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My experience flying with Clay Lacy

By Woody McClendon
Contributing Writer

Clay Lacy (L) and Woody McClendon at a forum hosted by Professional Pilot founder Murray Smith.

Flying for a living makes us part of a special fraternity. Often, there are secrets about flying which are too precious to put into text books, but hopefully we’ll meet mentors who pass along these secrets that help us become better aviators.

We may meet these mentors much later in life, when we have our graduate stripes and can appreciate the wisdom even more. In my personal case, that mentor was Clay Lacy.

Clay is not only a one-of-a-kind person – he is also a natural teacher. Every pilot who flies with him benefits from the experience. He has amassed more than 50,000 flight hours and has so many type ratings that, at one point, FAA issued him an LoA to fly any aircraft he chose – or so the story goes.

Clay already had 2000 hours by the age of 20. He joined United Airlines as a Douglas DC-3 copilot and retired as a Boeing 747-400 captain, flying every airplane operated by United during his time there.

In 1964, Clay flew one of the first Learjet 24s into VNY (Van Nuys CA) and launched a sales campaign. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and many other stars bought shiny new Learjets. Clay Lacy Aviation became the first corporate airplane operation at VNY. Its fleet grew into dozens of Learjets, later joined by Gulfstreams.

I first met Clay in the 1980s, when I was flying a Learjet 35 for UCLA. He invited me to lunch to talk about joining efforts. I was impressed that he would call me at all, but during our lunch he was warm, full of humor, and had lots of ideas on how we could work together. It was my first exposure to his creative energy, and he made it more enjoyable because he expressed it in simple pilot language.

Clay Lacy poses in front of a Douglas DC-3, the first plane he flew when he joined United Airlines, and a Boeing 747-400, the last plane he flew for the carrier before retiring.

Flying with Clay Lacy

When Medstar, UCLA’s Medical Center aviation program, closed a few years later, I found myself with time to spare, so I asked the Clay Lacy Aviation guys if they could use me as a part-time Learjet pilot. They brought me on, and I was soon flying day trips as a captain. It was to be an experience more powerful than I could ever have imagined.

Clay has always taken a personal interest in his pilots, mentoring them from young Learjet copilots into Gulfstream captains. His average pilot retention is one of the longest in business aviation. But as pleasant as he is, Clay is a different person when you fly with him, watching your every move and commenting on every detail, with sharp critiques delivered in a laconic style that cuts to the essence of the issue.

Clay was the check pilot when my turn came up for a Part 135 captain check. I was told to be ready to fly one of the Learjet 24s. I arrived plenty early, saw to the fueling, and did the weight and balance calculations. Clay walked out to the ramp where I waited by the plane and greeted me with his usual business-like “How ya doin’?”

Late in the ride, we were doing an NDB approach to VCV (Victorville CA), flying the whole approach using the single needle on a radio magnetic indicator (RMI). Clay had pulled one engine back before we started the approach. I felt like I was doing a pretty good job as I struggled with the RMI needle, trying to remember which way to correct while my leg was going numb holding pedal pressure to correct for the engine-out yaw.

I was off heading about 4 degrees – within standard, I thought – and was feeling good considering the bizarre conditions. “Where ya goin’, Woody? We’re never gonna make the airport,” said Clay. So I pushed on the pedal even harder and squeezed in another couple of degrees of correction. This seemed to do it, as there was silence after that.

Clay Lacy shows the lower periscope for the Astrovision camera system installed on a Learjet 25.

We finished the approach and Clay said, “Head for VNY. We’re done.” It sounded an awful lot like maybe we were “done” because he had given up on me. When we taxied in and shut down, Clay slipped out of the seat and left without any comment. After I’d finished the shutdown tasks, I walked into the building to Tony Kvassay’s office.

Tony was the director of operations for Clay Lacy Aviation – and a good friend, too. “Look at you. How was the flight?” he asked chuckling. “I think I busted it,” I replied. He laughed. “Nah, you didn’t,” he continued. “Clay just stopped by and said you passed. You didn’t expect it to be easy, did you?” His grin was meant to torture me. “I guess not,” I said.

Certainly, I had heard enough about Clay’s checkrides to know they were a nightmare. “Yeah, but think what you learned,” he said. Tony was right, of course. I learned I could fly better than I thought I could.

A few weeks later, I was asked to go with Clay on an inflight filming session out of the Bombardier flight test center in Wichita. We would be flying a Learjet 25 equipped with the Astrovision camera system, which Clay helped develop with a prominent film equipment company. He’s done several film projects with it, including Top Gun and Firefox. When I arrived at the facility, he told me to make sure the airplane was fueled up and a flightplan was filed. “You’ll fly out and back, and I’ll do the film flying,” he said.

On our way to Wichita, Clay was reading e-mails and making notes during the climb. Then he sat back and seemed to enjoy the view as we flew along at 39,000 ft. Later on, he launched into stories about the dangers of air racing – a gripping set of tales about pilots crashing into pylons and airplanes coming apart.

The Astrovision-equipped Learjet 25 in close formation with another Learjet on a filming mission.

Preflight brief at Bombardier

We arrived there in a crowd of pilots and test engineers. Bombardier Chief Test Pilot Pete Reynolds called the meeting to order. He and the test crew went over their flight test plan – Pete would be flying one of the new Global Express flight test jets, and we would be on a tight timeline to get all the required footage in the dawn lighting conditions.

“Clay,” said Pete, “I’m wondering if you might get some shots of me in the left seat.” Clay replied, “We’ll do one better, Pete. I’ll get some shots with my hand-held camera and telephoto lens. Just make sure to smile when I tell you.” That brought a laugh from the room, and we were off to our aircraft.

