FRANK SINATRA AND HIS LEAR JET N175FS
The way he flew his plane
In late May 2005, Ronnie Powers casually flipped through some papers left on his desk. They detailed the ownership history of an abandoned plane he had recently bought in California for $45,000. The sheaf was, he assumed, just more paperwork cluttering his office at Griffin Spalding Airport, 38 miles south of Atlanta.
Powers, CEO of Atlanta Air Salvage, frequently bought such aircraft. Even today, Atlanta Air is known as a "boneyard," the end of the line for hundreds of planes too damaged, too outdated or too forgotten to be of much use to anyone else. Powers pulls them from water, drags them from ditches, takes them wherever he can find them -- and for all he knew, this latest aircraft, now rusting out in San Jose, was a typical purchase. "A lawyer called one day and said, 'We've got an old Lear for sale. Will you give us X?'" Powers recalls. "We were just going to break it down for parts, and I wasn't even sure it was good for that."
Powers sent his chief operating officer, Ken Williams, to the San Jose Jet Center to see what it would take to drag Learjet Serial No. 31 back to Georgia for its autopsy. Williams snapped photos and took notes. The plane had been locked in a hangar for more than a decade, abandoned by its owner until the unpaid hangar fees had reached nearly $20,000, at which point someone had simply hauled it out back and left it in the rain. There were twigs stuck in the wheels. The logbooks were gone.
When Williams returned to Atlanta, he called Lear to run a historical-records search, which he forwarded to his boss. Powers thumbed through the stack now, half-interestedly scrolling back through the plane's life. Before being shipped out to San Jose, it had bounced between owners in Illinois. It had been repainted multiple times. Oddly, the N number seemed to have been switched back to its original vanity registration after having been changed several times.
Then, deep in the pile, Powers came across a letter dated October 30, 1964. It was a receipt from Lear Jet Corporation, made out to California Airmotive Corporation, which was buying a plane for a client. The receipt said simply, "Please convey to Mr. Sinatra our congratulations and our intention to deliver to him the world's finest business machine." Powers looked at that N number again -- N175FS. His eyes widened. Suddenly, this was no mere hunk of scrap metal.
If ever a plane played among the stars, it was N175FS. From June 1965 until he sold it two years later, Frank Sinatra and his famous friends logged more than 1,500 hours on the small, powerful early business jet. Sinatra routinely used it to shuttle the Rat Pack from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and his home in Palm Springs. He wooed Mia Farrow in it, and intimidated Michael Caine, then dating his daughter Nancy, in the back. Celebrity private-plane culture was practically invented on it: At a time when few had their own private jets, when most Americans had never seen a private jet, Sinatra and his plane were like Hollywood's version of the first kid in class with a car. Dean Martin borrowed it to fly to movie sets. Marlon Brando and Sammy Davis Jr. took it to Mississippi to meet Martin Luther King Jr. for a civil-rights rally. Elvis Presley eloped with Priscilla Beaulieu aboard it.
Today, N175FS sits in a warehouse at an undisclosed location in California under the care of Jeff Thomas, a noted aircraft historian and consultant who is safeguarding the plane for its current owner, a Belgian collector. Word of Ronnie Powers's discovery spread fast. Within two days, the Belgian's representatives had contacted Atlanta Air Salvage. A month later, a deal was struck, nondisclosure agreements signed and money wired from an account in Monaco.
Thomas, who helped Paul Allen collect the vintage military planes housed in the new Flying Heritage Collection museum in Everett, Washington, spoke with Private Air on the condition that we not identify the current owner or the aircraft's location. He assures us, however, that N175FS is well (or well enough for a plane that was this close to being recycled for scrap). The wing and horizontal stabilizer have been removed for easier storage, but "the plane is fully restorable," he says, "even flyable."
Thomas says his client hasn't decided if he'll be the one to oversee the restoration. At the same time, they seem to be making moves -- 10 years after Sinatra's death -- to position the plane for resale. Thomas recently commissioned a marketing firm to assemble a book-length binder of old photographs, press clippings and correspondence that would probably sell briskly at Barnes & Noble. Topping the list of possible buyers, he says, are the major Las Vegas casinos -- and perhaps Graceland, which is home to two of Elvis's planes, a Lockheed JetStar and a Convair 880. Knowledgeable sources estimate that Sinatra's plane, even in its current condition, could be worth nearly $650,000.
And yes -- should the thought have crossed your mind -- Thomas says the owner would consider selling to a private collector. "But he wouldn't sell it to just anybody," Thomas says. "After all, this is a plane with a lot of history."
From early on, Sinatra's life was closely linked with aviation. Legend has it that his mother, Dolly, dreamed he would become an aircraft engineer; when she learned he wanted to sing, she threw a shoe at him. The Lear wasn't Sinatra's first plane -- he had owned a giant dual-prop Martin 404 and a tiny French Morane-Saulnier 760 jet -- but by the mid-'60s, the Chairman of the Board also owned a record label, a film company, real estate across the country, even a missile-parts manufacturer. Lear's early production lagged behind demand, but six months shy of his fiftieth birthday, Sinatra took ownership of the revolutionary business jet and named it Christina II, after his youngest daughter.
