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

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.

Thursday, at 7:14 p.m. in a dark, Washington winter drizzle, Friendship One lifted off from the Boeing Field where it was built. Applause in the cabin. Cheers from watchers. One salute from a wet airport cop.

Nine minutes later--at 15,000 feet and passing directly above a radio navigation beacon for Seattle-Tacoma Airport--cockpit clocks clicked. An observer for the National Aeronautic Assn. scribbled his first notation. The record ride was under way.

And it was none of the feared ordeal.

Linked by their passion for aviation (among passengers and crew, 77 people were licensed pilots), the flight quickly formed into a 6-mile-high house party.

Books went unread. Tapes remained unheard. It was scrambled nights and days of talk (tales of combat, test flying and space travel) and laughter; gourmet food and toasts and one monumental, fraternal gathering.

Over Thailand and Laos, a KLM jet and then a Saudi Airlines 747 turned to touch Friendship One's airspace. Both aircraft asked to chat with Armstrong.

During refueling at Athens, a Greek ground crew had a last-minute request. Could they meet and be photographed with Armstrong? The flight was delayed as Armstrong left the airplane to oblige. One man kissed his cheek.

All of which left passenger Kathrine Koch without much of a cause. Koch, of Pasadena, is a private pilot and a clinical psychologist. She was hoping that behavior changes among the captive group might be sufficient for "a paper for a trade magazine such as 'Social Psychology.' " But in light of the peace and pleasure, her article "might be just one paragraph."

Seattle to Athens.

It is a jubilant first leg for Lacy and his crew. The jet stream is a howler. Then Lacy sniffs higher and finds a 200-m.p.h. tunnel of wind. "It was right off the tail and we were in it for about four hours. Our groundspeed was about 790 m.p.h."

He hurries the 747 into Athens, descending steeply. Friendship One, flight-planned for 12 hours and 50 minutes on this initial leg, arrives almost 15 minutes ahead of schedule. During refueling, a squad of snipers, on the lookout for terrorists, covers the airplane from 1,000 meters out. But Lacy has his mind on other things. "We've been saying 40 hours total flight time," he chortles. "I've been thinking 38 hours. But now it is starting to look like 37 hours."

Athens to Taipei.

There has been a refueling delay at Athens. The operation was inadvertently stopped before the requested load had been pumped. The reconnect costs time. So does the airplane's lumber out to the runway because, for some inexplicable reasons, a Lufthansa jet has been given takeoff priority.

Lacy, programmed for only a 40-minute stop at Athens, must now swallow a one-hour delay in the flight.

Then, when airborne, the golden jet stream dwindles to 80 m.p.h. The Persian Gulf. India. Laos and Vietnam. Very quietly, some stare down from 37,000 feet at Danang and a Vietnam they thought they'd never see again.

Friendship One drops through the moist, musty air to Taipei. The cloud ceiling is only 500 feet and Lacy must make an instrument approach. Time is burned. He is eventually positioned to land behind two other aircraft. More delay. Lacy makes his estimated time of arrival. Barely.

'Looking Good'

"Our speed that leg was about 640 m.p.h.," he says. "To beat the record we've got to do 512. So we're still looking good."

Service at Taipei is super. There is a glitch with a rudder control but it turns out to be an electrical hiccup. So the turnaround for fuel, food, even copies of Thursday's New York Times we have beaten to Taiwan, takes only 48 minutes. We are looking better.

Taipei to Seattle.

Barring an engine leaving the airplane, Lacy knows he has got it made. Soon the Pacific jet stream has built back up to 200 m.p.h. and the groundspeed is once more a record-smashing gallop.

Nothing can stop Lacy now. Certainly not the massive storms blocking the straight shot to Seattle. A computerized weather forecast is his early warning. So Lacy just bucks over the top and his passengers sleep through the turbulence.

Dawn on the second day. Breakfast. Coffee.

Lacy's voice on the cabin loudspeaker: "We have just passed over the Seattle-Tacoma VOR (very high-frequency omnirange). We have flown around the world in 36 hours and 54 minutes. Our average speed was 624 m.p.h. We have broken the record by 112 m.p.h. Congratulations."

There is a brass band, red, white and blue balloons and 1,000 people cheering the parking airplane. Lacy and Armstrong and United's Carlson lead passengers and crew down the jet way. All are waving tiny American flags. Cameras surround Lacy.

Each passenger will receive a certificate from the NAA attesting to their share of a world speed record.

Gary Wales of Woodland Hills is hoping to go one perk better.

He is a member of United Airlines' frequent flier program. The company recently announced it will be giving passengers triple credit for actual miles flown.

"This around-the-world flight was 23,000 miles, so I'm going to apply for a 69,000 miles credit," said Wales.

That just might be another world record.

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