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Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

The Aviator

He’s the doyen of all corporate aviation businesspeople at Van Nuys Airport and there is little that Clay Lacy hasn’t done. The self-effacing president and owner of corporate aviation firm Clay Lacy Aviation has been responsible for bringing the first corporate jet to Van Nuys, giving most of Hollywood their first rides on a Lear Jet, setting nearly 30 different aviation records, donating millions of dollars to various charities and flying the aerial sequences in films including “Top Gun,” “Flight of the Intruder,” and “The Great Santini.” Lacy’s journey to becoming an aviation pioneer began on his grandmother’s farm in Wichita, Kan., when a 12-year old Lacy was able to persuade a local pilot to build a small airport on the property. Though he had already been in love with aviation, the new airport only served to further inculcate this passion for flight. Immediately, after graduating from Wichita East High School in 1951, Lacy headed to flight training school to become a pilot for United Airlines. In 1954, Lacy joined the Air Force National Guard where he stayed for seven years, eventually getting involved in aircraft sales. Finding another passion at this end of the aviation business, when Lacy got out of the Guard he became involved in a Lear Jet distribution partnership with the late Allen Paulson, the future founder of Gulfstream; and Danny Kaye, the famed late comedian. Then in 1968, Lacy made the bold decision to found his own charter company, leasing a single jet to commence operations. He soon bought it and gradually expanded his fleet, while simultaneously continuing to work as a pilot for United. Today, Lacy is the largest operator of charter jet aircraft on the West Coast, with 155 employees and 45 airplanes, 11 of them jets. Question: What are the key business issues facing the company today? Answer: We need more land. I’d like to get more and have been trying to get it from Los Angeles World Airports for many years, but it’s difficult. I really need the land next to me. They’ve put it up for lease several times and I was involved with the wining party each time. They actually they gave it to us in 2001, and then there was a complaint that it hadn’t been out to bid long enough, so they extended the bid period until September 6 of that year. When September 11 occurred, they never issued the bids and now four years later they still haven’t done anything. We need more space. We’re producing more per acre in the number of jobs and taxes and services than any other facility on this airport. Q: How has the aviation landscape changed over the years? A: Business aviation is here to stay. In the mid-1970s, there were 1,400 airplanes at Van Nuys, with only 5 or 6 jets. Now there are less than 600 planes, but about 160 jets. While general aviation has gone downhill due to costs and regulations, corporate aviation has grown. It’s not a vertical growth but constant. Twenty years ago, when I heard about video conferencing, I thought it might cut back on face-to-face meetings, but it hasn’t. People want to know who they’re dealing with. When I started in the business, you never heard of people chartering a plane to go to Europe and Asia, but now its commonplace. Not a week goes by here when we don’t have planes going over there. Q: What does business aviation mean to the Valley’s economy? A: Because of corporate aviation, a lot of deals are done that wouldn’t be done otherwise. The airplanes are hugely important to the economy of the Valley, the country, and the world. Eighty percent of our flying is bona fide business trips. Our clients usually conduct business on the planes, some of which have Internet connections and almost all of which have satellite phones. For the L.A. area, it’s very important that people have access to the airport and that it stays healthy. This is the only non-commercial non-airline airport that the city of L.A. owns. The studies that have been made show that this airport directly produces almost $1.3 billion to the community yearly. Q: Some of the neighbors that live near the airport have complained for years about noise that the jets produce. You have been active in helping to deal with these complaints in the past. Where do you stand now? A: I was really involved with it, a while back. I used to be on the citizens advisory council and what not. But what amazes me the most is how few people actually worry about the airport, most people really like it. There are a few people who make a lot of noise to their council-people, but we live in a Valley with 1.5 million people and there are maybe only 80 different citizens that call to complain each year. I’m amazed at how good our relations are with the community. Most people realize that airport is important. It’s an air age and they are going to produce a certain amount of noise. But no one takes off at night. They don’t want to. The whole purpose for having the airplanes is to have a more regular pattern for a businessperson’s life. Q: Since the company was founded in 1968, the competition has increased. How do you differentiate your company from your competitors? A: We just look at trying to do the best possible job we can and I don’t really worry about the competition. When I was the only person on the property, I used to get worried when a new company would start up, but in those days a lot of them went away in six months. But today we have some good competitors in the Air Group and Elite and Petersen aviation. We’re all pretty friendly with each other. We all want the same things for the airport and most of us talk quite a bit about our common issues. I feel that any company is only as good as the people you have working for you and I have some very good people. Also, I’ve been here a long time and I’m an on-site owner who watches what’s going on. Q: You’ve flown many of the aerial scenes in some major Hollywood blockbusters? How big a part of the company is the aerial photography business? A: I’m still very active in the aerial photography business and I do all of the flying myself. We shoot commercials for virtually every airline commercially and a lot of them worldwide. I’ve also done some major movies including “Stealth,” a new film coming out this month. It’s not the biggest part of our business, but it’s what I do a lot and I like to do. I started doing it back when the Lear Jet was new in 1965. I’ve been doing it since before the company began and wherever I went it followed me. Q: A lot of corporate aviation firms have reported major gains stemming from the difficulties in flying commercially in the post 9/11 environment. Has Clay Lacy Aviation been seeing similar increases in revenues? A: It definitely made a difference. We didn’t just see a big spike or a doubling of business, but we definitely started getting calls from companies wanting to charter a jet or buy planes. They aren’t worried about a hijacking as much as the new requirements for the baggage checks and security checks. Flying commercially has gotten to be a big deal. You have to get to the airport two hours ahead. It’s such a hassle that it starts businesspeople’s days off wrong. And if you buy a one-way ticket, it’s the kiss of death. Q: What do you see as the future of the company? A: It would help to have more land to keep the company growing. I think that the future of corporate aviation is bright. I feel like I’m definitely on the right end of the aviation business. The flight schools and the smaller businesses have had their difficulties and so has commercial aviation. Corporate aviation has nowhere to go but up. I think that the future of this type of business is really good and I think our future is great. We’re looking forward to the future, but we still need more land to expand. Q: What would you like your legacy to be? A: Well, I hope it goes on for a long time. I pride myself and the company on being very safety conscious, providing good service, being honest and having a lot of integrity. Personally, I think that I’ve been important in the last 40 or 50 years in the general aviation field and in helping to make corporate aviation bigger. I brought the first Lear Jet to L.A. and I took most of Hollywood on their first rides on a Lear. I just feel like being in aviation has been so interesting and so fast moving. It has been a lot of fun. Clay Lacy Title: President, Clay Lacy Aviation Born: 1932 Education: Wichita East High School Career Turning Point: When I was 12 years old, when a guy built an airport on my grandmother’s farm in Wichita Most Admired People: Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Bill Lear, Al Paulson, Paul Tibbets, Chuck Yeager Personal: Married 33 years Hobbies: Fishing, traveling

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