Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

There’s still no one like him.

Arnold Palmer isn't your typical business jet traveler. A curiosity about airplanes-and a fear of flying on early airliners-led him to the pilot's seat in 1956. He was just 27 then, but his aggressive play on the golf course and magnetic personality already were hinting at the greatness to come. Palmer won his first major two years later at the 1958 Masters in a dramatic televised finish that made him a household name and gave rise to a legion of fans known as "Arnie's Army."  

A lifetime later, Palmer, now 80, has amassed about 18,000 hours at the controls of more aircraft types than even he can recall. He has owned 10 airplanes, progressing from his first, a 1961 Aero Commander 500, to his current ride, a Cessna Citation X twinjet he bought in 2002. He still flies the Citation X with longtime chief pilot Pete Luster about 150 to 200 hours a year, including for regular trips between his homes in Latrobe, Pa. (where he grew up the son of the golf pro and head groundskeeper at Latrobe Country Club), and Bay Hill Club and Lodge, the golf course he owns in Orlando, Fla. 

Palmer's second business jet was a Lear 24 he leased in 1968. He probably would have remained a loyal Learjet customer, he told us, if not for the influence of his close friend Russ Meyer, a partner of sports-marketing pioneer and IMG founder Mark McCormack. One of Meyer's first assignments as a young attorney working with McCormack had been to negotiate the purchase of Palmer's Aero Commander. A shared passion for golf and aviation sparked a friendship that has lasted more than 50 years. "I still talk to Russ every day," Palmer said.

Meyer joined Cessna Aircraft in 1974 and became chairman and CEO of the company a year later. Palmer took delivery of his first Cessna Citation in 1976 and never looked back. He has purchased seven Citation models over the years, including the first production Citation X in 1996. He even had a hand in designing the Citation X, best known as the world's fastest business jet with a top speed of Mach 0.92.

When the business aviation industry came under public attack at the start of the economic downturn, the man who has won seven major golf championships and 92 career tournaments-and was one of the sports world's first advertising pitchmen thanks to his association with McCormack and IMG-agreed to lend his name to the National Business Aviation Association's No Plane, No Gain advocacy campaign. Palmer appears in the NBAA's TV and print ads defending the use of business airplanes.

I understand you've just completed your annual recurrent training at FlightSafety International. How did it go?
Very well. I've gone another year, so that makes it 53 since I started flying. I did the training with my chief pilot, Pete Luster, who's been with me for 13 years.

What made you want to become a pilot?
When I was a young man playing golf, one day I was traveling on a Capital Airlines DC-3 and we ran through a line of thunderstorms flying at about 5,000 feet. I was sitting on the left side of the airplane-I can remember it as if it was yesterday-when all of a sudden this ball of fire started rolling around in the aisle. I had no idea what it was, but it scared me.

It was static electricity that caused this—it wasn't discharging from the airplane like it does today. That's when I really knew that if I was going to continue to fly I needed to know what was happening in the airplane. So I waited until I earned some money playing professional golf and then learned to fly in 1956. I started out in Cessna 172s and 182s, flying myself where I needed to go. 

What was the first airplane you bought?
I flew the single-engine Cessnas on short trips and then in 1961 I had an attorney named Russ Meyer. He and I got to know each other very well and became friends. I got him to help me buy my first airplane, which was an Aero Commander 500, a twin-engine airplane. At the time I didn't even have a twin-engine license. So I went and got my twin-engine license and that's when I started flying longer trips.

What airplanes did you progress through after that?
I went from the Aero Commander 500 to a 560F. The 500 was secondhand; the 560 was a brand-new airplane I bought from Aero Commander. All my aviation deals were negotiated by Russ Meyer. Next we negotiated with Aero Commander for me to lease a Jet Commander-which was a brand-new model at the time-for two years. That was 1966. I flew that airplane for a couple of years, but didn't take the option to buy it. Next, through Russ Meyer and Lear, we made a deal for me to lease a Lear 24D. I flew that for nine years-and I loved it. It was small and it got me where I wanted to go.

