When a young Arnold Palmer walked into an airport hangar in 1956 and asked for flying lessons, another chapter of a legend had begun. Arnie learned to fly in his hometown of Latrobe, PA, at an airport that today bears his name. He’s piloted a Boeing 747, set an around-the-world flight record and owned more aircraft than most people have cars. Today, his reputation as a pilot is exceeded only by his status as a golfer, but in 1956 “professional golfer” didn’t mean much to the man who taught Arnie how to fly.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing,” said Babe Krinock, the legendary pilot and instructor of Palmer and more than 1,000 others. “And I never dreamed that they’d one day name the airport after him. He was a great student, absolutely fearless. He’d do aerobatics all the time if he could. He just loves to fly.”
No question there. Palmer averages 150-200 hours in the cockpit each year, and was managing 400-500 during the peak of his career. With that, he’s logged more than 18,000 hours total, adding up to approximately 4.8 million statute miles.
Quite a few of those miles were covered in 1976 with a record-setting around-the-world flight, which provided The King with all kinds of challenges. “I did it for the thrill, and it became a motivation to get a new airplane, which was promised when I finished it,” Palmer tells us. “That part of the deal, as it turns out, didn’t come through.” Whether he got a new plane out of it or not, Palmer and two others did get a new world record, flying a Learjet 36 from Denver to Denver in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds.
“Every five hours there was a new challenge,” Palmer says. “Whether it was a typhoon or making it to the next destination with enough fuel. The challenges never stopped.” Then again, not all of the challenges were forces of nature—though they were of formidable size, as Palmer found during a stop in Sri Lanka when he paused to go for a ride. On an elephant.
“I did,” he remembers. “They met me at the plane with the elephant and I rode into town for the golf awards and then back… It was a busy 55 minutes in Sri Lanka.”
Krinock died earlier this year, but his legacy lives on in Palmer’s abilities and extensive travels. Since 1996, Arnie has flown the exemplary Cessna Citation X jet. He’s in a 2002 model now, and with its serious speed and distance capabilities there’s no slowing him down. Just ask his current chief pilot, Pete Luster. Besides going back and forth between homes at Bay Hill in Orlando and in Latrobe, the two have seen “Costa Rica, Ireland, Scotland… The overseas trips are always unique,” says Luster. “But we’ve been to Hawaii about ten times now I guess, so that’s kind of old hat…”
Nice to call Hawaii “old hat”, but understandable considering the flight hours the two rack up. “I’m his sidekick on a lot of trips, which I thoroughly enjoy,” says Luster.
In the cockpit, the chief pilot says Palmer is a consummate pro, an excellent pilot who’s been flying longer than Luster himself. As Luster told Airport Journals in 2004, “The unique thing about being Arnold Palmer’s pilot is that he’s the other pilot. That’s significant. When the boss is sitting in the backseat, which is the case in most corporate jobs, you can sometimes get away with screwing up. When he’s sitting right there beside you, it’s pretty tough to do that!”
That said, Luster told kingdom that the two make a good pair. “I joke with him sometimes and say we’re probably like an old married couple: we know what to expect from each other, which really helps in the cockpit… It’s a very comfortable environment—and he’s fun to fly with. We make it fun, have a good time, and get the job done at the same time.”
When Arnold Palmer flies, he flies high—and he flies himself. Here’s a look at some of the planes Arnie has owned over the years:
1961 Aero Commander 500
1963 560F Commander
This light twin-engine aircraft was designed in the 1940s by the Aero Design and Engineering Company, which eventually became the Aero Commander division of Rockwell. From the first production model in 1951, the aircraft saw many variations and was immensely popular with a number of countries’ militaries, including ours. The most common 500 series featured two Lycoming engines making near 290hp each and sat seven (including a pilot and passenger up front). A later version was still in service with the USCG and U.S. Customs Service as of 2004. One Aero Commander U-4B (in accordance with the “U” designation used for U.S. military aircraft) also holds the status of smallest Air Force One ever, shuttling Palmer friend and President Dwight Eisenhower around between 1956 and 1960. This particular AF1 was the first to sport the now standard blue-and-white color design.
1966 Jet Commander
A May 1966 edition of Flight magazine advertises this jet-powered Aero Commander as “The only business jet in the world in which everybody rides first-class.” No wonder you-know-who made this his first jet. In 1968, to help Aero Commander owner Rockwell and its Sabreliner executive jet avoid potential anti-trust legal issues, all Jet Commander rights were sold to Israeli Aircraft Industries. The jet’s name was changed to the IAI Westwind and the aircraft became the company’s main product, remaining in production for 20 years.
Palmer with his Jet Commander
1968 Lear 24
Capable of clipping along at a brisk 565 mph at 45,000 ft fully loaded, this luxury class business jet was one of the most popular of its day—and beyond. At least 200 were still in use as of 2001.
A top flight all around, the 1976 version boasted an extended ceiling to 51,000 feet, the highest at the time for civilian aviation.
In the mid 1980s, Palmer went vertical with a Hughes MD500E helicopter. Lee Lauderback, Arnie’s chief pilot at the time, said the whirlybird was ideal for quick course-to-course transport because Palmer could land where he played. A civilian version of a military observation helicopter, the MD500E is capable of approximately 175mph and has a range of roughly 267 miles.
Palmer’s Cessna Citations
1976 Citation I, 1978 Citation II, 1983 Citation III, 1992 Citation VII, 1996 First Citation X, 2002 Second Citation X
Cessna’s turbofan-powered family of business jets contains some of the most popular aircraft in the world, and it’s not surprising. Efficient, luxurious and fast, Citations often are custom-tailored and are always dependable, representing the best technologies and amenities available at the time they roll out.
Updated and improved over the years, Citations are now available in a wide variety of configurations. Palmer’s current ride, a 2002 Citation X, is as comfortable and fast as they come. In fact, the current model Citation X became the fastest civilian aircraft in the world when the Concorde was retired. More than just another plane to Palmer, The King actually had a hand in this aircraft’s design. Cessna President (and former Palmer chief pilot) Charlie Johnson told Airport Journals that Palmer “influenced the range of speed perimeters and the interior” in the X and that the golf legend was likely the first non-Cessna person to fly it. With 24 feet of stand-up cabin space, top avionics and enough seating for plenty of friends, all you need is the umbrella logo on the side. Now you’re flying.
The King with his Citation X