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The Jet Set

For presidents, real-estate moguls and A-list movie stars
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 2)

Elvis purchased another jet, a 1960 twin-engine Lockheed Jetstar, for his manager Colonel Tom Parker, who would fly to a city a day in advance of a concert to set things up. It wasn't outfitted nearly as fully as the Lisa Marie: "[Its] decor was yellow and green with a splash of orange in there," Kern explains. Like the Lisa Marie, this smaller jet had a red-white-and-blue exterior and the golden TCB-lightning logo on the tail. The singer christened it the Hound Dog II.

Elvis called his two-ship fleet Elvis Presley Airways, and he always had a four-member crew on standby. Captain Elwood David flew the Lisa Marie and Captain Milo High flew the Hound Dog II. When it came to Elvis Presley Airways, Elvis didn't have to answer to anyone. Not passengers, not a shareholder, not a wife, not even Colonel Tom Parker. "He sent one pet dog, a chow named Get Low, to and from Boston for some kind of specialized surgery," says Kern. "[Get Low] was kind of old, and he died after he got back home." After the chow's death, Elvis was inconsolable. Another time, when the real Lisa Marie wanted to see real snow, he loaded her up in the other Lisa Marie, and they flew to Colorado to play in the white stuff. Little Lisa Marie even blew out the candles on her ninth birthday cake inside big Lisa Marie while circling above Memphis.

On another day, Elvis and his Memphis buds got a hankering for some special gourmet peanut-butter-bacon-and banana sandwiches available only at a restaurant in Denver. They flew to Denver, waiting on board while the restaurant delivered the sandwiches on silver trays in a limousine to Lisa Marie's door. It's good to be the King.

The price Elvis paid for the Lisa Marie was cheap compared with another personal airliner bought around the same time. Back when he was still a vital, more active playboy with a magazine that topped seven million in circulation, Hugh Hefner—rather, Playboy Enterprises—blew $9 million on a Douglas DC-9 that Hefner named Big Bunny. Outside it was all glossy black, save for a tasteful white rabbit head on its tail, the same one hiding on the cover of every Playboy issue. Inside it could sleep 16, and Hef outfitted it with a fully stocked bar, a galley, a living room, a movie theater and a disco. He and then-main-Bunny-squeeze Barbi Benton, who taped her favorite soap operas with an on-board videotape recorder (VCRs hadn't made it into the mainstream yet), flew Big Bunny back and forth between his mansion in Chicago and his mansion in Los Angeles, and anywhere else in the world that the urge struck them. Hef would work on the big, round waterbed in back, on a bedspread made from Tasmanian opossum fur, and sometimes Barbi would keep him company. But after he ditched Benton and moved permanently to L.A. in 1976, Hef sold the airliner. Today, no one at the company can say exactly what happened to Big Bunny.

If it seems as though most celebs buy their airliners, that's not always true. Some celebs lease airliners from other celebs. At least that's the case with Starship I, a Boeing 720 formerly owned by former teen heartthrob Bobby "Julie, Julie, Julie, do ya love me?" Sherman. When Led Zeppelin needed a jet to finish the last three weeks of its 1973 concert tour—its rented Falcon jet hit some heavy turbulence and the band refused to fly in anything that small again—manager Peter Grant leased the Boeing for $30,000. Starship came with comfy revolving chairs and a 30-foot-long couch along the right side of the cabin. On the left-hand side it had a bar, an electronic organ built into the bar, and a television in the bar. The rear contained a den with a couch, and a bedroom with a white fur bedspread and shower. Starship also came equipped with two flight attendants: 18-year-old blonde Susie and 22-year-old brunette Bianca. The band leased Starship again for its '75 tour, painting "Led Zeppelin" on the side. During this tour, drummer and "non-pilot" John Bonham flew the jet himself. "He flew us all the way from New York to L.A. once," Grant said at the time. "He ain't got a license, mind…" Mick Jagger, Elton John and John Lennon also leased the Starship, but the record doesn't show that any of them flew it.

Of all the people who own their own airliners, only John Travolta is certified to actually fly his. A pilot since 1974, Travolta is qualified in pretty much anything big that takes to the air, all the way up to a Boeing 747. He plunked down a reported $87 million for an ex-Qantas 707 built in 1964, whose red-and-white paint scheme he's preserved. The spirit of it, at least: on the tail he's had painted a huge red shape that looks like a V, though it's really a combination of his initials, JT. Inside he's ripped out all the airline seats and replaced them with a few plush light-brown leather ones, bedrooms for the wife and kids, and even a shower. The actor, who likes to dress up like an airline captain, can't fly the 707 all by his lonesome, however. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that an aircraft that size has to have a co-pilot. Of course, a guy with Travolta's kind of money brings along an entire flight crew for good measure.

Travolta lives in Jumbolair, Florida, which essentially is a private airport surrounded by houses with hangars. His home, which he shares with actress wife Kelly Preston and kids Jett and Ella, resembles an airport terminal from the golden age of air travel. A mural of a 1950s lounge with a view of an airport surrounds the circular dining room, while the living room is decorated with Populuxe turquoise and chartreuse. Travolta designed it himself. The 707's too big to hangar, so he has to leave it outside, along with his other, smaller plane, a Gulfstream jet. To reach them, he just has to walk out to one of the two Jetways.

Today, you don't have to buy a good used airliner; Boeing now will sell you its BBJ, or Boeing Business Jet, a 737 that it will deliver fresh from the factory floor to your hangar door. Boeing doesn't offer details on who's bought them and how many it's sold, although it does say that it will custom-build the interior to the buyer's specifications.

If it were me, I'd definitely want gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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