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‘Redneck’ speed freak from NC buys super-fast jet

Preston Henn (CNN)

Preston Henn (CNN)

MURPHY, N.C. (CNN) — He’s an 82-year-old “redneck hillbilly from west North Carolina” who’s been scratching an itch to go fast his whole life.

Finally, after decades of racing high-performance speed boats and winning world-class endurance car competitions, Preston Henn got his hands on the fastest executive jet on the planet: the G650.

CNN caught up with Henn by cell phone between practice laps at Daytona International Speedway. “As long as the cars here don’t crank up, we can talk!” he said.

From then on, Henn — Florida’s flea market kingpin — sounded like a giddy schoolboy as he told his story about how he put down a $1 million deposit in April 2012 to become the first person to buy a Gulfstream G650 — “the hottest airplane out there” — with its distinctive, sweeping, curving wings and its roomy, swanky interior.

It made him “feel like a million dollars,” he said gleefully.

For a plane that costs $65 million, feeling like $1 million might seem like a disappointment. But you get the picture.

The jet’s top speed: 704 mph — nearly the speed of sound — makes it arguably the world’s fastest civilian aircraft.

“I was just amazed at how quick it took off,” says Henn. “And then it just went ZOOM — straight up. I just sat back and drank a glass of wine and enjoyed it.”

Henn knows speed. He’s been around the track a time or two — winning the checkered flag during the ’80s at the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours event at Florida’s Sebring International Raceway.

He doesn’t compete anymore. But he still travels around the world to race his friends. A super-fast G650 that can fly 8,000 statute miles — farther than just about any other executive class jet — might save him a lot of time and hassles.

Saving time and avoiding hassles are the main reasons the rich and famous want to fly private.

Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates reportedly each own a Bombardier Global Express. Tom Cruise is said to have a Gulfstream IV. Jackie Chan has an Embraer Legacy 650. And Jay-Z reportedly received a Bombardier Challenger 850 from his wife, Beyonce, as a Father’s Day gift.

But none of these planes can smoke the G650.

Speed aside, it’s got goodies like no other jet in its class. In the cockpit: an infrared night-vision system projects a pilot windshield display, increasing safety during landings. In the cabin: bigger 28-inch-tall windows and a ceiling height of 6-and-a-half feet.

“if you fly from here to Tokyo, you have to fly with two crews,” Henn explains. The G650 has “a complete crew quarters and restrooms and galley and everything they need. So it’s a different breed of cat from what I’m used to.”

Speed flows through Henn’s family bloodline, dating back to his boyhood in Western North Carolina. His father raced speed boats and cars when he wasn’t running movie theaters. As an adult in 1963, Henn bought a drive-in theater of his own in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

During the next half-century, that drive-in grew into the Swap Shop — an 88-acre flea market and cash cow.

Of course, Henn’s not the lone lover of the G650. Reportedly, the plane has caught Oprah’s eye as well. Also said to be interested is Hollywood media mogul David Geffen, designer Ralph Lauren and financial wizard Warren Buffett.

Keep in mind that “very few celebrities own their own jets,” says Doug Giese of Embraer Executive Jets. Owning a plane is still expensive, even if you’re rich. Giese says most celebs fly private by using brokers or buying memberships in fractional share programs.

Brokers

New Hampshire-based PJS Private Jet Services Group brokers private jets — hooking planes up with passengers for a one-time, up-front price.

“Private aviation is becoming more commonplace because there are more programs now,” says PJS CEO Greg Raiff, a 23-year top broker whose business includes several college and professional sports teams. “Thanks to the Internet, there are now 500 companies that can arrange something for you.”

Typically, an aircraft that can fly about 10 passengers round trip from New York City to Los Angeles could cost about $54,000. A smaller jet that seats about seven might cost $26,000 round trip from Philadelphia to Austin, Texas.

Split the cost among the passengers, and it’s comparable to the price of some luxury cruises — and a possible option to celebrate an important life-event such as a golden anniversary or a retirement party.

Fractional shares

Fractional share programs such as NetJet have been around for a while, offering travelers the less expensive option of buying shares of a jet instead of buying the whole thing.

Share programs often come with “jet cards.” Prepay tens of thousands of dollars onto your card in exchange for the convenience of dialing an 800 number and ordering a jet. “That was a real industry game-changer,” says Raiff. “It made booking a jet as easy as ordering a pizza.”

One downside, says Raiff: You have to pay well in advance.

Many jet cards start at a minimum of $100,000, but Delta Private Jets offers a more affordable $25,000 card. Give them at least 48 hours notice, and they’ll get you a plane, says DPJ President Cyril Turner.

One upside, says Turner: You’re protected against rising prices.

“People can lock in today’s rate even if there are future increases,” Turner says. “With the cost of Jet A fuel approaching $6 a gallon and a burn rate approaching — depending on the plane type — 200 gallons an hour, that gets pretty costly.”

Delta Private Jets charges about $5,000 per hour for jets seating up to eight people. Rates start at $9,800 per hour for jets seating up to 14 people.

BlackJet offers an even more creative idea: “semi-private” flying, CNNMoney reports. BlackJet books business class planes from carriers such as JetSelect and sells the seats individually. A BlackJet seat on a Challenger 300 from New York to L.A. might cost around $3,500.

Development of the G650 survived a crisis 2011, when one of the jets crashed during a takeoff performance test in New Mexico, killing two Gulfstream pilots and two flight test engineers. Federal investigators blamed Gulfstream’s testing process. During the investigation, Gulfstream temporarily shut down its G650 test planes. But 17 months later, the G650 received FAA certification.

Now, Gulfstream has more than 200 customers waiting to get their hands on a G650. So far, only about a half dozen have been delivered to customers. As they roll out, plane spotters are on site, snapping photos and posting them online.

“If you call Gulfstream and ask, ‘When can I get a G650?’ It’s four or five years off,” says Henn.

Unfortunately for Henn, enjoying his G650 won’t be an option for the time being. Ultimately, he says, he’s a businessman, and the plane is an investment. He leased the jet back to Gulfstream so the company can use it as a demonstration model. “It’s on its way to China,” Henn says. “It’s supposedly going to set a round-the-world record.”

There’s a hint of disappointment in Henn’s voice, above the sounds of revving engines at the Daytona track. “Sorry, it’s time to get back to it,” he explains. His Enzo Ferrari is beckoning.

“I’m going to take my Enzo back out on the track, and then I’m finished for today,” he says. “Then I’m going back to work.”

By Thom Patterson, CNN.
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