Guest Blog: Brigid Leahy

We know this week’s guest blogger exceptionally well. Brigid Leahy is Anna’s sister and a fellow alum of Knox College, where Doug met her lo those many years ago. By day, Brigid is Director of Legislation at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, but when she’s not at work, she’s an Elvis fan and fosters dogs for the Animal Protective League. Honestly, we thought, if Brigid wrote a guest post for us, it would be about airsicknesses, a topic about which she knows a great deal. But she found an even better, and more timely, topic as this week’s Lofty guest blogger.

This coming Sunday, January 8, marks Elvis Presley’s 77th birthday. We’ve written about music before at Lofty Ambitions (click HERE for a post on shuttle wake-up songs), but it’s not always easy to find the connection between music and the focuses of our blog. Brigid, however, found a great way to honor The King and write about aviation.

ELVIS PRESLEY, AIRPLANES, & ME

I have been an Elvis fan since I can remember. I love his music and his movies. I would rush home after school for our local Channel 3’s “Elvis Week,” which would air a different Elvis movie each day. I’ve seen Clambake nine times. For years I had been waiting to go to Graceland at a time when I could go by myself and spend as much time there as I wanted. This past summer, I was finally able to go to Graceland. I booked the full tour—the house, the special clothing exhibition, the automobile museum, AND the airplanes!

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley in a two-room shotgun house built by his father in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father worked odd jobs and money was tight. In 1938, they lost their home. Thus, Elvis spent much of his childhood living in public housing or with relatives. His family was often dependent on government food assistance. In Tupelo, schoolmates teased Elvis for being a “trashy” kid who played hillbilly music and lived on the wrong side of town in a largely African-American neighborhood. Life after moving to Memphis was much the same, with the family living for a year in rooming houses until they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex. Elvis continued to be teased and was labeled a shy, mama’s boy.

We are often surprised, of course, by who grows up to do what. Elvis’ music career allowed him to reject his difficult childhood in many ways and to remake himself. During his junior year in high school, Elvis became more and more willing to perform for an audience. He began to dress with more flash, taking his fashion cues from the performers on Beale Street. His daughter Lisa Marie would later say that Elvis never owned a pair of blue jeans once he became a star because jeans were a staple of his poor childhood. Each day he would not emerge from the second floor of Graceland until he was fully dressed and accessorized with expensive jewelry. Elvis quickly became known for the opulence of his dress, jewelry, home, and transportation.

Elvis’s growing inclination toward extravagance is seen early in his career with his purchase of Graceland in 1957. The 18-room mansion reflects Elvis’s sense of luxury at the time. By today’s standards of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” however, the place may seem to some visitors small and rather tacky. But to the 22-year-old Elvis, Graceland was the fancy family home that he could provide for his mother. Once Elvis’s fame became so overwhelming that he could scarcely go anywhere without being recognized, this home became a refuge.

Elvis Presley's Convair 880

While Graceland was above the middle-class standards of the time, it wasn’t over the top. However, Elvis’s airplanes are definite signs of unrestrained opulence. Elvis leased and owned several aircraft (a Grumman Gulfstream G-1, a Fairchild F-27, an Aero Jet Commander, a Lockheed JetStar, a Dessault-Falcon), and it’s likely that the planes were purchased out of practicality because Elvis could not travel on commercial airlines. He was just too famous, and his schedule demanded a lot of travel. But these airplanes weren’t merely serviceable. They were remodeled lavishly to Elvis’s particular taste.

Gold-Plated Seat Buckle on the Lisa Marie

The most famous of Elvis’s aircraft is the Lisa Marie, which he called “The Pride of Elvis Presley Airways” and his “Flying Graceland.” On April 17, 1975, Elvis spent $250,000 on a Convair 880 Jet, which had been in service with Delta Airlines. (For another take on the Convair 880, check out an article HERE at Airliners.net.) The Convair 880 was in production for about three years, with 65 total aircraft manufactured. Elvis spent an additional $350,000 refurbishing it—that’s right, he spent more on redecorating and upgrading than on the initial purchase. He then christened it the “Lisa Marie” in honor of his daughter.

The Restroom, with gold-plated sink

Elvis personally oversaw the transformation of the Lisa Marie by selecting the color scheme, choosing fabrics, and flying several times to see the plane’s progress at Meacham Field in Fort Worth. After its refurbishment, it had seating to 28, but usually only about ten people were on board. All seating was equipped with gold-plate seat belt buckles. The plane was lavishly outfitted with a seating area, a conference room, and a private bedroom. The Lisa Marie had two restrooms, both with 24-karat gold plate washbasins and fixtures. The videotape system was linked to four televisions, and the stereo system had 52 speakers.  The conference room was finished in teak. The bar was always stocked with 15 kinds of soda pop, though Elvis preferred Dr. Pepper and Lime Gatorade and didn’t really care for alcohol. It also had a “penthouse bedroom” with a custom-made queen-sized bed. Because of federal regulations, the bed was furnished with a seat belt. It, too, had a gold-plate buckle. The plane’s tail displayed Elvis’ TCB logo.

On November 27, 1975, the Lisa Marie made its first official flight, fittingly traveling to Las Vegas. Its tower call name was 880 Echo Pappa, and its nickname was Hound Dog One. Elwood David was the captain and pilot. Also on staff were another pilot, Ron Strauss, and a flight engineer, Jim Manny. The Lisa Marie was used for more than business travel. One Christmas, Elvis took his family and friends on a joyride. Another year, Lisa Marie blew out her birthday candles in the conference room while in mid-flight. After Elvis’ death, the plane was used to pick up Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie, and the actor George Hamilton so that they could quickly come to Graceland. The operating cost for 1976 (the year before Elvis’s death) was $404,000, and it burned 1700 gallons of fuel an hour.

Vernon Presley sold the Lisa Marie in 1978. Its ownership changed hands a few times. Finally, in 1984, the Lisa Marie returned to Memphis and has been housed at Graceland as an exhibit ever since. The Lisa Marie is the only one of nine remaining Convair 880s that is properly preserved, and no Convair 880 remains airworthy.

Cockpit of the Lisa Marie
Graceland, Summer 2011

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