When Sydney Pollack, Academy Award winning director, producer and actor, thinks about flying, a couple of words come to mind. With the kind of flying he does, he says it’s important not to get those words out of order.
“I would say the first word is ‘careful,’ followed then by the word ‘freedom,'” he said. That kind of flying is from the left seat of a Cessna Citation X, a mid-size aircraft that’s the fastest business jet available today.
Pollack said he had a normal youthful interest in aviation, but it wasn’t until after he got married and was in the military reserve that he really became interested. His wife’s father, a general in the Air Force, had a Boeing Stratocruiser assigned to him and gave Pollack a ride. The next turn of events that led to his “obsession” was a ride with screenwriter and producer Roland Kibbee.
“I was directing a television show that Roland produced,” he said. “He owned a Cessna 206 and invited me to go flying. It was in the middle of the afternoon, on a beautiful autumn day. We were working on the script, and he was sort of looking longingly out at the sky, obviously not wanting to be working, but to be flying. He just said, ‘Come on. Let’s go fly.’ I’d never been flying, really—not in that sense. That’s how it started.”
Kibbee took him out to Van Nuys Airport.
“He kept his plane at a little place called Skyways, which was both a school and a Cessna dealership,” Pollack said. “I got the bug as soon as I took that first flight with Roland.”
He immediately asked about lessons, and found out they were expensive.
“At least at that time they were expensive to me,” he said. “It wasn’t a lot by today’s standards; I think it was 25 dollars an hour for a Cessna 150, with an instructor. I would save up and take a lesson about every two weeks.”
At that time, the manager of the Cessna dealership was Ed Connelly, who gave Pollack some of his earliest lessons. Pollack got his private pilot’s license around 1964.
“When I learned to fly, you had to demonstrate spins and recoveries in order to get your pilot’s license,” he said. “Spins are outlawed now. That’s too bad, because it was invaluable training. Invaluable in the sense that it accurately taught you how to get out of an unusual attitude. It kept you from panicking when the plane gets upside down or sideways, and you don’t know where the horizon is. It gave you some sense of what to do when and if you find yourself in an unusual attitude for real. It’s hard when you just do it off a book or a simulator. I guess students were getting killed during training, so they outlawed putting the plane into an actual spin.”
Pollack flew often, and after getting his multi-engine rating, flew Cessna 172s, 182s, 206s, Aero Commanders, 310s and other multi-engine aircraft, which he rented. Occasionally, he flew to scout film locations.
“Scouting for ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ (1972), I flew a Cessna Skynight up the Rocky Mountain range,” he said. “We scouted all the way up into Canada looking for the place to shoot the film. We finally ended up shooting it in Utah. But using the plane was how we finally eliminated most locations and chose the final one.”
He spent considerable time looking at other locations for other films. But by the 1970s and 1980s, Pollack found it hard to stay current with his flying.
“Once I got out of television and into film, the films took me away from flying for long periods of time,” he said. “I was flying sophisticated enough equipment that I couldn’t stay current with such big gaps in the flying. I would come back after a six- or seven-month absence, and there was no way I could just walk into a multi-engine, high-speed airplane. I was back to hiring instructors again, and I thought, ‘This is crazy. I can’t stay current and be really safe. I’m just going to lay off for a while.'”
In the 1980s, Pollack’s film activity began to require chartering aircraft, for location scouting as well as tours he had to take, opening movies around the country or in Europe. One of the planes he occasionally chartered from Clay Lacy was a 25-year-old Lear 25 Lacy operated for the owner.
“It was an older airplane, but it was the plane I really learned to fly jets on,” Pollack said. “I started by sitting in the right seat on some of the charters, and then I decided to take it up in earnest.”