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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

Walking up to the old Air Force One at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, my first thought is, it's smaller than I thought it would be. That's usually my first impression of any object of weighty historical significance, such as Mount Vernon, the Empire State Building, Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose, even a Second World War—era B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

As I slowly ascend the air stairs, my brain automatically hums "Hail to the Chief." Cory Graff, the museum's exhibits research and development manager, greets me at the top of the air stairs, just outside the jet's door, where three decades of American presidents paused and waved for their photo-ops. Being in the presence of the former presidential chariot begs a question: can the average person actually own and fly an airliner? Not likely, unless you are exceptionally wealthy.

Elvis Presley owned an airliner, John F. Kennedy, too, and so did Hugh Hefner, until he sold his and settled down on the West Coast. Donald Trump still has his, and John Travolta not only owns one, but he also flies it himself—from his airport-terminal-size house. The average person can purchase one fresh off the factory floor, but he'd need at least a million dollars.

I've learned visiting Gulfstream's manufacturing facility that people who build and fly big planes remain tight-lipped about them. When the airplane's in a museum and the owner's in the graveyard, it's a different story, but while it's still flying and the owner's still walking, you just can't get the details about the luxurious interiors and modifications. That's probably so Joe Burglar won't shimmy through a window and jimmy off the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

By visiting Gulfstream's manufacturing facility I've learned that people who build and fly big planes remain tight-lipped about them. When the airplane's in a museum and the owner's in the graveyard, it's a different story, but while it's still flying and the owner's still walking, you just can't get the details about the luxurious interiors and modifications. That's probably so Joe Burglar won't shimmy through a window and jimmy off the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

That's why Trump has cleverly camouflaged his personal airliner as your run-of-the-mill, shiny black-and-white 727 with a massive maroon T on the tail and a huge TRUMP written in gold letters on the fuselage. The Donald purchased it used from American Airlines, and had to sell it in 1991 when his fortune evaporated. After getting back on his feet, he bought back the Boeing jet, probably before some new owner could change the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

While it's no problem for today's business titan to buy his own private airliner, that wasn't always the case. It wasn't until after the Second World War, when the United States became flooded with surplus military aircraft, that private airline travel took off. One could buy a Douglas C-47, otherwise known as a DC-3, for as little as $10,000. (Sounds cheap now, but the average annual salary in 1945 was $2,900.) This was true for any style of bomber, from North American B-25s and Martin B-26s to Consolidated B-24s, which were going to be chopped up and melted down anyway. Pretty soon a select few purchased airliners. Now all that was needed was a flight crew and a custom interior.

Back to Air Force One: once I step inside the old jet, the most striking feature is it's tiny, even compared with the cramped interiors of today's coach sections. I have to turn sideways to maneuver down an aisle packed with communications gear. Then, too, the decor is spartan. Where's the luxury? Where are the plush leather couches I'd always imagined? Well, spartan is exactly the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted it. "He was more of a simple guy," says Graff. "They [the executive fleet] are kind of utilitarian." Most of the seats and carpet are a grayish blue, perhaps faded from time. The walls are beige, and the bulkheads and furniture abound with fake, dark wood-colored laminate.

We head up to the middle of the plane, which was Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's headquarters. A fold-down table sits next to a couch where government types could talk and negotiate or just listen to Johnson badmouthing Kennedy. Graff tells me that the table could be raised and lowered, and legend has it that Johnson liked it raised to intimidate people. Johnson also had a hydraulic seat installed so he could lift himself above the level of everyone else. Nearby is the stateroom, where the dignitary relaxed, and attached to that is a bathroom modified by Jackie Kennedy with special lighting and makeup drawers. In later years, Hillary Clinton got stuck inside and had to be rescued by crew members through a valet closet next door.

Presidential planes date back at least to the early 1940s. To avoid German U-boats in 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew to Casablanca in a Boeing 314 flying boat once used to take travelers to coastal destinations. FDR enjoyed it so much that he soon received a special converted B-24 Liberator called Guess Where To?, which was equipped with a special, secret elevator to deal with his wheelchair. After an unexplained crash in the same style of airplane the following year, FDR traded it in for a Douglas DC-4 called the Sacred Cow. He flew in it only once; after his death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman took it over.

The Sacred Cow lasted just a couple of years, replaced by a DC-6 that Truman named Independence after his Missouri hometown. That one lasted only seven years. The next president, Eisenhower, took delivery of a Lockheed Constellation that First Lady Mamie christened Columbine III. Like the previous propeller-driven presidential airplanes, this one had a short life. Ike traded it in for three Boeing 707s, called VC-137s in Pentagon parlance, in 1959. Their call signs—what they were referred to when the pilots communicated with air traffic control—were SAM 970, 971 and 972. SAM stood for special air mission.

