Whether you grew up watching legendary golfer Arnold Palmer win 92 professional victories or know of him more recently from the bottled namesake iced tea and lemonade beverage, what might surprise you is that he was also an accomplished aviator. From logging nearly 20,000 flight hours to setting a round-the-world speed record, Arnie loved flying. This interview is from a recorded discussion I was lucky enough to have with the King himself in 2002, where he shared some recollections as a pilot.
KB: What license or rating was the most challenging for you to get?
Arnold Palmer: The instrument rating certainly was some work, you have to put time into it. But the most difficult, the most tedious for a lot of reasons, was the Lear type rating. When I was getting that type rating, it was the number-one production airplane so there were no written rules, mostly just what the test pilots wrote up when they were getting it certified. Plus, I was the instructor’s first student, so we were both learning. He was also the FAA examiner. And that was long before a simulator, so we actually flew the airplane. It was fun, but it was a hard day’s work.
KB: Many celebrity pilots who fly their own aircraft, for example NASCAR drivers, often hire professionals to fly with them. Do you make your airplane selection based on if you can operate single pilot, or do you enjoy having a crew?
Arnold Palmer: I’ve made selections based on what I could afford, and what I could get. In the early days, I flew myself. Then my schedule and business got so demanding that to take proper care of the airplane I needed another person to file flight plans and do everything. After a while, I got used to it. I’d go to the airport, climb in the seat, and we were ready to go. I became more dependent on having someone qualified, and it was the best thing to do. I had experienced flying myself to golf tournaments, and taking my two kids in the back and my wife upfront. But as life got more complicated, I really needed someone to get the airplane ready. I’d play four days of golf at a tournament, get to the airport, and we’re ready to go.
KB: Do you think there are any misconceptions about celebrity pilots?
Arnold Palmer: I never thought about it, but I suppose occasionally. The singer John Denver was a friend of mine, and I can’t imagine what he was doing—what happened—because he was a very capable pilot.
KB: How did you end up making a round-the-world flight in 1976, while setting a business jet speed record?
Arnold Palmer: I thought it would be damn exciting to take time off from all my work and fly around the world. We started in Denver, flying a Lear 36, and returned in 57 hours, beating the world business jet record by about ten hours. But I had another particular motivation to do the flight. Harry Combs was president of Learjet, and there were only two or three Lear 36s in existence at the time. The difference between the Lear 35 and the Lear 36 was they replaced the two back seats with an additional fuel tank to extend the fuel range. I had been flying a Lear 24 for nine years. My lease on it was running out, and I was looking for a new airplane. Combs said if I did this trip around the world, he would make me a very attractive deal on a Lear 35. That was my other incentive, and so, we did it! We used a Lear 36 that Combs leased back from a charter company, with new Garrett engines. I remember the Garret so well because there was a bearing in the aft part of the engine they were having some trouble with but quickly thereafter got it fixed.
KB: Did you depart heading east or west?
Arnold Palmer: For the first leg we took off from Denver to Boston, and then departed Boston to Paris on a very rainy evening in May. The weather report was that we would have nil to minor headwinds, but we were looking at something a little different. That didn’t deter us. We took off with an absolute full load of fuel and were cleared to 41,000 feet. The winds were right on our nose at 35 knots. At that point we had no radio communications, so we took it up on ourselves to go to 45,000 feet. Eventually at FL450 we picked up London Control on the radio and asked for FL450. They said we understand you’re already at 45 and that’s ok. From Paris it was a fairly normal flight to Iran, then down to Jakarta and out to Manila.
In Manila the next part of the excitement started—we landed in a typhoon. And on the next leg, from Manila to Wake Island, we were taking off in a typhoon. No sleep at all. One of the first times in my flying career it was raining so hard I didn’t see the rain breaking off the wing. It scared me a bit that we weren’t going to get the lift to take off. Our weight was at gross, but we finally lifted off.
Our alternate airport, our contingency backup on the journey to Wake Island, was Guam. At the halfway point we found out we couldn’t get back to Manila because the typhoon was beating them up. So we finally got in touch with Guam, and they tell us they’re evacuating because of another storm system. That gets things a bit exciting. We had no choice, we were going to Wake Island, and it is just a tiny atoll with a big runway. We landed there eventually—got a little commendation from the Marine Corps and then took off for Hawaii.
KB: Flying over those long expanses of ocean, including portions of the route Amelia Earhart flew, did you ever think of the worst-case scenario?
