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Aboard Friendship One: A 6-Mile-High House Party

February 01, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

It was one small step for aviation, one giant stride for charity.

"Although I must say this flight is a little more comfortable than that flight," smiled Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, now a director of United Airlines. He is shirt-sleeved and sipping a Chateau Lalande-Borie in the controlled climate of a first-class cabin aboard one of his company's 747s west of the Azores and pointing at Lisbon. "Also, the service on Apollo 11 was pretty ratty."

So went the comment and contentment on last week's flight of a United Airlines 747SP, christened Friendship One for the occasion--the occasion being a charity adventure for 100 people who paid $5,000 apiece to drink champagne and nibble smoked salmon and lobster while almost casually demolishing the speed record for flight around the world.

Their bulb-snouted Boeing 747SP (for Special Performance, also known as the world's largest Q-Tip), made the 23,000-mile circumnavigation from Seattle to Seattle in 36 hours and 54 minutes at an average speed of 624 m.p.h., 20% faster than the 1984 record of 512 m.p.h.

The passengers--fueled by filet mignon, abalone, Dove bars and liters of Laurent Perrier with Evian mineral water chasers for the inevitable dehydration of high altitude--stepped from the flight Saturday morning at Seattle's Boeing Field as aviation's fastest world travelers. They had not touched foot to earth in almost two days, having had neither time nor permission to deplane at two refueling stops.

The flight was conceived, planned and commanded by United Capt. Clay Lacy of Van Nuys--a former national air race champion, movie pilot ("The Great Santini," "Top Gun" and Dragnet") and owner of a Learjet charter service at Van Nuys Airport--who has long held the notion of taking the record for world flight.

When he decided last year, over dinner with flying friends at the Paris Air Show, that it was his turn, Lacy, 56, and his Parisian wingmen settled on a Boeing 747.

Empty or fully loaded, the airplane would be capable of averaging 600 m.p.h. So why not form a Friendship Foundation, invite 100 passengers to become charter members, charge each player $5,000 and donate their $500,000 to charities? With proceeds to go to the City of Hope, the Los Angeles Childrens Hospital, the Seattle Childrens Hospital.

United donated an airplane. Boeing Aircraft and Volkswagen of America came up with maintenance and gas money. A crew--18 United pilots, engineers, cabin attendants and mechanics--volunteered to make the grind and the game was afoot.

In light of the obvious security risk (an American aircraft carrying 100 high rollers and a world figure like Neil Armstrong, said flight security chief Chuck Lyford, "may be considered high risk"), publicity and promotion were soft and delayed.

An Unusual Trip

When word leaked, the notion of actually paying for imprisonment in an airplane for the equivalent of four consecutive nonstop trips between Los Angeles and London struck some as unusual masochism.

"I had somebody say he'd rather have bamboo splinters pushed under his fingernails," said flight spokesman Dick Friel. "Yet we've had people lining up for the flight, with 32 people on the waiting list--money down and ready to go." In the end, almost half the passengers were from Southern California.

One man called only five days before departure. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Laurence Craigie of Toluca Lake was told he would be placed on standby. Craigie, 86, promptly upped his fare money to $7,000. He was given a seat in front of Neil Armstrong.

Said Craigie: "When I heard about the flight I said to myself: 'I ought to be on that. . . .

"You see, I learned to fly in 1924 and was the first American to fly a jet, the XP-49 at Muroc Field, now Edwards Air Force Base, in 1942.

"I must be near the end of it all now, so I decided a world speed record, even as a passenger, would be a good way to close it all out."

Bob Hoover of Palos Verdes, the nation's best-known air show flier and back-up pilot when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, was an early sign up. So was Moya Lear, widow of Bill Lear, designer of the Learjet. Edward Carlson, chairman emeritus of United Airlines. Then Robert Mucklestone, a Seattle attorney. Ten years ago, Mucklestone flew around the world for the record for a single-engine light plane. Of seven days and three hours.

Veteran Crew

Lacy picked his precise day, Jan. 28, when the jet stream would be screaming through the Northern Hemisphere at optimum velocity. A Colorado Springs cardiologist as on-board flight surgeon. One pilot with 34,000 hours flight time. Another who had been a Top Gun instructor.

Only veteran engineers and senior cabin attendants would fly--including Lacy's wife, Lois, a flight attendant whose experience includes two presidential campaigns and one hijacking.

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