Leasing CEO Swaps Office for Cockpit to Fly Jets He Buys

The self-proclaimed godfather of the aircraft-leasing industry enjoys an edge over other buyers of Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV jets: He can fly them himself.

Air Lease Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steven Udvar-Hazy and longtime lieutenant John Plueger have had access to some of the world’s most-advanced airliners in recent months, trying out an Airbus A350’s controls in a simulator and piloting Boeing’s latest 787 Dreamliner in the skies over the Seattle area.

“That was kind of fun for us,” Plueger said of the chance to put a 787-9 test aircraft through its paces before the first handover of the carbon-fiber model to Air New Zealand June 30.

Under the watch of Boeing pilots, Udvar-Hazy and Plueger “did all the maneuvers” -- flying the Dreamliner on one engine and maneuvering at low and high speed, Udvar-Hazy said yesterday at the Farnborough International Airshow near London.

“I was not on the airplane,” Ray Conner, CEO of Chicago-based Boeing’s commercial airplane unit, said with a laugh as Udvar-Hazy signed aircraft orders with a list value of $5.8 billion.

“There were other management people there who turned a different color,” Udvar-Hazy said of his turn at the controls.

Boeing has extended flying privileges to other customers whose senior executives are serious pilots, including former Formula One driver Niki Lauda, who founded a low-cost carrier, and former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, according to Mark Hooper, a company spokesman.

11,000 Hours

Hazy, 68, began flying when he was 17 and has amassed more than 11,000 hours. He pioneered the plane-leasing business with the founding of International Lease Finance Corp. in 1973, which was acquired by American International Group Inc. in 1990. He retired from ILFC in 2010, then founded Air Lease with Plueger, who is president and chief operating officer.

Flying the newest planes is a perk that Plueger says he’s relished at Air Lease as well as ILFC.

“They’re all so interesting,” Plueger said. “We don’t fly them all the time, we just fly them in the test phase.”

High points include piloting the first Boeing 787-8 to land in Salt Lake City, Plueger said in an interview, and steering Airbus’s four-engine A340-600, once the world’s longest jetliner. Plueger said Airbus’s A350, which is due for its first delivery this year, has “a very advanced cockpit as well, but I haven’t flown the airplane.”

Both Udvar-Hazy and Plueger said they liked the ease of handling the 787-9, the larger of the two current Dreamliner versions. Their approval is a good thing: Los Angeles-based Air Lease has orders for 45 of the -9 and longer 787-10, which is still in development.

Plueger was impressed with how the Dreamliner’s computers handled the plane in turbulence, analyzing loads on the structure of the aircraft and moving the control surfaces to counter the choppy air quicker than any pilot could.

“The 787-9 was certainly the most technologically advanced plane we’ve flown,” Plueger said. “That was really cool.”

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