Arnold Palmer may have elevated golf into the mainstream, but he was just as important to Wichita’s aircraft manufacturers and the business and general aviation industries.
Palmer, who died Sunday at 87, was the first customer to take delivery of Cessna’s Citation X in 1996 — and an upgraded version of the super midsize jet in 2002 — and on occasion he could be found at Cessna’s booth at the National Business Aviation Association’s annual convention as well as at the company’s customer conferences.
In all, Palmer owned seven Citation business jets in his lifetime: a Citation 500, a Citation II, two Citation IIIs, a Citation VII and two Citation Xs.
More importantly, he became a strong advocate for business and general aviation, former executives said Monday.
Before Palmer was a Cessna customer, he was a Learjet customer. Palmer acquired his first Wichita-built business jet in 1968, a Learjet 24.
That year was retired advertising executive Al Higdon’s first of several encounters with the golfing legend.
Palmer agreed to appear in a print advertisement for Learjet, and Higdon and a photographer traveled to Orlando, Fla., to meet with him.
“He looked you in the eye” when he talked to you, and “you felt you were one of the more important guys in the world at the moment,” said Higdon, who was Learjet’s director of public relations and later was a consultant to the company as a principal at Sullivan, Higdon & Sink. “He was just a guy who had no airs about him at all.”
The second encounter was in 1976, when Palmer was one of a crew of three — along with Learjet company pilots Jim Bir and Bill Purkey — who set a business jet record in a Learjet 36 for an around-the-world flight in less than 58 hours.
Higdon said Palmer’s switch to Cessna Citations was inevitable. That’s because the young Cleveland attorney who handled the Learjet 24 transaction on Palmer’s behalf was Russ Meyer, who in 1974 joined Cessna and later became the company’s president, CEO and chairman.
“Clearly, Learjet hated to lose him as an iconic customer,” Higdon said. “So when he did make the switch, it was a matter of time. Russ’ and Arnold’s roots run deep.”
Jack Pelton got to know Palmer during his tenure as Cessna’s CEO, from 2003 to 2011.
Pelton, now chairman and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said Palmer was an advocate for general aviation, including in the fight against user fees and as a “generous supporter of EAA financially.”
“He was also pretty convincing if you were thinking about using general aviation for business purposes,” Pelton said.
At Cessna, Palmer indirectly helped the company sell airplanes.
“He was not just an insider pitching (aviation) but somebody who lived and breathed it,” Pelton said. “Aviation was a pure love of his.
“We were really, really fortunate in our industry to have someone as iconic as Arnie.”
The National Business Aviation Association said Monday that it was dedicating its 2016 convention and exhibition in November to Palmer.
“While Arnold’s appeal is universal, he holds a truly special place in the hearts of everyone in aviation,” NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said in a statement.
Palmer was a key figure in the NBAA’s “No Plane No Gain” campaign and in 2010 was awarded the organization’s Meritorious Service to Aviation Award for his dedication to business aviation.