Lear 25 to a Lear 35 to a Lear 60, to a Citation X.”
By that time, Lacy had already made a name for himself in another area. In the mid-sixties, he began shooting air-to-air footage for Douglas Aircraft. He was also soon shooting for airlines and did a lot of chase work for the military.
That work gave him a front-row seat to what is considered the costliest crash in the history of aviation. He was enlisted to film a formation of five supersonic airplanes, each powered by General Electric engines.
“GE was paying for it,” he said. “They were going to use the footage commercially, but the Air Force was going to use it, too.”
Before Lacy could start filming on the morning of June 8, 1966, he would have to take care of another matter. Frank Sinatra was loaning his Lear 23 for the chase work, taking place around Edwards Air Force Base. Early that morning, Lacy received a call saying he needed to pick up Sinatra and Dean Martin in Burbank and take them to Palm Springs.
“They had gotten into some kind of trouble with someone in a Beverly Hills hotel, and they wanted to get out of town,” Lacy said. “It was quite a scene.”
After depositing them at Palm Springs, he headed toward Edwards. The star of the show that day was a North American XB-70, one of the most exotic aircraft ever built. Originally conceived as a high-altitude, Mach-3 capable bomber to replace the B-52, budget cuts reduced the number of aircraft to two and the program to a research effort aimed at studying aerodynamics, propulsion and materials used on large supersonic aircraft.
The XB-70, with a length of 185 ft. and a span of 105 foot, was built largely of stainless steel honeycomb sandwich panels and titanium. It utilized the phenomenon of compression lift, where the aircraft “rode” its own shock wave. It was able to do this in part because of the wingtips, designed to droop as much as 65 degrees. Six YJ-93-GE-3 afterburning turbojets of 30,000 lb. thrust each powered the “Valkyrie.”
The first prototype made its initial flight on Sept. 21, 1964. The second first flew on July 17, 1965. Al White, North American’s chief test pilot and Air Force Col. Joe Cotton were at the controls when that prototype made the XB-70’s fastest flight, Mach 3.08, on April 12, 1966.
White was flying AV/2 again that day above Edwards, with Maj. Carl Cross, taking a familiarization flight, as copilot. In the formation, Joe Walker, the chief pilot for NASA at the time, was piloting a Lockheed F-104 “Starfighter,” a Mach 2 plane. The chief test pilot for the Navy, out of Point Magu, was flying a McDonnell F-4 Phantom, and a test pilot for GE was flying a Northrop F-5.
“Joe Cotton, who was a bird colonel at the time, was in a T-38,” said Lacy. “We’d been up for over an hour, and we were completing the photo mission when the horizontal stabilizer of Joe Walker’s airplane touched the wingtip of the B-70.”
The F-104, caught in vortices coming off the XB-70’s wingtips, rolled through its tails.
“It knocked both the vertical fins off the B-70,” Lacy said.
The F-104 burst into flames, killing Walker immediately. Onboard the Lear 23, John Zimmerman, a still cameraman who was working for “Life” at the time, and was using a Nikon Motor Drive, caught the tragedy on film; the photo of the burning F-104 later appeared in a “Life” centerfold.
“The B-70 flew along for about 25 seconds, straight and level,” Lacy said. “It looked like it was going to keep flying.”
However, it soon rolled and violently yawed. Lacy said there was an overcast that day, into which the B-70 tumbled.
“I went down in the overcast, and when I came out, the B-70 was below me and had stopped tumbling,” he said. “It was falling straight down, straight and level, and then it went into a flat spin.”
White managed to eject, but Cross failed to, and died in the crash. Lacy said it was a shame that the project basically ended there.
“It was almost finished,” he said. “It was under 50 million dollars to complete it. If they had finished that airplane, we’d probably have supersonic airliners now; it was much faster than the Concorde.”
Some modifications were made to the surviving XB-70, but since problems had caused AV/1 earlier to be redlined to Mach 2.5, the aircraft wasn’t a satisfactory replacement for supersonic tests, and the USAF dropped out of the test program. NASA conducted 33 more test flights until Feb. 4, 1969, when AV/1 was flown to the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
On that day over Edwards, filming took place out the window, because Lacy hadn’t yet begun shooting with the revolutionary Astrovision camera system. During a conversation with Rex Metz, a cameraman for Continental Camera Systems, in 1973, Lacy commented that there was a need for a periscope system that could rotate 360 degrees. Metz discussed it with Bob Nettmann and John Carroll, owners of Continental Camera, and the system was designed.
