An Hour with Clay Lacy

Sept. 17, 2008
Of airports, safety, FAA, and a future, etc.

VAN NUYS, CA — He was the first Learjet charter operator west of the Mississippi, has operated out of Van Nuys Airport for three decades, was one of the highest time pilots ever with United Airlines, and was ‘the’ pioneer in aerial photography who has a long list of film credits and airline commercials to his credit. While aviation remains his passion, Clay Lacy admits that at age 75 he has tired a bit with regulations and bureaucracy. As one who has lived the economic ups and downs of business aviation, Lacy says the volatility of fuel prices may be changing the equation. AIRPORT BUSINESS recently spent an hour to interview the whirlwind that is Clay Lacy. Overall, he says, he’s optimistic.

Among the issues on the radar screen in 2008, Lacy remains unconcerned about the safety debate over the Federal Aviation Administration; still questions why airport bureaucracies operate as they do; and, remains optimistic that aviation is a career about which young people should get excited.

He acknowledges that his business is down through mid-2008, and foresees an increase in used inventory of business aircraft in the marketplace, with a corresponding decrease in values. While the aircraft manufacturing order books remain strong, Lacy is skeptical.

“Every time I’ve ever seen a recession or a downturn, they always have a lot of orders,” says Lacy.

“We have another factor with the gas deal this time, which may have an even bigger effect. The fuel is affecting everybody. It will slow down sales.”

On the subject of safety
Besides operating a fixed base operation, world-class charter operation, and his other business interests, Lacy spent a career as one of the highest time pilots ever for United Airlines. His retirement from the airline was such a deal that he encountered it unexpectedly some time later.

He explains, “I was up at Bakersfield a little over a year ago. A guy came over and asked me to look at a DC-3. And he says, we used to work for the same outfit, United. He was the lead mechanic.

“In fact, he said, over on my wall in my office I’ve got a copy of your last logbook entry from your last trip [see photo]. He gave me a copy. He said there were hundreds of copies made. I guess the mechanics don’t get a pat on the back too often and that made an impression.” The impression was Lacy’s compliments for a career free of major mechanicals.

Which leads to the current discussion about Southwest and American and FAA over aircraft inspections. Again, Lacy is skeptical.

“Here’s what I think it is, they (FAA) don’t really think that there’s a big safety issue.

“I think that there’s such pressure from Congress that FAA needed to look like they’re really tough.

“The FAA is all paperwork. They come over and open a drawer in an airplane; it says on the drawer ’10 pounds’, which is all you’re supposed to have in the drawer. And it’s got 12-ounce cans of Coca Cola; they count them; they’ve got a chart that says how much a can weighs. If it’s over, they write it up. I don’t consider that a safety of flight item. This has been a big thing we’ve been hassled with the past month.

“Any good airline is completely dedicated to safety. What can kill an airline faster than having an airplane accident? I think the industry does a very good job of policing itself and is totally interested in safety.
“I worked for United for almost 41 years. I personally never saw one thing that was overlooked or intentionally delayed. Like I wrote on the logbook…I rarely had a writeup. In 41 years it was never anything big.”

Dealing with bureaucracy
“I’m getting tired of a lot of the things we have to do to run a business nowadays,” says Lacy when asked about whether a career in aviation has tired him. Increasing regs and government bureaucracy can be discouraging.

“It’s not easy dealing with the city when you’re on a city airport. This is the best one to be on, but I’ve been trying to get some land on the south side for years and it’s just been a big hassle,” Lacy relates.

“We were awarded it twice; I had a partner both times. The first time, they kept changing a requirement on the height of a building you could build. After spending a million dollars on architecture, they tell us we have to knock a story off.

“Then more recently in 2001, we were awarded this land and somebody complained that the bid wasn’t out long enough and they extended it three months. It closed on the 6th of September; then September 11th came along and they never did anything. It’s still sitting there empty; that land has been vacant since 1957.

“But that’s not uncommon. There’s a facility to the north that sat empty for over five years. They finally put it out to bid. Somebody complained and they rebid it, and gave it to a guy who had an outrageous amount of money he was going to spend — on seven acres, $43 million. Since then he’s gone bankrupt.

“In the first bid, we bid rent for $77,000 a month; the second bidder was $15,000 a month, the one they gave it to. The difference was he was going to build new buildings on it; we were going to renovate the existing buildings.

“The theory with these leases is that at the end of the 30 years they own the building and can rent it out and get some rent from them. Instead they want to tear them down. When you tear them down, all you get is the rent of the land.

“My bid was to renovate the buildings, which were not that old — some were under 20 years — and pay them $77,000 a month. The second bidder was going to pay them $1 million for the buildings; tear them down; put up new buildings; and pay them $15,000 a month rent for the land.”

Still a future
Lacy is also skeptical about the impact of very light jets, though he too gets caught up in the prospects and the new technology. He sees Cessna’s approach of producing some 100 Mustangs a year as realistic, and Eclipse’s predictions of hundreds of units as a “forget it” proposition.

Looking to the future of aviation, Lacy says there’s still an opportunity for young people, albeit not the same one he experienced from the time he was a kid growing up in Withita.

Comments Lacy, “I would still encourage people to get into aviation. It’s a helluva lot more interesting than being a lawyer.

“It’s an industry in which you need to be honest — honest with yourself. A lot of airplane accidents happen because the pilots are not honest with themselves – their own capabilities; the capability of the airplane.

“I like the idea of getting young kids involved because I think it’s an industry that teaches them that they have to face facts; it teaches them responsibility. The other thing is that somebody who is really interested in aviation is not going to get in trouble with drugs. Aviation becomes bigger than all of that; they know it doesn’t mix.”

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