By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
Aviation pioneer Joe Clark is the man most responsible for those elegant upswept wingtips now standard on new Boeing 737s. This now-ubiquitous winglet technology, installed to increase range and save fuel on business jets as well as commercial airplanes, is just the latest legacy of Mr. Clark’s long career in aviation.
After a start as a jet salesman, Mr. Clark became an aviation innovator and serial entrepreneur.
In the 1960s, Mr. Clark founded Jet Air, the first dealership in the Pacific Northwest for one of the first private business aircraft, the Learjet.
In the 198os, he co-founded regional airline Horizon Air, which later became part of Alaska Air Group.
In the 1990s, he founded Aviation Partners to design and sell the performance-enhancing winglets.
And he flew his own private fleet of airplanes with passionate enthusiasm.
Mr. Clark, 78, died Monday at a hospital near Palm Springs, where he had a home.
He had been flying Saturday in his two-seater GameBird aerobatic airplane, and a couple of hours after landing, he fell backward and hit his head, causing bleeding on the brain. He never regained consciousness, said Judy Galfano his longtime personal assistant.
Friend and fellow aviation enthusiast Bruce McCaw, co-founder of McCaw Cellular, said Mr. Clark “lived life full throttle all the time.”
“He was a high-energy innovator, an adventurer, an explorer,” said McCaw. “He always wanted to do something interesting and exciting. People just loved Joe.”
Forming a new airline
Mr. Clark was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Sept. 9, 1941, but his family moved to Seattle before he was a month old. He took his first flying lessons while a student at the University of Washington, and earned his private pilot’s license in 1961.
In 1964, he traveled to the annual Reno Air Races, where he met Clay Lacy, a legendary pilot who took him up in a Learjet. Lacy embellished the ride with multiple aerobatic rolls, and the two became lifelong friends.
That flight fixed Mr. Clark’s career trajectory. He took a job in sales with Learjet in Chicago and became one of the young guys along with McCaw who would be inspired by the technological innovation and entrepreneurial drive of Learjet founder Bill Lear.
Seeing an opportunity to expand sales, Mr. Clark founded the Learjet dealership in Seattle. He later sold Jet Air to McCaw.
Following the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry in 1978, Mr. Clark and McCaw joined with Milt Kuolt to co-found Horizon.
Lacy said Kuolt’s initial idea was for flights to Hawaii, but Clark convinced him it would make more sense to fly within Washington state. In the spring of 1981, Mr. Clark assembled the startup team out of a small office on Boeing Field, planning initially for a couple of airplanes flying among three cities.
That September, Horizon’s first flight took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Yakima, in a Fairchild F-27 turboprop with about 25 passengers.
“Joe had more to do with that outcome than anyone,” said Lacy.
Within five years, Horizon built a greatly expanded network by acquiring several other small regional airlines, including Air Oregon and Utah-based Transwestern Airlines.
The rapid expansion strained the airline’s finances and caused a $4.9 million loss in 1985. The following year, Horizon was sold to Alaska Air Group, parent company of Alaska Airlines. It remains flying today, with about 4,000 employees serving more than 45 cities and feeding passenger traffic to its big-sister airline.
Saving fuel and carbon emissions
In 1991, Dennis Washington, a friend who owned a Gulfstream II business jet, asked Mr. Clark to develop a way to extend its range.
Mr. Clark formed Aviation Partners and hired a team of retired Boeing and Lockheed aerospace engineers led by aerodynamicist Dr. Bernie Gratzer, who patented the technology for the “blended winglet,” the upswept wingtip.
Made of light carbon fiber composite, the winglets move the air turbulence at the tip of the wing away from the horizontal part of the wing that provides lift, reducing drag and thereby saving fuel and increasing the jet’s range.
Those devices worked so well that the Boeing executive in charge of the Boeing Business Jet division asked him to develop winglets for those 737-based private jets. Soon, airlines were asking for winglets to be retrofitted to their 737s, 757s and 767s.
Eventually Boeing and Mr. Clark formed a joint venture, Aviation Partners Boeing, to fit the winglets on new 737s on the production line. Later the company developed a new refined version called the Split Scimitar Winglet, with one piece of the wingtip bending downward and the other upward.
“Joe was very good at putting things together, getting along with people and making things work,” said Lacy. As a businessman, “he was very straightforward and never took advantage of anyone.”
The technology is estimated at having saved more than 10 billion gallons of fuel since its introduction by Aviation Partners, with a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions.
Through these enterprises he made enough money to fund his passion for flying. In the late 1990s he acquired a fleet of old and new airplanes, most of them stored at his ranch in Idaho, where he built a 7,500-foot runway.
Chief support pilot Mark Ranz said Mr. Clark regularly hosted friends at the ranch for flying weekends where they’d go “ripping around the valleys.”
He also let Navy SEALs train at part of his ranch, so C-130 military transports and Black Hawk helicopters could be seen there too.
In 1988, he, Lacy and McCaw, buddies who’d become labeled The Three Musketeers in aviation circles, formed the Friendship Foundation and organized a round-the-world charity flight on a Boeing 747 chartered from United Airlines.
Lacy was captain on that flight, from Seattle to Athens, Greece, to Taipei, Taiwan, and back to Seattle in just under 37 hours. They persuaded 100 people to buy $5,000 tickets, raising half a million dollars for children’s charities. “It was magical,” said McCaw.
In his private fleet of some 18 airplanes, Mr. Clark owned three Learjets and several military fighter trainers. He used a Learjet to commute between Seattle, Idaho and California, and a Gulfstream V long-range luxury business jet to travel the world.
In January, he and Ranz along with two other pilots flew nonstop in the G5 from Ft. Lauderdale to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where his friend Prince Sultan bin Salman had invited him to an air show. Prince Sultan, the Gulf nation’s first and only astronaut, had met Mr. Clark at aviation shows and the two developed a bond over their love of flying, said Ranz.
Mr. Clark and his crew set an official speed record for that trip to Riyadh of 13 hours 46 minutes.
“Joe had a joy about aviation,” said Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “He was recognized for his genius but loved for his passion.”
Mr. Clark was a trustee at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, where a huge 747 blended winglet is installed as an art piece on an exterior plaza. He was a board member emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
He is survived by two sisters, Maggie Clark, of Seattle, and Linda Hellsell, of Bellevue; and by his godson Chase Englehart, of Medina.
Mr. Clark will be cremated in California and his ashes transported back to Seattle, said Galfano. Once the coronavirus shutdown eases, it’s expected there will be a memorial service at the Museum of Flight at some later date.