Capt. Arnie's Final Flight

After 55 years, the legendary golfer and pilot hangs up his wings

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer in the cockpit of
his Citation X

It's the end of an era. Golf legend Arnold Palmer has made his final flight as pilot in command, calling it quits after almost 55 years at the controls of everything from open-cockpit biplanes to a Boeing 747. Along the way, he amassed nearly 20,000 hours in the cockpit.

Palmer, 81, flew his Cessna Citation X from Palm Springs, California, back to his home in Orlando, Florida, on Monday, January 31, his last trip in the left seat. On arrival he announced that he would not renew his pilot certification, which expired that day.

“I'll still be flying in my plane as much as always, just not in the cockpit," Palmer said. “Flying has been one of the great things in my life. It’s taken me to the far corners of the world. I met thousands of people I otherwise wouldn't have met. And I even got to play a little golf along the way.”

I interviewed Palmer last year at Bay Hill, his championship golf course in Orlando. He told me about his plan to stop flying, but asked that I keep it quiet until the news was official. “I’ve come to realize that I can’t do it as well as I once could, and so it’s time to stop,” he said. "It was the same with golf."

Palmer also took me through his entire flying career (and I don’t think there’s any doubt that it really was a "career"—Palmer was as much a professional as any pilot you're likely to meet) from his first flying lessons in 1956 in a Cessna 172 to his time piloting his beloved Aero Commander 500, to his many Cessna Citation models. A close friendship with former Cessna chairman and CEO Russ Meyer made Palmer the world’s most famous Citation customer.

Palmer's fly-bys when departing from tournaments were a distinctive signature throughout the 1960s and '70s, and his skill as a pilot was matched by several notable achievements. In 1969, Palmer piloted a Boeing 747 before the airplane had gone into commercial service. In 1976, he set a round-the-world speed record that still stands. Taking off from Denver in a Learjet 36 and heading east, Palmer circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds, stopping in Boston, Paris, Tehran, Sri Lanka, Jakarta, Manila, Wake Island and Honolulu.

Today Palmer is a high-profile supporter of business aviation, appearing in a number of print and Web ads for the National Business Aviation Association’s “No Plane, No Gain” advocacy campaign. It’s his way of giving back to a pursuit that gave him so much for so long. “I’m glad I played golf for a living, but I would have really enjoyed flying for a living, too,” he told me during our interview.

It’s remarkable, then, that a fear of flying led Palmer to the cockpit. Traveling to one of his first tournaments aboard a DC-3, the airplane descended through a line of thunderstorms and was struck by lightning. “I was sitting on the left side of the airplane—I can remember it as if it was yesterday—when suddenly this ball of fire started rolling around in the aisle. I had no idea what it was, but it scared me. It was static electricity that caused this—it wasn't discharging from the airplane like it does today. That’s when I really knew that if I was going to continue to fly I needed to know what was happening in the airplane. So I waited until I earned some money playing professional golf and then learned to fly in 1956. I started out in Cessna 172s and 182s, flying myself where I needed to go.”

And he never looked back.

It’s fitting that Palmer ends his time in the cockpit just as another budding aviator drawn to flying by fear and a desire to understand how airplanes work makes his first solo. Clay Presely, one of the passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight that ditched in the icy river on Jan. 15, 2009, after hitting a flock of geese, flew a Cessna 172 by himself for the first time last week at Rock Hill Airport in Rock Hill, S.C. Presely plans to continue his flight training and earn his private pilot certificate.

As for Palmer, his last flight as pilot in command was bittersweet, just as his final professional golf tournament undoubtedly was. But in golf and aviation, Palmer remains as one of the best-loved ambassadors each pusuit has ever known—not just a legendary figure, but a consummate gentleman as well.

Congratulations, Arnie.