My love of aviation goes back to my childhood in Australia, when jets and the thought of becoming a pilot obsessed me. I assembled dozens of model airplanes and had them tethered all over my room, and at night I'd lie in my bed and imagine my future as a fighter pilot. I tried collecting stamps and had a few other hobbies, but it was flight, especially fighter jets, that really fascinated me.
I remember going to local air shows when I lived in Townsville, Australia, and admiring the skill of the pilots who flew the F111s. Later, at Townsville Grammar School, I joined the air cadets with the idea that eventually I'd become a pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force. Interestingly, my father had the very same dream for himself, but World War II ended just as he was about to enter the service.
Although I ended up becoming a professional golfer instead of a pilot, I have long had a relationship with Qantas Airlines, the eighty-six-year-old carrier and one of the most recognizable Australian brands in the world. As part of my conscious effort to be a global ambassador for golf and Australia, I signed a formal deal with the airline—one of my earliest endorsements—in 1976, and I am exceedingly proud to have featured its logo on my bag for thirty years.
Given that I have owned my own aircraft for the past fifteen years, you might think that my Qantas relationship would have dissolved, but the company continues to utilize me, more as a spokesperson for Australia than for the airline itself. In fact, I recently flew from Sydney to Los Angeles on Qantas and the experience could not have been better, from the service to the pilots to the flight attendants.
Because of the intense schedule I keep, I could not possibly accomplish what I do without my jet and my helicopter. They are vital business tools that allow me to further develop Great White Shark Enterprises.
Originally I leased planes to fly from event to event, but then a blown engine during a flight in 1990 forced me to make an emergency landing in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Let me tell you, there were some harrowing moments before we touched down, and I decided right then to buy my own plane.
The Gulfstream G-550 I have now is the seventh jet I've owned in the last fifteen years. I travel about forty weeks a year. Since that much travel over many years can be tough, I have outfitted the planes to make each expedition as pleasant as possible. (I figure that from the time I first turned professional in 1976 until now, I've put in more than eight million air miles!)
I now have a full-time flight department operating both my Gulfstream and my Bell 407 helicopter. The Gulfstream does 6,500 nautical miles nonstop, so when I go on global trips—Florida to Australia, for example—I travel with three pilots and a flight attendant. We stop once for gas and then keep going straight through to Australia, about eighteen to nineteen hours of flying depending on the wind and the time of year. The pilots do all the work on these runs, but the helicopter—that one I fly myself.
I try to plan my departure time so when I reach my destination my body is in sync with the local time. I much prefer to sleep while flying than to waste daylight. One health aspect that is vitally important is to stay hydrated. I also keep my caloric intake to light, easily digestible foods.
I'll never forget one particular transcontinental journey when I happened to look out the window as we were flying over the Himalayan Mountains. It was a perfectly clear night accentuated by a full moon, and I was awestruck. It really is moving to stare down at something that immense from a front-row seat 45,000 feet in the air—and then to realize that you're only 16,000 feet above the tallest peaks.
One of my favorite adventures in the air was landing an F-14 on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. After a day of training, which included an ejector-seat test, Lieutenant Maris "Weasel" Luters and I flew a hundred miles out of San Diego and headed for the carrier, with me in the backseat.
Even in ideal conditions it's not easy to land a 50,000-pound jet on a ship that's bobbing in fifteen-foot swells. From the air, the carrier looks like a postage stamp. The landing requires the pilot to catch the plane's tail hook on one of four thick cables spaced forty feet apart, all the while firing the throttle forward to full power in case he misses and has to get airborne again.
Little did I know, there was a problem with the landing flaps, which meant the jet couldn't slow down enough to land on the carrier. We circled the Vinson until Weasel was able to free the jammed flap, and then we landed safely on the fourth—and final—cable.
In the spring of 2004 I had the pleasure of riding with Len Anderson, the lead solo pilot of the Blue Angels, the elite aerobatic squadron of the U.S. Navy. We took off from Fort Lauderdale and headed east toward the Bahamas. This was just a practice run as Len was preparing for the upcoming Air and Sea show, but he took me through the full complement of acrobatic maneuvers, including flying upside down, rolling and breaking the sound barrier—which meant we were flying faster than 761 m.p.h.!
Despite trying a little trick they taught me before takeoff, I still passed out, but only for a minute. Len told me I made it until the g-force reached 8.4, which was a lot more than most people can handle! I later learned that Len and the other pilots take great pleasure in seeing how long first-timers can hold on before the g-force simply becomes too much without a g-suit. My undoing came during a high-speed inverted roll. The last thing I remember was flying upside down straight toward the water. Len said we were going more than 600 m.p.h. and were less than 500 feet from the whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean when I finally succumbed.
Len even let me take the controls for a few minutes, and I was overjoyed to fly a machine that possessed such power and grace. He encouraged me to perform a few tricks of my own, and I jumped at the chance to try a couple of inside loops and a few barrel rolls. That was an airborne experience I won't soon forget.