Inside, the jet had two leather seats at the rear of a 17-foot cabin and a single seat up front, along the port side, by the door. A couch sat along the opposite side, running up to the cockpit. The 43-foot-long aircraft was equipped with twin General Electric CJ610-4 engines that generated 2,850 pounds of thrust and sounded roughly like the end of the world. Climb-out generated 3G's and continued on at 6,000 feet per minute. "There isn't a jet produced today that has the climb performance of the Lear 23," says Clay Lacy, who sold Sinatra the plane. Sinatra had his trimmed in orange, his favorite color.
While he owned the Lear, Sinatra also had access to three others through Lacy, who was quickly becoming the largest distributor of private jets on the West Coast. The men traded hours in the various aircraft depending on need and availability, almost like an early fractional program. Many stars of the day waxed poetic about flying on Sinatra's plane. Beatles roadie Mal Evans described in his diary a 1967 flight with Paul McCartney on one of the sister jets: "We left Denver in Frank Sinatra's Lear Jet [sic], which he very kindly loaned us. A beautiful job with dark-black leather upholstery and, to our delight, a well-stocked bar." Evans's home video of the flight, which can be seen on YouTube, shows McCartney recording the experience with his camera. He appears awestruck -- and this was a Beatle.
Other famous names appreciated Sinatra's generosity, as well. On May 1, 1967, Presley and Priscilla snuck out the back of Elvis's estate in Palm Springs, drove to the airport and boarded N175FS, bound for Las Vegas and a justice of the peace. "I was both exhausted and relieved when we finally returned to Palm Springs aboard Frank Sinatra's Learjet," Priscilla wrote in Elvis and Me. Hours later, she was pregnant. Mia Farrow, meanwhile, has recounted how her first date with Sinatra -- to a screening of None But the Brave -- ended with an invitation to fly to Palm Springs. "That was a whole other city," she said. "We were in L.A., and I didn't think I could do that -- I didn't have my pajamas or anything. He said, 'Well, how about if I send my airplane for you tomorrow?'" Farrow described the next day's flight as "the boldest thing I ever did."
A year later, after their wedding, N175FS whisked the 21-year-old actress and 50-year-old singer to the south of France for their honeymoon. Several months earlier, though, Lacy says, he had flown her down to Acapulco on one of the sister jets, for a vacation with Sinatra. Lacy had tried to help with customs, collecting her paperwork and identification to present to security. But all the border agents really cared about was a piece of paper the waifish star pulled from her purse. It read, "I hereby give permission for Mia to leave the country on a trip to Mexico." It was signed by her mother.
Now 75, Lacy still runs Clay Lacy Aviation (one of the largest FBOs in California), and his recollections remain invaluable. Don Lieto, the former chief pilot for Sinatra Enterprises, died more than 30 years ago, making Lacy one of the last able to give firsthand accounts of the plane. Sinatra's own musings, typically, were almost maddeningly vague. It's difficult, for instance, to pin down the jet's influence on his music -- Sinatra recorded both "Come Fly With Me" and "Fly Me to the Moon" before he owned it, and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" after. He did, however, once note of N175FS in an aviation journal: "I had to make frequent trips to work at the studios in Hollywood plus singing engagements out of state, so it made sense to be self-sufficient...A good example is the [trip] just finished that took us to the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, St. Louis, Chicago and points west."
The Newport festival is widely regarded as a crucial turning point in Sinatra's career. Occurring just a week after he took delivery of N175FS -- and after a few years in which Sinatra seemed thrown off-stride by the emergence of rock n' roll -- his 20-song set demonstrated that in many ways the best was yet to come: Four months later, his Thanksgiving TV special, Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, won an Emmy. In the months that followed, he recorded three of his biggest hits: "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life" and "Somethin' Stupid," a duet with daughter Nancy. At the very least, then, N175FS appears to have been good for getting work done.
And not just work. Lacy recalls one particularly active day in early June 1966: Lacy had Christina II because he was scheduled to fly the camera ship for publicity photographers to capture the Air Force's cutting-edge XB-70 Valkyrie above Edwards Air Force Base. (The cameraman needed a plane capable of chasing a bomber that hit Mach 3; Sinatra's 518-mph Lear 23 was the fastest civilian aircraft they could find in Southern California.) But as Lacy prepared to fly from Van Nuys to Edwards Air Force Base, he received word that he'd have to make a detour. Now.
The night before, Dean Martin's birthday party at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills had grown rowdy. Fred Weisman, the retired president of Hunt's Foods, sitting at the next table, apparently complained about the noise. Words were exchanged, punches were exchanged -- and while Sinatra told Time magazine that "I at no time saw anyone hit [Weisman] -- and I certainly did not," someone certainly did. With one of the Polo Lounge's phones, in fact, hard enough to fracture Weisman's skull.
