The dining room accommodated eight, served from a capacious galley. A queen-sized bed dominated the sleeping quarters, which gave way to a bathroom outfitted with a shower and gold-plated fixtures. A quartet of TVs blared in the conference room, while strewn hither and yon were seven telephones. And a four-person crew, including a flight attendant to administer to guests' whims, oversaw all operations. No wonder Elvis dubbed his largest plane a "penthouse in the sky."
Purchased in 1975 from Delta Airlines for $1 million, then retrofitted to Presley's specifications for slightly less than another million, the Convair 880 jet, built in 1958, was christened the Lisa Marie in honor of the King's daughter and ferried Elvis and his entourage from coast to coast in the U.S. until he checked out in August 1977. At the controls in the cockpit: co-pilot Ron Strauss.
Furloughed from a Miami air transport company at the time, Strauss and two colleagues were hired by Elvis's father Vernon in 1975 to command the Lisa Marie, which, after renovations, could accommodate 29 passengers. "I had a lot of time in that type of airplane," explains Strauss, now age 63, "and I had a nice background, plus I knew the [jet's sales] broker."
According to Strauss, the plane typically carried as many as ten -- usually Elvis, his security contingent, and his girlfriend du jour. From 1975 to 1976, the latter was Linda Thompson, a former Miss Tennessee U.S.A., and from 1976 to 1977, Ginger Alden, whose sister Terry was Miss Tennessee in 1976 and her link to the King. (Ginger holds the distinction of finding the King dead in his Graceland bathroom.) Presley used the Lisa Marie both for fun and work. "He went back on tour back in 1975, '76, and '77, so we carried him everywhere," notes Strauss. "And when we weren't on tour, we'd vacation in Honolulu and Vail and places like that."
Stationed in Memphis, Strauss was prepared to hop into action if so commanded by Elvis. On one impromptu mission, he recalls, "We went to Denver on Lisa Marie's birthday -- her eighth or ninth -- and bought peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches at 28 bucks apiece, each about a foot long." Other spur-of-the-moment destinations included Palm Springs and Las Vegas. "You name it, we went."
Strauss flew the plane right up until the end. "We were going out on tour the night that he died," remembers Strauss, who now works as a pilot for UPS and lives on Marco Island, south of Naples on the state's west coast. "Scheduled to go out. I was at the mansion the night he passed away. We went out to Long Beach, California, and picked up [Elvis's ex-wife] Priscilla and Lisa Marie and brought them back for the funeral." Afterward, they deposited Priscilla and her daughter in California, and made the return trip to Memphis -- Strauss's last flight aboard the Lisa Marie.
For a while, Strauss relates, Vernon Presley chartered the plane to interested parties, but ultimately the Lisa Marie was mothballed and installed at Graceland Plaza across Elvis Presley Boulevard from "the mansion" -- to become like everything else associated with Elvis, a hunk, a hunk of a tourist attraction.