“We got it in 1975,” said Lacy. “It just revolutionized photography.”
Stan McClain, CEO of Filmtools, Inc. and a past employee at Continental Camera, agrees, saying that the dual periscope camera system eliminated the need to mount four separate cameras in the nose, tail and sides of a B-25.
“Astrovision changed the way aircraft could be filmed,” said McClain.
Lacy has the system, which he later acquired, mounted in a Lear 25 and a Lear 35. Astrovision works with top and bottom periscope systems on the fuselage of the aircraft and in the nose, and films in 35mm and 65mm IWERKS, as well as 70mm IMAX format. Lacy has served as pilot, director and/or videographer on over 3,000 flights requiring air-to-air photography.
“The photo business is something that I personally do, and do a lot of, with some help from Scott Patterson, who also helps on Astrovision flights,” Lacy said. “It’s like a personal business within the company.”
A majority of Astrovision’s work is commercials for airlines, both in the United States and abroad.
“We’ve shot a couple hundred different airlines,” Lacy said. “About half of them probably aren’t even in operation anymore.”
Many of the airlines have used Lacy’s service numerous times, since new aircraft or new company names, often due to mergers, result in the need for additional shoots. For example, Lacy believes they were in England about 10 times in a five-year period to do work for British Airways and/or its predecessors, British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways.
“Each time they changed their name, they’d change the paint job, and every time we’d go over there, they’d only have one of their five airplane types there,” he said. “Some of them we did here in the States. The really new ones from Boeing we would do at Boeing. We used to go up to their facility every week and shoot something. We still go up there, but now it’s more like once a month.”
Lacy has probably made an equal amount of trips to shoot commercials for Lufthansa, working with Bodo Bonzio. He has also done work for every major aircraft manufacturer and for every branch of the U.S. military and six foreign branches. Military credits include filming the Stealth Fighter, Air Force One and SR-71 Blackbird, as well as aerobatic teams such as the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, as well as Canada’s Snowbirds and Sweden’s Team 60.
Lacy’s made about 200 flights for Hollywood productions. His name can be found in film and TV credits in varying capacities, including the simple title of pilot for “Cliffhanger” and “Dragonslayer,” helicopter pilot in “Armageddon,” Learjet pilot for “Capricorn One” and “Turbulence,” and jet pilot for “The Client.” He served as aerial unit coordinator for “Flight of the Intruder” and “Dragnet”; air-to-air photographer for “Iron Eagle II”, “Top Gun” and “The Last Chase”; aerial team coordinator for “Octopussy,” and special flight consultant for “Firefox.” Other films he has worked on are “The Right Stuff” and “Ice Station Zebra.” His Hollywood work has led him to work with stunt pilot greats Frank Tallman and Art Scholl; all three worked on “Capricorn One.”
Test flying, record-setting and other memorable ventures
Lacy’s test flying for Jack Conroy, the owner of Aero Spacelines, didn’t end with the Pregnant Guppy, a converted Stratocruiser that NASA would utilize to carry the Saturn rocket booster, which would lead to a family of Guppies, including the Super Guppy and Airbus’ A300-600ST Super Transporter, nicknamed the Beluga.
After Conroy sold Spacelines to Unexcelled, Inc., he began working on other ideas. He enlisted Lacy to make the first flights on the Turbo 3, a DC-3 with turboprops; the Tri-3, a DC-3 with three engines that took off at about a thousand feet, landed at around 500, and had a 3,000-mile range; the Genie, a small aerobatic airplane; and the Stolifter, a Cessna 337 powered by a turboprop.
As for memorable occasions, Lacy says one made in 1973 will never be reproduced. That year, he and Bruce McCaw, of McCaw Cellular Communications, made a round-the-world flight, organized by fellow United pilot Bill Arnott, in a DC-8 chartered from United. The trip, made under the auspices of Mount San Antonio College, included 140 people. Each person paid $1,600.
“We went over the North Pole, and then stayed in Rome, Italy, for two days, and Nairobi for two days, before departing for a close-up view of Mount Kilimanjaro—en route to intercepting the total eclipse of the sun off Somali,” Lacy said. “Then, we landed in Bombay. From Bombay, we were the first free-world airliner to fly low over Mount Everest, en route to Bangkok, for two days, and then to Sydney. Departing Sydney, we flew to the Antarctica, 85 degrees south, and then back to Auckland, in a 14-hour leg.”
On board were several Ninety-Nines, including Loretta Foy, Fran Bera and Margaret Meade, who requested they try to retrace Amelia Earhart’s path.
