Clay Lacy and The Human Fly
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.