Marco Island pilot flew The King

By Mike Loomis - July 20, 2000

Ron Strauss piloted this four-engine Convair 880 jet owned by Elvis - Ron Strauss has seen Elvis everywhere. But he wasn't hallucinating.

Strauss, 59, flew the Lisa Marie, Elvis Presley's big private passenger jet named for his daughter, from 1975 until Elvis' death on Aug. 19, 1977.

Whether crisscrossing the nation on one of Elvis' many tours or making a late-night flight to Denver for peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, the job was a "once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Strauss, a 40-year pilot.

"Elvis would come up to the cockpit just about every flight to say hello," recalled Strauss, a Marco Island resident since 1988. "He was a very nice guy, a very smart man. And he had unbelievable charisma."

The plane - a Convair 880 with the radio code name of "Hound Dog 1" - was a Delta Airlines passenger jet until Elvis bought it from an airplane broker and friend of Strauss. The broker recommended Strauss, who was familiar with that type of aircraft, to Elvis' father, Vernon Presley. The two met in Memphis and, soon after, the deal was finalized.

Thank you very much.

"They sent the plane to Dallas and they gutted it," Strauss said.

Close in size to a 707, the Lisa Marie was customized with plush sleeping quarters, a conference table, a lounge area, two lavatories and a well-stocked galley and bar.

"It could hold a maximum of 29 people, but usually there would be about eight or 10," Strauss said.

The first trip Strauss made on the Lisa Marie was a jaunt from Memphis to Las Vegas, where Elvis was due to perform.

"On tour, the itinerary was very structured," he said. "We would be on the road for two weeks at a time during the tours. Then we'd be back in Memphis for as long as a month sometimes."

Strauss, who has flown aircraft ranging from gliders and biplanes to Lear jets and 767s, holds an airline transport pilot certification, the highest rating issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. Strauss, a native of Fonda, Iowa, now flies 757s for UPS and owns a biplane for recreation.

Accompanying Strauss in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie was another pilot, Elwood David, and a flight engineer, Jim Manny. The flight crew was on call 24 hours a day. But Elvis, because of his fame and for security reasons, rarely traveled in daylight.

"He might call at one, two o'clock in the morning and say 'Let's go,'" Strauss said.

He remembers a trip to Denver, where Elvis wanted to bring his daughter and friends to a restaurant famed for its deluxe peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Other recollections include a stay in Vail, Colo., where "Elvis wanted to buy five Cadillacs for some friends of his," Strauss recalled. "But one of them wanted a pickup, so Elvis got the pickup and four Cadillacs."

On occasion, members of the crew could bring along their wives or relatives, but Strauss remembers a trip to Honolulu when the crew was told they'd have to leave their spouses behind because the Lisa Marie would be filled to capacity.

When they made a stop in California on the way, however, Strauss and the others realized an incorrect passenger count had resulted in a few open seats after all. Elvis came to the cockpit, apologized for the error and insisted that Strauss make a call to book his wife, Betty, on a first-class seat on the next plane out of Memphis.

"I really wasn't that upset about it, but Elvis said if I didn't do it, he'd find himself another pilot," Strauss laughed.

Among the tokens Strauss has from his days of piloting the Lisa Marie is a gold chain with the inscription "TCB." The initials stand for "taking care of business," the motto of the Presley organization that was painted on the tail of the jet.

"Elvis gave those out to people he liked. He gave the 'TCB' chains to the guys and 'TLC' to women," he said.

Strauss also owns a '73 Corvette Stingray he bought at a Memphis dealership across the road from Graceland.

"That car is the only Corvette in the world that was in Elvis' funeral procession," said Strauss, who, prior to piloting the Lisa Marie, flew 100 combat support missions during a four-year tour of duty in Vietnam.

After Elvis' death, Strauss flew to California to pick up Elvis' ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie and the actor George Hamilton, a long-time friend of Elvis. He flew them back to California after the funeral, and, in what would be his last flight on the Lisa Marie, returned the plane to Memphis. But next week, Strauss will reunite with his former Lisa Marie crewmates, David and Manny, at an aviation function in Fort Lauderdale.

"Elvis' dad sold the plane in 1978 and it changed hands a couple of times," said Graceland spokesman Todd Morgan. "When Graceland opened up to the public in 1982, we worked with the owners to try and bring the plane home to Memphis."

In 1984, the Lisa Marie was stationed at Graceland. It has remained as one of the compound's most popular attractions ever since, Morgan said in a phone interview from Memphis. It sits next to the Hound Dog Two, a small JetStar also used during some of Elvis' travels. Morgan said more than 60 percent of Graceland's 700,000 annual visitors tour the planes.

"When Elvis and his parents left Tupelo, Miss., and came to Memphis to find a better way of life, they piled everything they had into an old Plymouth," Morgan said. "He certainly went out better than he came in."


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