If you’ve seen a movie in the last four decades with spectacular aerial shots in it, chances are good that Clay Lacy helped make it happen. This 50,000-plus hour pilot and entrepreneur was a fighter pilot, a senior captain at United Airlines, a corporate jet charter business pioneer, and established a successful fixed base operation.
However, Lacy’s lasting legacy may be his work as an aerial cinematographer – he has personally conducted more than 2,500 air-to-air shoots for movies, TV series, commercials and more.
Clay Lacy was born in Wichita, Kansas on August 14, 1932. He began flying at age 12. He had already logged 1,500 hours at age 19 when he joined United Airlines in the right seat of DC-3s. 40 years later, Lacy retired from United as a senior captain, having flown the Douglas prop airliners, the DC-8, DC-10, 727 and finally the 747-400. “I’ve been intrigued with aircraft since I was five years old and knew I wanted to be a pilot at about age seven. When I was 12, I started working at an airport-trading work time for flying time,” Lacy said. “In fact, I only worked one day in my life outside of aviation-it was in a grocery and I lasted three hours.”
While still a pilot at United in 1964, Lacy earned his Learjet rating and became a dealer demo pilot and salesman. Lacy leased a Learjet in 1968 and started the first executive jet charter service west of the Mississippi. In 1970, he purchased his first Learjet for Clay Lacy Aviation, establishing operations at Van Nuys Airport, where he had been based in the 1950’s as a fighter pilot with the California Air Guard.
Lacy’s company soon became known as “Hollywood’s private airline,” carrying celebrities and executives quickly and safely around the world. Adding other aircraft types and services, he later expanded operations with a second location at Seattle, where he also did a significant amount of business filming for the aerospace industry in the region.
“I borrowed money from a bank, but no one ever put money into Clay Lacy Aviation except me; we never had a month where we were in the red,” Lacy said. “We were always profitable.” Lacy’s experiences were not limited to simply ferrying West Coast luminaries. As a test pilot, Lacy made the first flight of the “Pregnant Guppy” – the modified Stratocruiser needed by NASA to ferry stages of the Apollo’s Saturn booster. He pioneered the use on his first Learjet of the Astrovision camera system developed by Bob Nettman, revolutionizing air-to-air filming. Lacy personally flies the multiple camera-configured Lear, his memorable aerial cinematography featured in movies such as Top Gun, The Right Stuff, the IMAX Operation Red Flag: Fighter Pilot, and dozens of others.
Clay Lacy is also a veteran Reno Air Race champion, winning the Unlimited Class in 1970 at the controls of his purple P-51 Mustang. That same year he flew a DC-7 jetliner in a 1,000-mile air race, hitting 60 to 70-degree banks around the pylons and coming in sixth, out of 20 entries. Like his other racers, the jetliner bore Lacy’s “Super Snoopy” race name and his regular number, 64. Lacy also holds a number of aviation world records dating back to his Air Guard service in F-86 Sabrejets. In 1988, Lacy flew 747SP Friendship One around the world in 36 hours, 54 minutes and raised more than $500,000 for children’s charities. In 1995, he piloted a modified Gulfstream on a record-setting flight from Los Angeles to Paris, where the jet – equipped with newly designed winglets – then went on display at the Paris Air Show.
Lacy’s significant philanthropic contributions, often made very quietly, are noted especially among the many non-profit aviation institutions, programs, filmmakers and others that have benefitted from his personal dedication to preserving and sharing America’s flying heritage. Despite all his business success and accomplishments, Lacy has one overriding goal: Every day, he wants to get behind the controls and fly.
For his lifelong commitment to sharing the progress, business and joy of aviation with others,
Clay Lacy is honored into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.