“They wanted to drop a message to her, saying, ‘Hang in there, Baby,'” Lacy said.
However, it wasn’t easy finding Howland Island in a rainstorm, at night. Not able to see it the first time, they tried again, still without any luck. However, Lacy did his best to drop the message where he thought the island was. Once in Hawaii, everyone was given a ticket home.
“That way, they could stay there as long as they wanted,” Lacy said.
In 1975, the same crew, with Arnott again as chief organizer, did a South American tour in a DC-8, which included over-flying the Antarctic again.
One of the most memorable and fun happenings in Lacy’s aviation career was an around-the-world flight made in 1988. With Seattleites McCaw and Joe Clark, founder and CEO of Aviation Partners, Inc., Lacy organized the Friendship Foundation, through which funds would be collected for needy children around the world.
“People could join for $5,000 each,” said Lacy. “The first 100 people got to go on the trip. United provided the plane. We got Boeing to put up $50,000, Pratt and Whitney $50,000, and Volkswagen $35,000, to pay for the fuel.”
When the Boeing 747SP dubbed “Friendship One” left Seattle in January 1988, on board were 141 people including honored guest celebrity and famed Apollo 11 astronaut Neal Armstrong, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Bob Hoover and Moya Lear.
Lois Lacy, one of the prime organizers, headed up the flight attendants. The trip included two pit stops, Athens and Taipei. The record-breaking Friendship One Around the World for Kids flight of 36 hours, 54 minutes, 15 seconds, raised $530,000 for charity.
That flight was a good example of the camaraderie and competition of the day. Three weeks later, Paulson shaved 45 minutes, 41 seconds off that record, flying a Gulfstream IV in the experimental category, “with no interior, the thrust reversers removed, special tail pipes, and a large fuel tank installed in the cabin.”
CNN covered two trips made by Lacy. One was the round-the-world trip. CNN’s affiliate in Paris covered another. In 1995, Lacy, one of the first Gulfstream II operators to adopt Clark’s blended winglet technology, flew his winglet-modified Gulfstream GIISP from Los Angeles to Paris, setting a record. The flight culminated in placing the GIISP on display at the 1995 Paris Air Show.
Lacy, Clark and others, including legendary newsman and multi-award winning journalist Hal Fishman, left Los Angeles at 11:30 a.m., timing their departure so they would reach Paris in time for Fishman to broadcast at his normal 10:00 p.m. spot, LA time.
“We were going to take the plane to Paris, anyway,” Lacy said. “Everybody was going to Paris, so everyone decided to try to set speed records. We were faster than a 604 Challenger, Lear 60—all of them. CNN’s affiliate had cameras with a long lens, so they took a picture of our landing. They were a mile and a half away and it looked like they were right next to the runway. When we taxied in, Hal got out and started talking on television live. It really went off smooth. ”
Later, it was on to Moscow.
“I flew the MiG-29, which was their top-line fighter,” he said. “Then, when we left Moscow, we decided to set a record to Los Angeles, which we did. Hal had come home, but Joe Clark was with me, and Brian Kirkdoffer, my vice president, as well as Lois and Mary Lou Paulson (she and Allen were divorced at that time).
Fishman, who joined KTLA-TV in 1965, and has anchored the station’s #1-rated “News@Ten” continuously since 1975, made several record-setting trips with Lacy, and participated in the Friendship One flight as well as the DC-8 flight over the North Pole in 1973.
Lacy also set a time-to-climb record with the winglets-equipped GII, climbing to 40,000 feet in six minutes and 21 seconds.
“That was two minutes and 20 seconds less than the GIVSP record,” Lacy said.
Another creative idea was “Midway 2000,” an adventure in which 40 friends experienced the turn of the century more than once by crisscrossing the International Date Line in a 727 owned and flown by Lacy, for their 2000 New Years celebration.
All guests of Lacy’s boarded the 727 at Van Nuys for their trip to the actual starting point of Midway Island, in the South Pacific, after stopping in Honolulu for refueling. They later traveled up the dateline, flew into the year 2000, made a right turn, and flew back into Dec. 31, 1999. In a period of one hour, they went through five date changes, before coming back to Midway. Finally, they returned from the future to again celebrate the dawning of the New Year on the ground at Midway.
Life after United
Lacy’s career with United, beginning at the age of 19, took him from the DC-3, to captain on the Convair 340, DC-4, DC-6, DC-7, Boeing 727, DC-8 (which he flew for about 17 years), DC-10, 747 and 747-400.
