Someone sent me a few passages from a new book featuring pilot Ron Strauss, who flew the Lisa Marie for Elvis back in 1976-1977. I’d like to address this one story about the Lisa Marie and a bomb threat early on the morning of January 1, 1977, at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Fact pattern bullet points:
- It’s “close to dawn.”
- The plane has started to taxi as it prepares to take off.
- The pilot is contacted by someone and “asked” to abort the take-off.
- Suddenly there are “red flashing lights and squad cars,” presumably around the plane.
- “They received word that a bomb was on board and they wanted Elvis off the jet.”
- Elwood “immediately stopped the airplane and called Joe Esposito into the cockpit.”
- Esposito told the pilot that he’d have to check with Elvis before they do anything.
- Less than five minutes later, Esposito returned to the cockpit and instructed the pilot to, “Take us to Memphis.”
Let’s walk through this:
The plane is getting ready to take off…OK, that sounds fine.
The pilot is alerted that a bomb threat has been made against Elvis’s plane. That’s a pretty big deal, right? They want Elvis off the plane. I wonder if they want everyone else off the plane, too.
The pilot stops the airplane and calls…Joe Esposito. Huh? Why? Is Esposito the Bomb Threat Expert (BTE) on Elvis’s staff? I guess so.
Esposito tells the pilot that before any action is taken, he’ll have to consult with…Elvis. OK, now we see that Elvis is a Bomb Threat Expert, as well.
Esposito returns to the cockpit and tells the pilot to continue on to Memphis, presumably after consulting with BTE Elvis for less than five minutes. I am not sure if Bomb Threat consulting should be done quickly, so we’ll have to guess whether “less than five minutes” is good or bad.
So, is a red flag popping up here for anyone? Anything in the story we should mention? How about the notion that a bomb threat has been made against a personal aircraft, with multiple people onboard, plus the crew, and the decision to continue with the flight plan to Memphis is made by…Elvis. That’s right. Elvis. If your head didn’t just explode, you’re not paying attention. Here we have Elvis ignoring a bomb threat, which was made while the plane was on the ground, and then going ahead with the flight, thus putting the plane and all those aboard in the air, where a bomb would certainly be far more dangerous. Did Elvis alert his friends to this bomb threat? Were they consulted? Were they given the opportunity to get off the plane? Or did Elvis make a unilateral decision to endanger all these lives, deciding not to mention it to anyone (even though there were supposedly police cars and siren lights on the tarmac)?
The worst part of this? Keep reading.
“The crew considered their own training, knowing full well that any flight with a bomb scare should be aborted followed by evacuation and a complete search of the aircraft. ‘We were all airplane people, so we did not want to take off with a bomb scare,’ recalled Ron. ‘Elvis had been getting bomb threats since 1956 though so we figured it was par for the course. Flying Elvis Presley meant you had to be ready to roll with the punches. That’s what we signed up for.”
Bomb threats were par for the course?
Bomb threats “since 1956”? Not sure this is true.
“They never made it to the usual 35,000 feet. Instead, they stayed more at 22,000 feet in case a bomb did go off. If they had decompression issues to worry about, the effect would be less at a lower altitude. ‘We were definitely thinking about what we would do if the [worst] did happen,’ said Ron. ‘It felt very odd to go against our training.’ Of course, it turned out to be another typical situation in the life of Elvis Presley. Although it was the crew’s first bomb threat, Elvis had been dealing with threats throughout his twenty-year career.”
“Another typical situation”?
Anyway, here we learn that the crew knew the proper procedure for dealing with a bomb threat, but they deferred to Elvis instead of following their training, and what they knew was the right thing to do. Think about that. They allowed Elvis to make the decision to continue on to Memphis with the possibility that a bomb was on the plane. Why did they do this? Because they “signed up for that,” knowing they had to “roll with the punches” as Elvis’s flight crew…?
Have these people lost their minds?
Elvis shoots TVs. Elvis fires guns inside his hotel suite and nearly hits people. Elvis threatens to kill Sonny and Red. Elvis plots to have Mike Stone killed. And here, he recklessly puts the lives of multiple people in danger, and for what…so he can get to Memphis and sleep in his own bed? What was so important that he’d demand to depart Pittsburgh under these circumstances? Is the Elvis community so pathologically focused on seeing Elvis presented as a bad-ass tough-guy that some of us (them?) have lost the sense of how normal people should behave? Even Ron Strauss in this book seems to suggest that this was all a joke (par for the course!), and Elvis was so accustomed to aircraft bomb threats that it was no big deal, and that Elvis was tough and faced the bomb threat head-on. Are we supposed to be impressed?
And I am curious, why did this bomb threat not make it into the flight log notes? January 1 at PIT: [blank].
And why is the Allegheny County PD (who would have initially responded to the call) unable to find any record of this bomb threat?
To close, here are a few observations from a pilot I consulted on these questions:
“Yes, the airplane should have been inspected before take off – that is common sense. But that they didn’t shows that the PIC (Pilot in Command – aka the Captain) let somebody else override his authority. In this case, Elvis. Regarding the situation with the pressurization and the pilot flying the plane low [that] is neither here nor there unless the pilot knew for sure that the possible bomb had a pressurization trigger. However, logic is that the higher you go, the higher the differential pressure between inside and outside becomes. So, if you’re trying to stay low because of a possible bomb, you stay even lower – not higher than 10K. This would help in an explosion by just blowing out a window instead of the whole side of the plane. And, over 10K feet supplemental oxygen is required (after 30 mins).”