Lacy taxied up to Gate 3 at Burbank Airport just after 6 a.m. to find Sinatra and Martin still wearing their suits from the night before. Sinatra's left arm hung in a sling made from a pillowcase; Dino sported a shiner and had bloodstains on his shirt. He muttered something about leaving the country, but Sinatra merely settled into his seat and shrugged. "Nah," he said. "We'll hide out for a few days. It'll be fine."
The pilot dropped the duo in Palm Springs, then continued on to Edwards. But the day still had more excitement in store. As the final photos were taken, an F-104 flying in formation with the Valkyrie collided with it, slicing off its tail and engulfing the F-104 in a fireball. A photographer in the back of the Lear captured the disaster on film. The $700 million Valkyrie prototype rolled onto its back, entered a flat spin and smashed into the desert floor in an enormous cloud of black smoke. The fatal crash (only one of the two Valkyrie pilots ejected safely; the F-104 pilot also died) is thought to be the most expensive collision in aviation history, and the photographs became a centerfold in Life magazine. And, as usual, Frank Sinatra's plane was on the scene.
In June 1967, Sinatra put his Lear up for sale and traded up to the improved Gulfstream GII. N175FS began life after Sinatra with Thomas Friedkin, chairman of Gulf States Toyota and later a fixture on the Forbes 400 list. Next came Bernie Little, central Florida's exclusive Budweiser distributor (the N numbers were changed to 777TF and 477BL, respectively). Then it passed through multiple owners in Illinois -- during which it once spent a year outdoors with birds nesting in the engines and mud daubers clogging the fuel lines. In 1985, Robert Brandis, owner of Brandis Aircraft in Taylorville, Illinois, made it flight-worthy again, restored the fs to the tail and gave the plane its current charcoal, black and red color scheme. He sold it to Stanley Furmanski, a California doctor who, soon after acquiring the plane and hangaring it in San Jose, allegedly tried to run down an FBI agent in a car, and was sent to prison for insurance fraud. The plane then vanished until Atlanta Air's Ken Williams pried open the door.
Around the time N175FS was disappearing, Lear itself almost exited the stage. After a succession of ownership changes and its purchase in 1990 by Bombardier, some at the giant Montreal-based aviation manufacturer questioned the value of the brand, and whether its designs shouldn't simply be called Bombardiers. They soon thought better of it, though, and the company has recently made a concerted effort to reconnect with Learjet's roots.
In 1965, Lear was a homegrown Kansas company run on a shoestring, when CBS aired a primetime special about Sinatra's life. The show is widely remembered for Walter Cronkite's probing questions into Sinatra's Mafia ties -- which, ironically, prompted him to threaten to kill the producer -- but it was also noteworthy for five minutes of black-and-white footage of Sinatra standing by the fuselage at LaGuardia Airport, gushing about his new airplane. Back in Wichita, the phones started ringing off the hook. "It wasn't rocket science," recalls Bill Lear's daughter, Shanda Lear-Baylor. "When any new product is embraced by someone like Frank Sinatra, it becomes something everybody has to have."
Bombardier, of course, were as surprised as anyone to learn of N175FS's recent reemergence. In a sense, though, they've been planning for this moment. In connection with the forty-fifth anniversary this year of the first Learjet flight, the company has announced the release of the new eight-seat Learjet 85. It's the company's first all-composite jet -- with a profile strikingly reminiscent of those early Lear 23s. "We kept the pointy nose, the T-tail -- we pushed our designers to stay within that envelope," says product manager Brad Nolan. "Evolutions in aerodynamics have taken place, but this plane will be immediately identifiable as a Learjet." And in keeping with tradition, the 85's twin PW307B turbofans will generate 6,100 pounds of thrust at takeoff. Each.
Sinatra would surely approve. When people think of Frank Sinatra, they
don't immediately think "aviation buff." But Ol' Blue Eyes grew to be
close to Bill Lear, and sent him a steady stream of personal letters
philosophizing about such seemingly mundane details of the jet's interior as
the pullout card table. The bar of Sinatra's Palm Springs estate contained a
radio he used to communicate with aircraft overhead, and this passion for
aviation remained even after Dolly Sinatra was killed in a 1977 private charter
plane crash, en route to Las Vegas to hear her son sing. (Note from Vern: I
recall this accident. A chartered Lear
Jet took off from Palm Springs enroute to Las Vegas and crashed into Mt. San Gorgonio)
Jan 6, 1977
Natalie "Dolly" Sinatra
Near Palm Springs, California
Gates Learjet 24B
After leaving Palm Springs Municipal Airport, the plane never changed heading and flew into a mountain. Crew error. 4 killed
One of Lacy's most enduring memories of Sinatra is of picking him up at the Palm Springs airport. Sinatra stood waiting with Kirk Douglas; they needed a ride to emcee a Hollywood event. They were tight on time. But the airport had a new fuel truck -- and once employees drove out to the plane, they couldn't get it to start pumping. "Kirk was nervous as hell," Lacy remembers. "He's thinking they'd miss the event, the whole night was ruined." The workers sprinted off to get help. Sinatra strolled over to the fuel truck and began flipping levers. When the boys returned, they found Frank Sinatra, cool as could be, standing there with a smile, just a man fueling his airplane.