He retired from United in August 1992, after flying for the airline for 40 years and seven months. When he retired, with number one seniority, he had been flying the transpacific route for several years.
“I flew to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei, Beijing, Tokyo,” he said. “I flew the Sydney route quite a bit the last year or two, as well.”
Lois Lacy, Bruce McCaw and Scott Patterson were onboard Lacy’s last United flight. His retirement from the airline only meant that he had more time for other things, such as enjoying his own private aircraft, several which are tangible reminders of past flying ventures.
It’s no longer important to conveniently forget he was born in 1932, but his DC-3’s N number reminds him of an earlier time.
“It’s 8-14,” he says. “My birthday is August 14. I used to jokingly tell people, ‘The N number is my birthday, but it doesn’t have the year on it; let’s just stop there.’ There’s never been any question on the month or the date!”
The DC-3 sports a posh executive interior and a United paint job, circa 1952, even though it was never an airliner. The aircraft is sentimentally named “Mainliner O’Connor.”
“When I went to work for United, the airline had a corporate airplane for William A. Patterson, the president and CEO,” Lacy explained. “He named it after Mary O’Connor, a flight attendant who often flew with him. When he got rid of the DC-3, in 1952, he got a Convair. I was lucky to be copilot on his first trip in the Convair.”
Several months before Lacy retired, he honored E. Hamilton “Ham” Lee, a retired United pilot, by taking him up as copilot on Lee’s one-hundredth birthday, April 18, 1992.
“Before he retired, Ham was seniority number one of all airline pilots in the United States,” Lacy said. He explains that after various airlines came into being, for the purpose of delivering airmail, it was decided to set up a national seniority system, based on the pilot’s first airmail flight. Lacy says that the first pilot quit flying and the second died in a crash.
“Ham flew the third flight, so he became seniority number one,” he said.
Lee, who soloed in June 1916, began flying airmail in December 1918, after serving as a civilian instructor for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Following the brief period that the U.S. Army Air Service handled the mail, the Post Office Department did so, until the Air Mail Act of 1925 (Kelly Act) was passed, authorizing the postmaster general to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial carriers.
In 1927, Lee began flying for Boeing Air Transport, which had been awarded contract service between Chicago and San Francisco. He was with the company seven years later when BAT, Pacific Air Transport, National Air Transport and the California Division of Varney Speed Lines merged to form United Air Lines. Lee, who died at the age of 102, flew for United until he retired in 1949. He amassed 4.4 million air miles, and flew 27,812 hours. That may not seem a lot compared to Lacy’s over 50,000 hours, but it earned him the title of the “flyingest man in the whole world” at one time.
The DC-3 has carried other important passengers, including actor John Travolta and his wife, actress Kelly Preston. Lacy explains that when Preston wanted to do something special for her husband’s birthday last year, she called Lacy to arrange for a ride.
“John has always loved nostalgic airplanes,” Lacy said. “He has a 707, and he wrote a short book for kids about his first flight in a Constellation. It’s really a nice little book.”
When Preston called and asked if she could rent the plane, Lacy responded that he’d be glad to take Travolta up free.
“He had been responsible for a movie job for me, and he is a great pilot and promoter of aviation,” Lacy said.
In fact, says Lacy, Travolta has even inquired into buying the DC-3, but so far, Lacy’s holding on to it.
Another airplane that supplies many memories is Lacy’s P-51. And, in 1996, he acquired California Airmotive’s demo, N1965L. The Lear 24 is especially handy when flying into out-of-the-way places such as Lacy’s weekend residence at Pine Mountain Lake, a fly-in community in California that is about 235 miles from Van Nuys Airport, or Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch in Reno.
Lacy has several other aircraft, including a T-6, which he paid $1,200 for in 1959, a Pilatus Porter and a Cessna 182. He uses his Beechcraft Baron for business as well as pleasure, and owns a Bell 206 Jet Ranger and a Republic Seabee.
A presence in Seattle
Lacy has always wanted a presence in Seattle, and he recently accomplished that goal by joining forces with Joe Clark.
The friends became business partners with the creation of their joint venture, Gateway USA, which acquired Flight Center, an existing FBO at BFI, in April 2003. In addition to the executive terminal facilities, the new Clay Lacy facility, like Van Nuys, offers aircraft management and jet charter services as well as aircraft sales, and will soon offer full maintenance capabilities. Before the addition, Clay Lacy Aviation had about 130 employees and a fleet of about 30 aircraft—owned or managed—including 10 Learjets and 14 Gulfstreams. Lacy has so far added four aircraft for the Boeing Field facility; the Hawker, two Learjets and a Gulfstream III and IV are under management.