Arnold Palmer: I thought of a lot of things, but never the Amelia disappearance. I had a navigator, and a copilot, both very good people. Sometimes I’d ask our guy in the right seat what the weather was like on the next stop and he’d say what’s the difference, we’re going anyway boss! And that was the case. It was our destination, and our destiny.
KB: On that record-breaking journey, what’s one memory that will always stand out?
Arnold Palmer: Flying off the coast of India to Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, we were at 45,000 feet, with ice crystals building up. The omega, which at the time was a state of the art navigation system, was new enough that at that high altitude ice crystals would kick it off. The omega was inop until you reset it, but there was no place to reset. I was the only one awake on the plane and thought I was pretty macho—wasn’t going to wake the other guys up and get them panicked.
So, I had to decide how I was going to get to Ceylon as we had no VOR signal either. I started fiddling with the radar—it was a clear night—and I aimed the dish down. It picked up the coast of India, so I navigated right down the coast by using the radar, and then within 200 miles of landing I picked up the VOR signal. There was ground fog, it was patchy, and about 11 PM local time. The only beacons or runway lights or anything like that were 100-watt lightbulbs. That approach got my attention.
KB: Didn’t the Lear have a reputation for sometimes getting pilots into the aerodynamic regime called coffin corner?
Arnold Palmer: One of the reasons I had such a favorable deal to fly the Lear 24 was because publicity had not been good to it. But I truly loved flying that airplane. Without being critical of other airplanes, the Lear 24 was probably as nice a performing plane as I’d ever flown up until my Citation X. That coffin corner was so wide, you really had to do unconventional things to get into that zone. The tuck-under from going too fast is really what you’re taking about, and I think that came from conventional prop airplane pilots trying to fly a jet. Things happen, but that’s just my opinion.
KB: You’ve had a long-standing relationship with aircraft manufacturer Cessna, and very close friendship with its CEO Russ Meyer. How did you transition from Learjets to Cessna jets?
In the early 1960s, I was attorney Mark McCormack’s first client in what eventually became the global sports management company called IMG. He was my manager, so to speak. Russ Meyer, a former air force pilot, was also a young partner at the firm. He booked a lot of exhibitions for me, and helped grow my business. I got to know him very well and we became very close friends. He was an absolute aviation buff, knew the business very well.
I never leased or owned an airplane in all the planes I’ve ever had—and there’s a lot of them—where Russ Meyer did not handle the negotiations. A few years later he became president of Grumman American Aviation. In 1974, Russ went to Cessna and took it from a prop company to a jet company, with some objection. But he was right on. When I lost my Lear 24 contract, and Harry Combs never made good on his Lear 35 deal promise to me, I needed an airplane and went to Cessna. Everyone knew I flew Learjets, and I flew at .82 Mach. Heck, even the air traffic controllers would kid me. In the Cessna 500 Citation I’d be slower and they’d tease, “Hey, Arnie—we just saw a bird go past you on radar!”
But, there is not a finer airplane in the air than the one I fly now, the Citation X. Without equivocation, it’s the finest flying machine I’ve ever flown—the speed, the handling, the interior appointments, the cockpit, everything. And it’s comfortable. I can be sitting in this office and if my secretary says I’m due in California at 2PM, and it’s 9AM right now, I can just jump in the jet and I’m there in four hours.
KB: You and Winnie (Palmer’s wife, who passed away in 1999) were married for 45 years. Did she also enjoy flying?
Arnold Palmer: She absolutely loved it. She was a good flyer, and did start to fly early on, but with two children she wanted to raise, she didn’t have much time to spend on it. Sometimes I’d be flying, like one time in Birmingham when the weather was crappy, and I’d be busy. I’d say, “Win, when the man comes on and gives us the ATIS, copy it down in case I miss it.” Other flights, she’d crawl in the back and fall asleep. Very comfortable with me flying. She had other flights with other pilots, but was more comfortable if I was the pilot.
KB: Did you ever meet the first person to golf on the moon, America’s first man in space, astronaut Alan Shepard?
Arnold Palmer: I knew him very well.
KB: Did he use a seven iron?
Arnold Palmer: I thought it was a five iron.
(Note: Turns out it was the head of a Wilson six iron that Astronaut Shepard smuggled aboard Apollo 14, and then jury-rigged to a shaft of rock collecting equipment for a makeshift golf club)
KB: You’ve racked up decades of incident and accident-free flying. To what do you attribute that level of safety?
Arnold Palmer: Treating flying with great respect—never assume anything in an airplane. If you operate the way you’re supposed to, and fly the way you’re supposed to, you can really have fun. Give it the respect it’s due.