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Clay Lacy and The Human Fly

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The photo on this page has been kicking around my inbox for more than a year, having been sent to me by someone asking if it depicted a real event. Given that we live in a world where Photoshop is a verb, it’s a perfectly logical question.

As you’ll see from today’s video, the photo is quite real and depicts Clay Lacy’s fanciful flight of The Human Fly on the roof of a DC-8 in 1976. I vaguely recall the actual event, but if it got much publicity at the time, the memory of it seems to have been lost to the years, so I decided to phone Lacy for the background. As with everything in Lacy’s career, the backstory is interesting, the result of just the right alignment of having an airplane available, an airshow to promote, an ever-willing stuntman and a sponsor to pay for it all.

Although the video doesn’t explain it, the Human Fly’s benefactor was a pair a brothers in Montreal who owned a prosperous Pepperoni factory but were a tad bored with the sausage business. So they raised $200,000 and formed a promotional company of which the Human Fly was only the opening act. The DC-8 version of the Fly was Rick Rojatt, but the brothers apparently envisioned garbing others in the Fly’s disco-style red suit, it being 1976 after all, for all sorts of stunts. They planned a rocket flight across the English Channel and a swan dive from the CN tower in Toronto.

Lacy got the easy part. He happened to have a DC-8 available, thanks to an Alan Paulson deal to remarket a handful of retired JAL aircraft. Lacy knew enough people in the Washington side of the FAA to grease the approval wheels and in a few weeks time, he had the world’s only DC-8 with an external seat. Actually a perch, I suppose.

Would today’s FAA go for such a thing? Hard to imagine. In 1976, all the feds could think of to slow down the Human Fly project was to require a maintenance program, which Lacy was able to pull together relatively easily. But at least in those days, someone in the FAA would actually at least tell you what was required. Today, good luck.

The Human Fly act was but a page in a chapter of Lacy’s stunning and long career in aviation. He’s very much the last of a breed whose experience bridges the world of piston and jet aircraft. His book, Lucky Me, has him photographed with everyone who’s anyone in aviation, from World War II aces to moon walkers. Lacy did stints as a military pilot, a test pilot, air racer and airline pilot and he’s yet active today in the industry from his headquarters at Van Nuys Airport.

Although most of us probably can’t list Lacy’s considerable achievements, we probably see them every day. When the Learjet first appeared in the mid-1960s, Lacy saw not just a fast, appealing business jet, but a camera platform that could shoot anything that flew. Thus was born Astrovision, the sophisticated camera system used to shoot movies and high-end commercials of airliners sailing into the sunrise. You can see early Astrovision at work in the Human Fly video.

Computer-generated imagery has put a dent in that business, but real footage is sometimes still cheaper than CGI. “That’s especially true if you want the ground in the shot,” Lacy told me. “It costs hundreds of thousands to do that with CGI, but for an airline commercial, they can rent the 747 and me for less than $100,000.”

Which brings us full circle. Today, the Human Fly could be a CGI project, but what a thrill to know it wasn’t.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (8)

Paul,

I grew up admiring Lacy. What I find so amazing and impressive about the man is how much he achieved at such a young age. During the Human Fly event he was only in his early forties and had already accomplished many diverse and incredible things in military, airline and general aviation.

I have read that he has the most logged flying hours (that are known) of any living pilot, well over 40,000. Is that true?

Thanks,

Todd

Posted by: TODD PRICE | December 23, 2013 11:02 PM    Report this comment

His book says 50,000 hours. Given the variety of flying he's done, I don't doubt it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 24, 2013 7:51 AM    Report this comment

Clay is a remarkable person and unique pilot. His career at United began as a copilot then captain on DC 3s, then thru the big pistons and finished as their senior 747 captain. He stays current in many aircraft from warbirds thru Lear Jets and the timeless DC 3.

Crafty

Posted by: George Hulett | December 25, 2013 3:19 PM    Report this comment

I was there... The event was the Unlimited races at Mojave airport in the desert north of Edwards AFB. The Human Fly was one of the acts between races. I also remember Clay raced a DC-6(?) around the pylon course. Never see this stuff again. Sigh.

Posted by: Richard Smith | December 26, 2013 7:26 AM    Report this comment

I saw the human fly in Lancaster Texas in 1976. They did not take off or land at Lancaster so he had to do a short x-country before the fly bys. There were some rain showers in the area and he may have gotten a little beat up. I am not sure if they took off from Love field or DFW. I never heard of the human fly again. I also saw the Red devils perform at that same show, same guys that went on to become the Eagles aerobatic team.

Posted by: William Rucker | December 26, 2013 9:16 AM    Report this comment

Clay also flew a Human Fly DC-8 (in United Airlines livery) at Oshkosh one year, late '70's or early '80s. It was a surprise visit, we were expecting a pass from a DC-8, but the guy on top, we didn't expect. I think the Fly may have been Eddie Green, although I would swear to it. He had a long ride-- from MSP to OSH, then a couple of passes, then back to MSP!

Posted by: Denny Cunningham | December 27, 2013 2:43 AM    Report this comment

Clay is about as much of a Class Act human being that I have ever had the privileged of meeting.

He has so many stories that leave you just hanging on for the last word.

It would be great to have Clay Lacy, Joe Kittenger, and Bob Hoover do a taped interview while it is still possible.

buro

Posted by: jim stone | December 27, 2013 2:05 PM    Report this comment

Was at the Mojave Air Races when I saw the Human Fly/DC-8. Have photos I will have to scan and post. And Clay has been a part of my aviation and air show experience for decades, from the purple Mustang at Reno to his operations in my own backyard here in Seattle.

Posted by: Jay Tolbert | December 27, 2013 2:17 PM    Report this comment

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