After the current fleet of 747s were introduced during the first George Bush administration, the government donated the old SAMs to museums across the country. On my visit to Seattle, I realized that SAM 970, Johnson's plane when he was VP, has the most famous paint job in the world. "At the time of the Eisenhower administration, the plane had a freakish Day-Glo orange Air Force paint job," Graff says. Originally the Air Force painted "United States Air Force" on the upper fuselage, but that seemed a bit belligerent for its peaceful missions, so it was toned down to "United States of America." But the freakish Day-Glo remained. When Kennedy was in the White House, the first lady, with the help of designer Raymond Loewy, redecorated the interior in a more tasteful—and regal—blue-on-blue design. "All the later paint schemes are pretty much copies or similar versions of that same scheme," Graff says." It was definitely a hit."

But it wasn't only about fashionable interiors. According to Graff, the 707s of the presidential fleet contain a few secret weapons as well, including "electronic countermeasure" pods meant to thwart heat-seeking missiles. "It almost looks like the flywheel of a car, with the same orientation as a propeller disc," Graff says.

The government once mounted a few cameras on Ike's airliner, which was scheduled to fly to meet Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union for a 1960 summit. The cameras were so secret that Ike didn't even know about them; if the USSR discovered the cameras, Eisenhower could honestly plead ignorance. That journey was canceled, however, after the Soviets shot down a CIA spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers.

The government remains tight-lipped on the new fleet of presidential Boeing 747s, especially its defensive measures. The Secret Service wouldn't even let me get near one, no matter my repeated requests. Suffice it to say that they're the only 747s that can refuel in midair, perform onboard surgeries, and carry a couple of presidential limos in the cargo hold. "For the old ones, the 707s, it's amazing how spartan, how utilitarian, they are," Graff says. "At the same time, I wouldn't say that applies to the new 747s. They're quite extravagant."

Today, the only whistle-stop train tours you see are those of presidents seeking re-election in brief gimmicky reenactments of Truman's come-from-behind 1948 campaign victory using his same antique railroad car. The president will jump off the train and climb aboard Air Force One and fly back to Washington. The first candidate to fly was JFK, who campaigned in a 1948 American Airlines Convair 240 that dad Joe Kennedy bought for him in 1959. Mechanics stripped its 40-seat interior and installed a cushier executive cabin; JFK added his humidor and christened the plane Caroline after his young daughter. Some historians credit Caroline with getting candidate Kennedy around the country far enough and fast enough to squeak past Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Other historians claim it was Mayor Richard Daley's grip on Cook County, Illinois. Either way, now Caroline is an exhibit in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and its interior, once in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, has been reunited with the fuselage.

It's no secret—well, not anymore—that JFK liked a good cigar. But he didn't like being photographed smoking one, so when you see pictures of him on the air stairs of Caroline or Air Force One and his right hand in his suit jacket, it's because he's cupping his cigar "with a smoldering butt in his pocket," Graff tells me. His suit pockets would be filled with ashes.

Like President Kennedy, Elvis Presley owned a used Convair and named it after his daughter. His was a jet, however, a twin-engine Convair 880 built in 1958. Presley purchased it from Delta Air Lines for $250,000 in 1975 and christened it the Lisa Marie. "The pride of Elvis Presley Airways," says Kevin Kern, media coordinator of Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis. Elvis pumped more than three times the purchase price into the jet to give it that special personal touch. I visited it at its home just across the street from Graceland. On the outside Elvis had it painted a patriotic red, white and blue; on the tail he had his logo painted in gold: the letters TCB, with a lightning bolt descending from the C, which stood for Taking Care of Business in a Flash.

Inside, the decor is a style you might call Mid-'70s Gaudy: The carpet is turquoise blue, and the main seating area has a green suede sofa, four brown suede chairs and a leather-top table. Every seat has a seatbelt with a gold-plated buckle. Six additional chairs in green suede, along with a television, also adorn the cabin. "[The TV] may not have worked in the air, but they had it," Kern says. And let's not forget the quadraphonic eight-track stereo system. Kern tells me Elvis's taste in music ran from rock and roll to gospel to opera. The next room, the conversation room, has a bar, six brown leather seats (also with gold-plated seatbelt buckles), another leather-top table and a green leather chair in which Elvis would sit and command the plane.

"At least command the PA system," says Kern. "It was kind of his seat of authority. That's where he would sit when he wasn't sleeping on the plane." He adds that Elvis never actually flew it himself. The entrance area could be transformed into a bedroom, but the main bedroom was situated in back, along with a bathroom with a closet, dressing table and lighted mirror ("It's almost like a makeup table," Kern says), and a separate room for the commode. Like the front bathroom, all fixtures are gold-plated, even down to the soap holder.

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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