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Jet service pioneer at Van Nuys Airport gets Howard Hughes honor

February 9, 2012 | 12:36 pm

Camarillo pilot Clay Lacy taxies in his P51 fighter at Camarillo Airport preparing for an airshow in 1997. Credit: Joe Pugliese / Los Angeles Times

Clay Lacy, a veteran pilot, air race champion and aviation entrepreneur who introduced the first corporate jet service in the western United States, received the Howard Hughes Memorial Award Wednesday night from the Aero Club of Southern California.

Lacy, 79, a prominent figure at Van Nuys Airport whose career has spanned almost  60 years, was presented the club’s highest honor at a banquet in downtown Los Angeles.

The award places Lacy in the ranks of other famous Hughes recipients such as Jack Northrop, Jimmy Doolittle,  Chuck Yeager, Ed Heinemann, Neil Armstrong, Burt Rutan and Bob Hoover.

Lacy flew for the first time at age 12 and received his student pilot permit two years later.  By the time he was 19, he had logged 1,500 hours in the air, enough to convince United Airlines to hire him as a co-pilot in 1952. He flew Douglas DC-3s.

Lacy joined the Air National Guard in 1954 and was stationed at Van Nuys, where he piloted the P-51 Mustang and  F-86 Sabre, the swept-wing jet fighter made famous during the Korean War.  He later spent 40 years as an United airline captain and rose to the top of the seniority list before retiring.

In 1968, Lacy leased a Learjet and established Clay Lacy Aviation at Van Nuys Airport, the first charter service for corporate jets west of the Mississippi. His business has been a mainstay at the airport for decades.

Lacy holds 29 speed records, including one for an around-the-world charity flight in a Boeing 747. In 1970, he flew his purple P-51 to victory in the Reno National Air Race Championship, and as an expert in aerial photography he has worked on more than 2,800 films for the military, airlines, television and the movie industry.

Overall, Lacy has flown more than 300 types of aircraft, earned 32 different ratings and logged more than 50,000 flight hours, reportedly more than any other aviator.

“I’m basically a pilot,” Lacy told members of the Aero Club. “I’m lucky, I guess. I’ve managed to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

-- Dan Weikel

Photo: Van Nuys pilot Clay Lacy taxis in his P-51 fighter at Camarillo Airport, preparing for an airshow in 1997. Credit: Joe Pugliese / Los Angeles Times