"Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine"- Elvis Presley
As the best-selling solo recording artist of all time, Elvis Presley is the undisputed “King of Rock and Roll.” But few people appreciate that between his music, movies, television appearances, and other business ventures, “ol’ swivel hips” was also one of the entertainment industry’s most ambitious entrepreneurs.
To Elvis, time was money, so he maximized every moment, and that included being an early adopter of private aviation. He started out chartering, but as his desire for increased convenience, privacy, and security grew, he moved into the world of aircraft ownership.
After buying and selling a variety of airplanes, he made his move into the big jet in April 1975 when he purchased a four-engine Convair 880 from Delta Air Lines for $250,000.
The airline-worn 880 was sent to Meacham Field in Fort Worth, Texas, to undergo a complete interior upgrade, including 29-place seating, a conference room, a master suite, a guest bedroom, two and a half baths with gold-plated fixtures, an entertainment system with quadraphonic 8-track sound, sky-to-ground phone, and a full galley. The cabin was finished in yellow, green, and gold fabrics. It also had suede sofas, which, unlike Elvis’s shoes, were not blue.
It’s said that Elvis was especially excited about the fact that the same team who had previously designed Air Force One was creating his Convair’s new look. According to the Graceland Blog—the official publication of Elvis’s Graceland Museum—the renovations took six months and cost $800,000.
Interestingly, while the cabin’s color palette and finishings would have made Austin Powers proud, the exterior paint scheme was relatively sedate, featuring overall white with blue and red striping. Other than the “880EP” N-number, the only other adornment was an American flag and the letters TCB on the tail. TCB was an acronym for Elvis’s motto: Taking Care of Business.
Christened “Lisa Marie” after his only daughter, Elvis and his family flew on the Convair 880 for the first time on Nov. 27, 1975, and used it extensively for travel throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada.
Viva Las JetStars
It was during the 880’s six-month upgrade that Elvis bought his first Lockheed JetStar—nicknamed "Hound Dog II"—so he and his wife, Priscilla, could easily travel to Fort Worth to inspect the big jet’s progress. Elvis was a stickler for details and kept tight reigns on the refurb process.
Today, Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II are displayed at Elvis’ Graceland Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
With these two airplanes being kept well busy, in late 1976, he added another Jetstar to “Elvis’s Air Force.” Purchased just a few months before his untimely passing, neither Elvis, his family, friends, nor any of the infamous “Memphis Mafia” members ever used his second JetStar. It was Elvis’s in name only.
While N20TC (the N-number was later changed to its current 440RM) had the shortest history with the “King,” it probably has the most colorful backstory.
According to Graceland’s archivists, the aircraft was purchased in December 1976 for $840,000 by Elvis’s father, Vernon, as a business investment. Immediately after the purchase, he signed an agreement with Omni Aircraft Sales to lease the airplane out.
And, contrary to popular belief, Elvis had nothing to do with the Jetstar’s striking interior or exterior finishes. In fact, when it comes to the aircraft’s rather flamboyant red velvet tufted upholstery, the Graceland archivists say that the previous owner, Roy McKay, had explained in a TV interview that he designed the cabin’s look himself.
As McKay related the story, when he originally purchased the Jetstar, it had a two-toned gray interior, which “kind of looked like a casket,” he said.
After Elvis’s death in August 1977, Vernon Presley sold the JetStar to Air Cargo Express. From there, it had a couple of owners and was finally bought by McKay Oil Corporation.
Jimmy Has Entered the Building
How and why the airplane was abandoned remains a mystery, but the aircraft sat at Roswell International Air Center in Roswell, New Mexico, for many years. Its original avionics disappeared, and the four engines—it’s unclear if it had Pratts or Garretts—had been repossessed.
In 2017, the unlucky JetStar was sold at auction for a whopping $430,000. The undisclosed buyer did nothing with the airplane. It sat unattended in the desert until this past January when it was up for auction as part of the Mecum Auction in Kissimmee, Florida.
That’s where it came to the attention of Jimmy Webb, host of YouTube’s popular “Jimmy’s World.” If you’re one of his 322,000-plus subscribers or any of the millions who watch his weekly vlogs, you know that he’s all about rescuing abandoned airplanes.
“I’ve always enjoyed taking things apart and fixing them. I started with dirt bikes and four-wheelers when I was about 10 years old—fix it and trade it for something else,” Webb said, noting he went to school for automotive and diesel mechanics and then to college to study electromechanical engineering.
“I’ve done a lot of things: real estate investing, restoring classic cars, even some ministry work—but I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart,” he continued. “Then, in 2019, we moved from Colorado to Florida, and I joined the Air Force Reserve.”
Webb explained that it was joining the Reserve that got him into flying. He had to drive nearly five hours from his home in west central Florida to the Air Force Reserve base in Jacksonville.
“I hated that drive. One day, a friend at the base suggested I learn to fly and turn that long drive into a short flight. It sounded like a great idea,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about learning to fly, so I asked around and was told the best way was to get the written and the FAA physical out of the way, so that’s what I did.
