Air Agassi

For an Aviation Geek, a Glimpse of Andre’s Jet was Heaven
by Jason Biggs

“Stop the car! STOP. THE. CAR!”

My dad was already pulling off to the side of the road before I finished yelling. There wasn’t much he and I connected over in those days—I was fully engaged in an emotional and physical battle with puberty, and he was at peak bitterness from a job that overworked and underappreciated him. But two things somehow managed to break through the awkwardness and get us talking, if only for a little while: sports and aviation. The latter, I would later come to realize, was relatively random. Not every kid bonds with his dad over airplanes.

Our shared fascination with aviation went beyond simply pointing to planes in the sky. He and I could identify a plane down to its make and model, and airline, in the case of commercial jets. We could figure out, if not with complete certainty then with great confidence based on highly educated guesswork, where the planes originated and were going. Geography certainly played a part in this hobby: My parents’ house was located directly under the final approach for two of the busiest airports in the world—Teterboro, the general aviation base for bigwigs coming to New York City in their private jets, and Newark (I refuse to call it Liberty, aviation’s version of Freedom Fries), the international airport that unfortunately serves as many New York tourists’ only impression of New Jersey.

My dad’s relationship with flying goes back to 1966, when he was a 16-year-old living just two towns away from where I grew up, on essentially the other side of Teterboro. It was then that he decided to use his saved paper-route money to try to get his pilot’s license. Rather than get his lessons at one of the many flight schools being run at Teterboro, however, he opted to learn on a seaplane. The 1960s were the heyday for seaplane operations out of nearby Hackensack River, long before commercial development of the river and its surrounding communities made such operations impossible.

I was regaled with the story of his first solo flight from the time I was a little boy. He claimed (and still does) that the experience of being in control of an airplane for the first time without an instructor was the single most thrilling moment of his life. And while he never admitted it, I would venture to guess that not completing his course work and letting his certification lapse was one of the biggest regrets of his life. But financial hardship and the Vietnam War would serve as pretty big obstacles to his personal dreams, while getting married and having kids would only solidify his need to put work before anything else. He might not have had his pilot’s license, but he had the ability to pass along his love of aviation to his only son.

“There it is!” I shouted, not even trying to hide my excitement. I felt like Sean Astin discovering Chester Copperpot’s treasure. There was no doubt that this was Andre Agassi’s airplane. The giant A with a kinetic tennis ball on the tail was indisputable evidence. It was a Lockheed JetStar, a relatively uncommon four-engine plane that had its beginnings in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s. Frank Sinatra used to have one. So did Elvis Presley (the Hound Dog II) and LBJ (the so-called Air Force One Half). Pussy Galore flew one into the ocean! But its heyday, both as a military and private jet, was certainly in the past. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Agassi’s choice in plane had a touch of unwanted symbolism—this was the early 1990s, the era of Rock Star Andre, Grand Slam champion with a world No. 1 ranking. His shocking mid-to-late-’90s decline was just around the corner. Hell, the man he bought the plane from, Bruce McNall, was a few years away from his own fall from grace. The owner of the Los Angeles Kings and producer of Weekend at Bernie’s was destined for four and a half years in prison for committing conspiracy and fraud, losing his entire fortune in the process. But for now, each was living his best life.

Andre was the best tennis player in the world and HAD HIS OWN FUCKING AIRPLANE. This was before fractional ownership and jet card hours and sponsorships made private air travel the norm for sports stars. It was a pretty big deal. And for father/son avgeeks, it was up there with seeing a Beatle. I had heard rumors about the plane, perhaps from a broadcaster mention during one of the past year’s Grand Slams, but I didn’t have an easy way to confirm it. This was before we all had little handheld computers that could pull up a picture of the plane just by typing in the words “Agassi jet” (try it!).

But I had a hunch. The US Open had just begun, and I figured that Andre would have chosen to fly into Teterboro. There was the possibility that he could have flown into LaGuardia instead, as it neighbored the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, but my rationale was that Andre would be staying at a luxury hotel in Manhattan and wanted the relative ease of Teterboro. So it was that, despite some doubts on his part, I persuaded my father to drive me the three minutes across Route 17 so we could cruise the service road adjacent to the airport and look for his plane. Finding it was easier than I thought it would be. It was positioned, perfectly unobstructed, just on the other side of the chain-link security fence. After we pulled over, we sat and stared in silence for a good minute. The smell of Jet A kerosene fuel filled the car (it remains, to this day, my absolute favorite smell—not kidding even a little bit).

We allowed ourselves to get lost in the fantasy of having our own planes. I noticed a smile creep onto my father’s face. Finally, he turned to me. “How cool.” He was talking about the plane, for sure. But I think both of us realized that this shared moment, this genuine connection in an otherwise weird time for our relationship, was pretty fucking cool.

The excerpt is from Racquet Issue No. 7. Above: Andre Agassi boards his private jet airplane in Key Biscayne, Fla., before the Lipton Championship (now the Miami Masters) in 1994. Agassi lost in the finals to Pete Sampras. GETTY IMAGES