“We plan to build some new hangars, but we’ll have the same type of operation that we have at Van Nuys,” Lacy explained. “We’re going to keep all the good things about Flight Center, including its great catering, spacious ramp area and 70,000 square feet of hangar space, but we’re going to introduce a lot more services. Watching things change is going to be fun but a little challenging.”
Lacy says the challenge will come from the fact that there isn’t nearly as much business in Seattle than there is in the Los Angeles area.
“Seattle, to some degree, is in a big slump right now, but there are still people there with money,” Lacy says.
A positive aspect of BFI is that there are only two FBOs on the field, versus seven at VNY.
“There are about 38 jets at BFI,” said Lacy. “VNY has 140 or so.”
Other contributions and recognition
Lacy doesn’t just fly; he also writes about aviation. He added writing to his resume when Murray Smith convinced him to do pilot reports for “Professional Pilot” magazine.
“I started doing some, and then I just wrote,” he said.
The magazine has honored Lacy four years in a row as Writer of the Year.
Lacy is also the cofounder of the Van Nuys Airport Association, formed over 20 years ago, which is now headed by Jim Dunn, owner and president of the Airtel Plaza Hotel.
His monetary contributions in the field include the Clay Lacy Professional Pilot Scholarships, administered by EAA, which assists young people pursuing professional pilot careers. Recently, five aviation students in the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences program were selected to each receive $12,500 worth of scholarships.
Col. Pat Brown, public information officer of the Commemorative Air Force’s Southern California wing, praises Lacy for his help in paying off their debt on two new hangars, as well as for other contributions to the wing.
“Clay has given us many donations, plus a lot of moral support,” Brown said.
She added that Lacy, already a CAF member at that time, helped the wing get off the ground 22 years ago.
“He was an integral part in making the decision to even try to get a unit out here, back in the spring of 1981,” she said.
To show their gratitude, the CAF has placed a plaque in front of their museum hangar at Santa Monica Airport in Lacy’s honor.
Lacy is also a generous benefactor to Santa Paula Airport’s Museum Hangar #1. Due to a grant, as well as donations by Lacy and others, a 6.7-acre parcel of vacant land east of the airport was recently purchased that will provide the museum with structures for a permanent home.
While many are grateful to Lacy for his support and promotion of aviation, Lacy is grateful to a number of people as well. For one, there’s Jack Conroy. Those days in the California Air National Guard flying F-86 “Sabrejets,” Boeing C-97 “Stratofreighters” and a variety of other aircraft led to plenty of experiences. The Pregnant Guppy designer and Lacy flew together often, including a South America trip in a DC-4 and a European venture in the Turbo 3.
“He became a great friend, and helped guide my life,” Lacy said of the man who introduced him to Fish Salmon, Tony LeVier and Allen Paulson, who was Lacy’s closest friend for over 40 years, before his death in 2000.
“He was always into something new, and always invited me—and later Lois and me—to so many events, like the 16 races his horse ‘Cigar’ won, including the Dubai World Cup,” Lacy reminisced. (Before his death in 2000, Paulson was ranked as the number one owner of Breeders’ Cup starters, with 33.)
Conroy also introduced Lacy to Bill Lear.
“To know Bill Lear, from 1963 through the eighties, during the development of the Learjet, what a trip that was,” Lacy says.
Sadly, all of those friends have now passed away.
“But I still have many dynamic friends today—most a bit younger,” Lacy says.
Lacy’s friends are legion, but fellow pilots/entrepreneurs Bruce McCaw and Joe Clark are among his closest. And, says Lacy, he owes a great deal to Scott Patterson, Tina Regina and Brian Kirkdoffer, as well as many other Clay Lacy Aviation employees, for running the fort and putting up with his absenteeism and vanishing act at times.
He also feels a debt to United, who let him “fly those great planes,” and provided a secure job with enough time off to pursue his other activities. And, he’s not leaving out Lois, who, he says, put up with and survived all the various segments of his life.
“Fortunately, as a stewardess for United, Lois was quite a busy person as well,” he said.
However, if Lacy starts his thanks at the beginning, a big debt goes to Orville Sanders, who took Lacy under his wing when he was just 12.
“It was Orville that really gave me the jumpstart,” Lacy said. “When I was a teenager, he trusted me and let me fly every airplane he owned. If it weren’t for him, I would’ve been years behind in my career.”