Udvar-Hazy Adds to Legacy by Test-Flying Planes He Buys

As Steven Udvar-Hazy assesses whether to acquire new planes for the leasing company he runs, he enjoys an edge over other buyers: He can test-fly the jets himself.

Air Lease Corp.’s chief executive officer and his longtime lieutenant, John Plueger, have had access to some of the world’s most-advanced airliners in recent months, trying out an Airbus Group NV A350’s controls in a simulator and piloting Boeing Co.’s latest 787 Dreamliner in the skies over the Seattle area.

They “did all the maneuvers” in the 787-9 under the watchful eye of Boeing pilots, Udvar-Hazy, 68, said at the Farnborough International Airshow near London this week as he signed airliner orders with the planemaker with a list value of $5.8 billion.

With certification in an array of jets and more than 11,000 flight hours since age 17, Udvar-Hazy’s role as a sort of test-pilot-in-chief burnishes the legacy of the man credited with pioneering the plane-leasing industry. He has proclaimed himself the godfather of the business, after founding International Lease Finance Corp. in 1973.

As Udvar-Hazy related details of his Dreamliner excursion, including low- and high-speed operations and flying on one engine, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner was moved to quip: “I was not on the airplane.”

Flight Discomfort

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

Udvar-Hazy and Plueger found themselves in the cockpit of the 787-9 test aircraft before the first handover of the latest version of the carbon-fiber model to Air New Zealand June 30. Plueger said: “That was kind of fun for us.”

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.

“Fly-before-buy was more the norm” into the 1970s, when executives with backgrounds in airline operations dominated the industry, said Bob Mann, an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York. Airline chiefs now don’t tend to do “hands-on flying,” he said.

Flight Credentials

Hazy’s credentials include being licensed as an air-transport pilot, the designation for air-crew who can fly airliners, and his favorite plane to fly is Gulfstream’s G650 executive jet. After selling ILFC to American International Group Inc. in 1990, he stayed on to run the unit until retiring in 2010 and founding 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 flying Airbus’s four-engine A340-600, once the world’s longest jetliner. Plueger said the Airbus 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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