We took off a half hour after the Global to let them get positioned at altitude. “Lear 25CL, turn right heading 085, climb and maintain FL190. The Global will be at your 12 o’clock about 8 miles ahead. You should pick him up any minute now,” the ATC controller said. “Thanks, sir. We’ll make the turn and watch for him,” I replied, turning to the assigned heading.

Clay was silent now, watching it all. Then, in the red glow of dawn, we saw a glint of an airplane out ahead of us. It was the Global. “We have the Global in sight, sir. Thanks for the vector,” I said. “We’ll call you when we’re ready to return to base.” The controller acknowledged and advised he would keep an eye out for traffic for us.

We closed on the Global from behind. Clay put his hand on the wheel. “I got it,” he said, staring out at our target ahead. He keyed the microphone and said, “Pete, we’re closing on your right rear. We’ll join up and get the shots from the right side, then come around to the left.” Pete acknowledged, and we settled into the silence of the dawn.

Clay moved us in almost under the Global’s T-tail. Now concentrating on the monitor duct taped to the glare shield that showed the camera image, he caressed the Lear into the perfect spot to capture the early morning sun rays playing over the curves of the Global’s wing.

“Okay, Pete. We got that. Coming over to the left side now,” Clay said. Then he eased the Learjet back out of the slot and around to the left side of the Global. He flew slowly along the left side so the camera got a time lapse view of the entire airplane from close up. With the sun off the right side, the fuselage cast angular shadows across the Global’s left wing.

A film director and an observer in the cabin of the Learjet 25 during a filming project with Clay Lacy on the right seat.

On a mission

With the Learjet now near abeam the cockpit, Clay moved us in toward the Global until he was looking straight out at Pete in the left seat. That’s when it happened. Preoccupied with his film projects and Pete’s request for some shots of himself in the cockpit, Clay took his hands off the airplane, reached back into the cabin and grabbed a camera with a telephoto lens and said, ”Take the airplane, would ya? And hold us right here so I can get these still shots.”

Clay had caught me unawares. I was so wrapped up watching his masterful flying that I wasn’t following the details of the filming.

Then, without any warning, he just handed me the controls. Worse yet, I knew practically nothing about formation flying, although I had done a little of it in helicopters – flying at 70 kts, not 220 – and definitely not with only a few feet of separation.

I wanted to tell Clay I couldn’t do it and he needed to take the controls back. But it was too late. He was totally focused on his still shots. He never once looked back to see what I was doing. All this went through my head in seconds. Then, it was clear I had no choice – if I refused to take the airplane, the resulting confusion could end up in catastrophe. If Clay wasn’t worried, why should I be?

In close formation with a Boeing MD-11 performing an inflight flow study on a modified forward fuselage section.

With only the slightest touch, I put my hand on the control wheel, making sure I didn’t move it. We were stable, and things seemed to be under control.

Then Clay turned his head slightly and said, “Move us forward a little bit.” The panic rushed back into me. I knew theoretically what to do – add a teeny bit of power, then ease it back out when we were moved up. While I was thinking I was going to screw this up, Clay was staring through his camera’s viewfinder, waiting for me to move the airplane.

I took the throttles in hand and thought about adding a little power – just thought about it. The Learjet crept forward a few feet. Amazingly, it stayed wings level. “That’s good right there,” Clay said. I thought about reducing the power back to its original setting.

This seemed to work, we stopped moving forward. I breathed just a little. Maybe I was getting the hang of this. Still, the next couple of minutes with Clay clicking off pictures seemed like hours. Then he set the camera on the floor and said, “Okay, we’re done. Take us back to Wichita.” Then he told Pete, “Got some great shots of you, Pete. You look like an astronaut.” Pete waved to us, smiling all the while.

Flying back home

Without further ado, I pushed the nose over, accelerated away from the Global, and dropped below it. I called ATC and told them we were ready to return to Wichita. We got vectors to a visual and were soon on the ground and shut down. Clay got out of his seat and said, “I’m gonna make some phone calls. Get us fueled and filed, and we’ll head back home.”

We had an uneventful flight home. Clay spent most of the trip in the back, looking at footage with the camera man, and telling him what to use and how he wanted it edited. On the descent, he stuck his head up front and grinned at me. “You can handle this without me, can’t you?” he asked. I turned, smiled, and assured him I could.

Closeup of a Bombardier Challenger 350 during an air-to-air filming mission.

After we’d shut down, Clay turned to climb out of the plane. He stopped and said with a big smile, “Good flight, Woody. We’ll have to do it again some time.” I wanted so badly to talk to him about that formation flying, but I didn’t know what to say.

Was I going to tell him I wasn’t trained to do what he asked? Or question why he’d pushed it on me without asking me? That sounded silly.

The fact was that Clay knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t for a moment going to risk the 2 jets and their crews. He had known me for a few years and flown with me by then. With his keen sense of what pilots who worked for him could do, he knew I would take care of things. He probably knew my skills better than I knew myself.

Circumstances and jobs changed. I moved on to other jet jobs and flew Challengers across both oceans from the US. I saw Clay often in those years. He always had time to talk to me and find out how I was doing. To him, there was nothing out of the ordinary about that early morning in Wichita, so he never brought it up. And neither did I.

But I’ve never forgotten it – the jolt of fear at the sudden prospect of flying a jet that was 3 feet from another one, and Clay’s show of absolute confidence in me as he carried on with his camera shots. It is a profound moment when you find yourself in the hands of a great mentor who pushes you to do more than you ever thought possible.

I am now part of a large fraternity of pilots whom Clay has made better than they ever thought they would be. It is a special place in life.

WoodyWoody McClendon has flown Challenger 604s on overseas trips, and Learjets, Citation IIIs, and King Air 350s in North and South America. His book When the Angel Calls relates his experiences over 10 years as a medevac pilot. He has written for Pro Pilot for more than 25 years.