a personal memoir

A race around the world—Boeing 747SP versus a Gulfstream IV and a Concorde

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Boeing 747SP "Friendship One" crew and passengers, back in Seattle at the end of their record-setting trip.

Trips around the world have been popular ever since Magellan set the stage with his trip in the 16th century. Jules Verne wrote a famous book about such a trip.

A US airman claims to have the unique record of having flown around the world facing backwards all the way in the tail gunner position of a Boeing B52.

The last round-the-world record was set by aviatrix Brooke Knappe in 1984 in a Gulfstream III which circled the globe in 45 hr 32 min.

Armed with this knowledge, a few of us—all friends, including Clay Lacy (a United Airlines 747 captain at the time)—plus Bruce McCaw and Joe Clark, decided at a luncheon at the 1987 Paris Air Show that it was time to set a new world record. To achieve this, Lacy arranged to borrow for a weekend a United Airlines Boeing 747SP, N147UA, which we named "Friendship One."

(L–R) Neil Armstrong with fellow passengers Alex Kvassay and Bob Hoover aboard the Boeing 747SP during their around-the-world trip.

Having gone this far, we sold tickets for $5000 each for the flight. The basis for United letting us use the airplane was that the trip was for charity.

The entire proceeds of 100 tickets—$500,000—was donated to a children's hospital in Seattle WA. The Boeing Company contributed the costs of fuel, landing fees, etc. Volkswagen paid catering and other incidental expenses. For this, we dragged a VW Golf around the world in the cargo bay.

The flight was commanded by Lacy and the passenger list included such celebrities as Moya Lear (Bill Lear's widow), Astronaut Neil Armstrong, United Airlines Founder Ed Carlson and Aerobatic Pilot Bob Hoover.

Someone computed that there were more than 100,000 flight hours accumulated by the participants—most of whom were pilots, obviously.

To qualify for an around-the-world record, the distance covered has to be a minimum of 36,787.5 km, or about 23,000 miles. On Jan 28–30, 1988, departing from and returning to BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA), we made 2 refueling stops enroute—ATH (Ellinikon, Athens, Greece) (now closed) and TPE (Taipei, Taiwan). Our total elapsed time was 35 hrs 4 min. Our total ground time was 1 hr 50 min. And we set a new record.

Commanding the 1988 "Friendship One" flight was then-United Airlines Capt Clay Lacy.

However, our glory was short lived. Soon afterwards, Al Paulson of Gulfstream beat our record in a Gulfstream IV.

He did so by means of his superbly organized ground stops. While he had to make 4 refueling stops, as compared with our 2, the average ground time for each stop was 18 min.

Obviously, their records were just waiting to be broken by a Concorde. Air France organized such a trip in 1992, with a Concorde restricted to 70 passengers—mostly invited guests—reduced from the total capacity of 100 because of weight limitations.

Air France flight 1492 started in Lisbon on Oct 12, 1992. The relatively short range of the Concorde necessitated 6 refueling stops—Santo Domingo, Acapulco, Honolulu, Guam, Bangkok, Bahrain and back to Lisbon. For record purposes, the 2 captains, Claude Delorme and Jean Boye, had to perform on the entire flight, while cabin crews were changed in Honolulu and Bangkok. The gourmet menu was a book in itself.

Moya Lear, widow of aviation pioneer Bill Lear, serves breakfast to fellow passenger on "Friendship One" trip.

As a typical airline operation, each groundstop was prescheduled to 90 min. This was strictly followed. A business pilot would have ignored such self-imposed rules and gone like heck the minute refueling was complete.

But, of course, the receptions and cocktails for crew and passengers could not be interrupted during the ground stops. (For the duration of the 747SP flight, only the refueling crew had been allowed to leave the airplane.

The rest of us were restricted for 37 hrs—but there was an onboard party going on all the time anyway.) On arrival in Lisbon, the Concorde was greeted by Air France Pres Bernard Attali.

The total elapsed time on the Concorde flight was 32 hrs 49 min, bettering Al Paulson's record by 3 hrs 19 min and beating the 747SP record by 4 hrs 5 min. Considering that the Concorde cruises—or cruised—at more than twice the speed of both the Boeing and the Gulfstream, this was not a very impressive new record. Of course, its total time was much increased by spending 9 hrs 19 min on the ground.

I was privileged to participate in both the 747SP and the Concorde flights. But it was a poor way to see the world. It validated the old saying—jet flying is a way of seeing less and less of more and more.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.