“I was also told that buying an airplane to train in was a good way to go, so I bought a nice Cherokee 180,” Webb continued. “I earned my private and instrument ratings and built over 120 hours of flight time in five months. It was during the pandemic shutdown; gas was cheap, so I just flew the wings off that airplane.”
Welcome to Jimmy’s World
It was about this time that Webb started his current avocation of “saving” abandoned airplanes.
“There was a derelict Cherokee 6-300 at the airport where we do our monthly Reserve drills,” he said. “I started asking about it and found it had an interesting backstory. It looked like a solid airplane, so I bought it and spent six months fixing it up. I flew it for a while and sold it.
“That’s when I started the YouTube channel,” Webb continued. “Everyone told me I’d go bankrupt, and I figured people would like to watch me do it—and they did. It’s been quite a ride.”
Webb stressed that all the work done to any airplane on the channels is done under the supervision of licensed A&Ps. He’s also working on earning an A&P himself.
In the few years he’s had the channel, Webb has already found and rehabilitated a variety of piston singles and twins, but throughout them all, his driving goal has been to own a private jet.
And if you’re ambition is to buy a jet, what better one to start with than Elvis’s JetStar?
“I saw the airplane come up on a video somewhere, and with Elvis’s current resurgence in popularity, I thought, 'what the heck.' This was something I couldn’t pass up,” he said. “The JetStar is an amazing airplane anyway, and having one that belonged to ‘The King’ is about as cool as it gets.”
Webb signed up as a bidder for the Mecum Auction in Kissimmee, where the JetStar would be sold, and drove the two hours to the auction’s location. Not wanting to accelerate his race to bankruptcy, he set a somewhat conservative bid limit.
Frankly, he wasn’t really expecting to go home with the airplane; he mainly wanted to create some good vlog content. But he also knows how the whole TV auction process works, and things are never what they seem.
After all was said and done, Webb’s final bid—which was well above his original ceiling—fell short of the $260,000 gavel price. Although he didn’t “win,” he did say a real highlight of the event was seeing Pricilla Presley on the auction stage.
Jimmy Has Left the Building
“I knew a lot about the auction process and how it works. The job of the auction house is to get as close to the reserve selling price as possible,” he explained. “I needed to have a bid in so it would be considered when the ‘winning’ bid fell through. That’s when they start the real negotiations.
“The phone bidder who actually ‘won’ was likely a fake to drive up the price,” Webb said. “None of this was a surprise to me.”
So, according to Webb, everything was working according to the script when his phone rang an hour after he had left the auction site.
“It was one of the sales guys telling me that the phone buyer was backing out, and the auctioneers would rather sell it to me,” Webb continued. After some phone negotiations, he agreed on $234,000, including the buyer’s premium (10 percent of the selling price). Mecum provided financing.
“After the deal was done, my first thought was ‘what an idiot I am,’ followed quickly with the realization that I now owned Elvis’s JetStar—how cool is that?” Webb said.
Trying To Get to You…
The $234,000 question was: what would Webb do with it? Step one of his plan was accomplished in mid-February when he and his team traveled to Roswell to see the jet in person—something Elvis never did—and to disassemble it so it could be trucked to Tampa.
The disassembly process began a little roughly with circular cutting blades breaking and, as the crew went to get more, their truck had also broken down. But the crew soldiered through these issues and Webb was pleased with the aircraft.
“Actually, it is in much better condition than I had thought, especially in the cabin,” Webb said.
“We were able to connect an external GPU, and all the electronics—VHF radio, microwave, TV, and lights all powered up. I could hear the tower but didn’t have a mic to try and call them. That would have been pretty cool.”
As much as he’d love to resurrect the JetStar to flying condition, that’s not realistic.
“I talked to experts, and they say it’s about $6 million to get it airworthy,” he explains. “Even if we had the time and money, it still couldn’t legally fly. The old engines won’t meet noise restrictions, and there are no hush kits available. And there’s no telling what kind of ADs [airworthiness directives] are on the airframe.”
So, what do you do with a JetStar that can’t fly? In Jimmy’s World, you mount the fuselage on an RV chassis and drive it around the country.
“That’s the best solution for what we have to work with,” Webb says. “The interior is in good shape, so it doesn’t need much work, and we can put instruments and avionics in the cockpit. The real work will be repainting it in the silver and red scheme it had when Elvis bought it.”
No doubt it will be an interesting process, and, of course, Webb will vlog it all.
“My goal is to find the best way to continue Elvis’s legacy with his fans and his airplanes,” he continued. “I want to find a way for as many people to enjoy seeing it as possible. And be happy that I saved it from the scrap yard.”
Obviously, being on a trailer, the wings and tail will have to be removed, but Webb has a creative use for those parts.
“We’re going to cut them up and sell them as Elvis collectibles,” he explained. “Each one will be engraved and include a copy of the original bill of sale signed by Elvis.”
No matter what the JetStar’s final configuration is, every airplane fan who appreciates Webb’s commitment to keeping a very unique airplane out of the smelter can say: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
—Curt Epstein contributed to this article