Lockheed’s JetStar was the first dedicated business jet, entering service in 1961. It was a progenitor of a category that has come to symbolize power, luxury and success. Today, you can acquire a great looking JetStar II for just $895,000, but be wary of operating costs that could smother your skyward ambitions.
Business jets opened a new world of possibilities for corporations, affording firms the ability to send key high-value staff to places commercial flights simply couldn’t reach in a day. As a productivity tool, they ensured executives could make it to a crucial meeting on time in comfort and style. They also increased the social status of owners, allowing them to broadcast to other elites that they were long on financial resources but short on time.
The JetStar is easily identifiable in the business jet class by the distinctive four-engine arrangement at the tail, as well as the wing-mounted “slipper”-style fuel tanks. Slipper tanks are an interesting design element, providing benefits over belly, pylon, and wing tip tanks. They are connected to the upper forward and under surfaces of the wings, creating less drag than belly or pylon tanks and less force on the wing structure than wingtip tanks. Another distinctive difference of the JetStar is the slightly sunken center aisle in the main cabin, which provides passengers the ability to stand up inside for greater comfort on long trips.
Borne of Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works division under the leadership of aviation icon Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the JetStar program (company designation L-1329 and L-329) went from project approval to first flight in just 241 days.
Originally designed for a US Air Force proposal that never came to fruition, the JetStar prototype was powered by two Bristol Siddeley Orpheus turbojets and did not feature the signature slipper tanks. In lieu of scrapping the program, Lockheed repositioned the JetStar for the commercial market and switched the two British-made Orpheus turbojets for four Pratt & Whitney JT12 turbojets. To accommodate the increased fuel consumption from two extra engines, the distinctive slipper tanks were added to the wings, each carrying an extra 4,000 pounds of fuel, for a total load of 18,000 pounds. Full fuel reserves and a 2,000 pound payload gave the JetStar a range of 2,476 nautical miles, a top speed of 498 kts, and a cruising speed of 445 kts.
In addition to the business jet market, 16 JetStars were manufactured for the US Air Force as C-140A and B models. Among those, six were converted to VC-140B configuration for use in executive transport. Although not the primary Air Force One aircraft, VC-140B’s did carry Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan while they were in office and used the Air Force One callsign while they were aboard. The type has likely carried more Presidents than any other aircraft in history.
Lyndon Johnson preferred JetStars during his terms as Vice President and President, helping the type earn the nickname “Air Force One Half.” One retired VC-140B has since been restored with a period-correct Air Force One livery and is permanently installed at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Stonewall, Texas. President Johnson’s “Western White House” has a 6,300 foot asphalt runway that wasn’t long enough for a VC-137C (the 707 variant converted for use as Air Force One when the President is aboard) but did allow a JetStar to taxi within 200 yards of his residence.
Kelly Johnson used the prototype JetStar as his personal aircraft in the 1950’s, using it to transit from the Skunk Works facility in Burbank, California to the famous test facility known as Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada as well as the Washington, D.C. area for meetings at the Pentagon. The prototype’s registration, N329J, references both the company’s designation for the type (L-1329) as well as Johnson’s name.
A JetStar was piloted by Pussy Galore in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger and subsequently crashed into the ocean. Another JetStar was the choice of Nicolas Cage’s character Castor Troy in the 1997 movie Face/Off, which also spectacularly crashed into a hangar after a police pursuit.
Elvis Presley also owned a JetStar, known as “Hound Dog II,” which is now on display at Graceland. He reportedly paid $899,702.60 for the aircraft on September 2, 1975, which is almost exactly the same price as the aircraft listed for sale today. Other notable operators have included the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, country music singer Alan Jackson, billionaire eccentric recluse Howard Hughes and airport namesake Bob Hope.
Elvis Presley’s JetStar “Hound Dog II” on display at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
While the advent of private jet travel in the 1960’s was transformational, concerns over aircraft noise and air pollution grew steadily and the FAA eventually gained new regulatory authority to control the undesirable environmental byproducts of commercial and business jets. Congress eventually passed the Aviation Noise and Capacity Act in 1990, requiring all jet aircraft at civilian airports be “stage 3” aircraft by the year 2000. Since 2012, a prohibition on the operation of jet aircraft weighing 75,000 pounds or less that do not comply with federal stage 3 noise regulations has existed. This threatened to phase out JetStar aircraft with older engines that were decidedly inefficient and loud.
In an effort to improve these metrics while increasing range, Lockheed developed a modification program for Jetstar customers called the 731 JetStar, using new Garrett AiResearch TFE731 turbofan engines designed specifically for the JetStar as well as larger, more aerodynamic slipper tanks. The 731 JetStar program proved so successful that Lockheed created a new designation, JetStar II, for a final production run of 40 factory-new aircraft that incorporated all of the program’s upgrades. JetStar II aircraft have a maximum cruising speed of 475 kts, with a more economical cruising speed of 440 kts and a service ceiling of 36,000 feet. With maximum fuel and payload, a JetStar II has a 2,600 nautical mile range which gives it slightly longer reach than a fully loaded Learjet 60 (2,405 nautical mile range).
The aircraft for sale features four Honeywell 731-3D engines (functionally identical to the Garrett TFE731 turbofans developed specifically for the type; due to mergers the engine was briefly produced by Allied Signal, followed by Honeywell Aerospace), which are a venerable and ubiquitous powerplant used in a multitude of aircraft over the decades from Cessna, Hawker, Gulfstream, Learjet and others. The seller states the engines are covered by Honeywell’s Gold Maintenance Service Program and are fully stage 3 compliant, meaning this jet is not subject to the 2012 prohibition. With seating for up nine people plus two crew, this JetStar II can reach worldwide destinations, albeit with substantial operating costs.
Lockheed produced 204 JetStar and JetStar II aircraft between 1961 and 1978, making this one of the final examples to roll off the assembly line with a manufacture date of 1977. This aircraft was apparently repainted in 2007 with jade green and metallic gold accenting the white fuselage. The interior, featuring cream and light beige leather surfaces, green carpet and leatherette headliner appears to be in excellent condition after a refurbishment in 2006. The total time on the airframe is listed at 11,000 hours, and it features an Airshow 400 entertainment system with a 17” monitor, cockpit-mounted external camera and moving map display. The aircraft (registration N710RM) is thought to be one of only 22 JetStars remaining in operational condition in the world, a product of service life and operating costs.
So, would you spend the better part of $900,000 on this JetStar II? It is essentially a flying antique, and upkeep costs alone could prove nightmarish. Other issues worth considering are long-term support for parts as well as environmental sustainability. A fuel bill of $10,000 per fill-up is probably realistic, and the two pilots required to fly it are more expensive to keep on retainer than one. Further, with four hot sections to inspect and four engines to overhaul instead of two, an owner should plan on having funds in reserve set aside for maintenance and downtime. It is the aircraft equivalent of a fuel-hungry top-of-the-line Cadillac of the era, a symbol of vintage American luxe that is gorgeous to look at, roomy and classy but probably isn’t best suited as a daily driver.
But please, buy it, because it will be a sad day when the last of these vintage sky yachts touches down for the final time.
Photo credits: Graphic - NASA/Wikicommons, USAF belly shot - Mike Freer/Wikicommons, USAF profile shot - Mike Freer/Wikicommons, Graceland shot - Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikicommons. Photos of N710RM via for sale ad which can be found here.