Taking New Year’s Revelry to a Higher Plane


If the world ends, where better to see it than from above?

Not that the world will end New Year’s Eve.

But if it does, Jeffrey Whitesell might have the right idea.

A commercial pilot, Whitesell has restored a 47-year-old luxury charter plane and is charging $300 a head for a New Year’s Eve party high above the Ventura County coast, Malibu and Los Angeles.

At first I thought I’d rather take my chances with a million marauding drunks in Times Square than go aloft, even in a plane with an open bar. On a night when every suitcase will be suspicious and every radar screen might suddenly blink on to the lost episodes of “I Love Lucy,” why tempt fate?

But Whitesell has an annoyingly logical answer for us nervous Nellies: His plane--he calls it the “Airliner of the Stars”--is well prepared for Y2K because it’s too old to carry a computer.


“At the stroke of midnight we’ll be safe and sound as we watch the lights below flicker out,” he said.

Whitesell flies 767s for Delta. His father, William Whitesell, had a charter business in Philadelphia when Jeff was growing up.

Muhammad Ali took more than one hop aboard William Whitesell’s two-prop Martin 404. So did Howard Cosell and other sports luminaries.

With 24-karat gold faucets, crystal fixtures, floral couches and tables of rare South American mahogany, the plane was a perfect vehicle for celebrities. Its sisters flew such immortals as Frank Sinatra and such one-hit wonders as Herman’s Hermits.

Jeffrey Whitesell has good memories of those days. His dad taught him to fly on that charter plane. When he was all of 19, he became his dad’s co-pilot.

But that was a long time ago. William Whitesell got rid of the Martin in 1964. He died years ago, but left his son with a passion for old planes so great that he collects old uniforms, old schedules and old posters. The Confederate Air Force at Camarillo Airport has dedicated some of its space to his fledgling project: the Museum of Airline History and Airman’s Hall of Fame.


“I’m going to build a replica of an old airline terminal,” he said, “with an observation deck and ceiling fans and parquet floors. And the centerpiece will be preserved airliners out front.”

Five years ago, he heard about an old Martin deteriorating at an airport in Colorado.

“I didn’t even want to go inside it,” he said. “It was covered with moss, the tires were flat and the desert sun had baked the windshield. It was a mess.”

But he did go inside--and to his astonishment, he found that the elegant furnishings were in fair shape. Examining the registration number, he also discovered that this was the very Martin that his father had gotten rid of 25 years earlier.

“I was stunned,” he said. “It was a very, very emotional time.”

It took six weeks scouring the country for vintage parts to get the old plane off the ground. Of the 150 Martin 404s in the air decades ago, it is one of just four that fly now.

“Ah, the sound,” said Whitesell. “It’s got these ancient Pratt and Whitney piston engines. If I could just bottle that sound . . . “

Whitesell said he has sunk all his savings into restoring the plane, with the help of volunteers at the Camarillo Airport. He has taken wedding parties up and recent graduates, and people celebrating nothing more than the long, orange rays of the sun as it sets over the Santa Barbara Channel.


Some of the plane’s 16 seats--huge, plush seats, Whitesell points out--are available for the millennial flight.

There will be champagne and maybe a belly dancer, he said.

“People can smoke if they want to. They can come up and visit the cockpit. They can have as much to drink as they want. The other big difference between us and a conventional plane is that we really don’t go anywhere.”

The New Year’s flight starts at 11 p.m. at Camarillo, heads down the coast and into the dazzling Los Angeles Basin before returning. More information is available at Whitesell’s Web site,

“My father is probably rolling in his grave,” he said. “ ‘Good Lord!’ he’s saying. I lost my shirt on this plane the first time!’ ”


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at