After my lease on the Lear 24 ran out, I had my mind set on a Lear 35. I talked to Harry Combs [Learjet's president from 1971 to 1982], who said if I did something for him he'd make a deal for me to buy a Learjet 35. He wanted me to take a Learjet 36 and fly it around the world, which I did in 1976. When I got back we tried to negotiate a deal but it never happened. Russ Meyer was part of these negotiations, and so he was quite aware of what happened. By this time he'd taken a leave of absence from the law firm and was president at Gulfstream and then joined Cessna, which made him an executive vice president and then chairman.

Russ was there when they were building their first business jet, the Citation 500. That became my next airplane. The year was 1976. Having flown a Lear for nine years with the call sign One Alpha Papa all the air traffic controllers knew who I was. When I was in the Lear I was flying at Mach 0.82 most of the time, but when I went to the Citation, I was back to Mach 0.64. The controllers occasionally would kid me and say things like, "Hey Arnie, a bird just flew by you."

Then I went through the whole series of Citations, from the I to the II, III, V, VII and then the X. In 1996 I got the first Citation X that was built for commercial use.

You had a hand in the design of the Citation X?
I would talk with Russ a lot and he was building it, so yes. What I wanted was a nice, fast executive airplane that I could fly for business, and that's what I got. It's a wonderful airplane that can carry nine passengers, has a speed of Mach 0.92 and long range. It has everything I could want.

Having a home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where there is no airline service, has made having an airplane almost necessary, I suspect.
I have flown out of Latrobe since I started. It has given me a world of opportunities. Every airplane I've flown has been based out of Latrobe. I couldn't have done many of the things I did without a business airplane. It afforded me the opportunity to be home with my family and at the same time accomplish the things I had to do to make my business and career successful.

Do you think flying yourself gave you an edge over other golfers?
It's a tremendous advantage having a business airplane. It doesn't matter if you're a golfer or a CEO or an engineer. Even before I started, guys like Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum and Ben Hogan-way back at the beginning of the tour-used charter airplanes to get to tournaments because it was so much more convenient. A lot of the airlines didn't fly where the tournaments were. Then Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and I were all flying, and we've used business aviation to our advantage our entire careers.

What made you want to get involved in the NBAA's No Plane, No Gain campaign?
Some of the articles I saw were putting a negative light on small, local airports-which are an absolute necessity in this country. From the days I first started flying my own airplane I realized how important it was to have a way to go places that the airlines never thought of serving. I could go to two or three places where I was building golf courses in a single day-cities where there is no airline service-and be home at night. The expense of a personal airplane is justified by the fact that you're able to do as much as you can in one day.

What would you say to an executive who has decided to stop using business aviation because of the negative perception?
I think that's a little shortsighted. I understand the situation from a perception standpoint, but an executive in a business-whatever the business might be-is contributing to the well being of this country. The better he can use his time through business aviation, the more he helps the country. A business jet gives him the ability to be more efficient. Business aviation is necessary. Without it we've really hurt the productivity of this country and the business world.

What about someone who argues that the airlines are the cheaper way to travel?
Think about the situation where I have to come to Orlando and I'm in Latrobe-those are the places where I have my two businesses. It takes a minimum of two hours to get from Latrobe to the closest airport served by the airlines, which is Pittsburgh. Then you have to be there an hour early, and then it's about two or two and half hours to fly to Orlando, at which point you have to deplane and get yourself out of the terminal. It takes the better part of a day doing that.

Now if I do that trip in my business jet, I leave my home and in 10 minutes I'm in my airplane at Latrobe Airport [renamed Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in 1999]. And in an hour and 40 minutes I'm in Orlando and in another 30 minutes I'm here [at his office at Bay Hill]. If I leave at eight in the morning I'm in my office doing business by 11. The efficiency of that is unbeatable. Whether you fly your own airplane or hire a crew, a business jet far outperforms any other mode of transportation.

If you hadn't been a professional golfer do you think you might have become a professional pilot? 
I've often thought about that. I certainly thought about the fact that if I were a professional pilot I would love it. But golf is my game. I'm glad I played golf for a living but I would have really enjoyed flying for a living, too.

Fast Facts

NAME: Arnold Palmer
AGE: 80
OCCUPATION: Legendary golf pro. Also, golf course owner and designer and owner of other golf-related businesses.
PERSONAL: Lives in Orlando, Fla., and in Latrobe, Pa., the town where he was born, with wife Kathleen Gawthrop. Two children from 45-year first marriage to Winifred Walzer, who died in 1999.