Q&A: Catching up with Clay Lacy, UND honorary degree recipient

Aviation pioneer and UND honorary degree recipient Clay Lacy’s love for flying soars high

At Spring Commencement in May, Clay Lacy, aviation pioneer and long-time UND supporter, received an honorary degree from the University. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

No other human has spent more time in the sky than Clay Lacy.

His 50,000 hours in the air encompass roles such as fighter pilot, senior captain at United Airlines, air racer, aerial cinematographer and charter-flight entrepreneur.

“I’ve been intrigued with aircraft since I was 5 years old, and knew I wanted to be a pilot at about age 7,” Lacy told the National Aviation Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2010. “When I was 12, I started working at an airport, trading work time for flying time. In fact, I only worked one day in my life outside of aviation. It was in a grocery and I lasted three hours.”

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1932, Clay grew up during the Great Depression in the city famed as the “aviation capital of the world.” Thus, his fascination with aircraft – he would fly more than 300 types of jets – is hardly coincidental.

While many figures influenced young Lacy, who lost his father to tuberculosis at the age of 7, it was Orville Sanders who shepherded the boy into aviation.

At the end of the Second World War, Sanders purchased airplanes and parked them on a golf course near Lacy’s grandmother’s farm. Lacy would eventually befriend Sanders and help him paint the jets in exchange of flight hours, the Airport Journals reported in 2014.

Eventually, Lacy would lobby his grandmother for a 40-acre swath of land, where Sanders founded the Cannonball Airport, where he worked and flew.

Lifetime in aviation

At age 14, Lacy already held a student permit, which was followed by a pilot license and an instructor’s rating. Five years later, in January 1952, with 1,500 hours under his wings, Lacy joined United Airlines and relocated to Los Angeles.

“I was so lucky to get a job with United at an early age,” he told Airport Journals. “That set a lifetime career for me.”

Lacy, who has established a scholarship for aviation students at UND, partook in the Commencement festivities on campus and walked across the stage in mid-May. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

When the Korean War broke, the draft board summoned Lacy, who enlisted with the Air National Guard at Van Nuys Airport, where he would eventually oversee instrument flight training. Here he met Jack Conroy, another airline pilot in the Guard, one of the few who became a close accomplice in Lacy’s later attainments.

In 1962, Lacy entered the chronicles of space exploration. Together with Conroy, he conducted the inaugural test flight of a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser – known as the Pregnant Guppy – which was poised to bear the Saturn rocket booster for NASA’s endeavor to send men on the moon.

Two years later, Lacy, who remained a United pilot, left the Guard to become a demonstrator for Pacific Learjet, a pioneering venture in corporate air travel. In 1968, he established his own jet charter, Clay Lacy Aviation, which marked the first such business west of the Mississippi.

Throughout the decades since, Clay Lacy Aviation has gained the hard-to-beat reputation of the company of choice for Hollywood’s celebrities.

But Lacy did more than just fly movie stars around. He helped them make movies. As an aerial photographer, Lacy’s shots appear in flicks such as Top Gun, Armageddon and The Great Santini.

Lacy’s air-trailblazer status also includes 29 world speed records, according to his profile on Clay Lacy Aviation. In 1988, he flew a Boeing 747SP around the globe in less than 37 hours, raising more than half a million dollars for children’s charities.

Part of Lacy’s philanthropy, which supports various initiatives, is a scholarship for aviation students at the University of North Dakota’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

At the Spring Commencement in May, Lacy visited campus to receive an honorary degree from the University. Shortly afterward, UND Today caught up with him.

Aviation, Lacy said, is a rewarding career he is humbled to have pursued. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

Why do you support UND and its aviation program?

I think UND is a wonderful school and everything they do is first-class. I had a scholarship in aviation and I was running it through another organization, actually, and when I was introduced to UND, [I switched]. I was so impressed with how UND does business and their training. I am on the board for the Aerospace Foundation. I have been honored to be involved with UND. 

What was it like to visit campus and receive an honorary degree?

I was very honored to be given the honorary degree from UND. I am just very proud of it and I am happy it came from UND. 

Why aviation?

I think that aviation is the most interesting and rewarding career. It is so important for all the last 120 years, since the start of aviation and all the things it has brought to our lives. I feel honored and lucky to be involved in aviation.

What is the best part about being a pilot?

I think the best part of being a pilot is to have an opportunity to experience freedom that was never known before aviation. Now, people travel all over the world. It has been a great, great career to be in and I am honored to be part of it. 

I have always wanted to be able to see the world from a different perspective, essentially. It is great that I have been able to do it.