My visit to Sands Aviation. Exclusive video aboard the Boeing 747SP included.
Over the years, there’s been curiosity into the operator of the untitled widebody aircraft at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport on the opposite side of the main passenger terminals. No, not the mysterious white 737-600s with a red cheatline, everyone knows who operates that fleet and where those planes travel to daily. Adjacent to AECOM, the operator of ‘JANET’, is the nerve center for Sands Aviation, located just off South Las Vegas. The building has no name, no titles, nothing to call attention to it outside of the matching stripes that its fleet wears.
Not secretive, just ultra-private operation
Many have tried every avenue to get a glimpse into this operation and these aircraft, given the entire operations flies beneath the radar to the public eye. But this is a private operator – it neither runs passenger operations for the public, nor does it charter its aircraft to those interested.
Sands Owner Has Long Loved Aviation
It is owned by the Sands Corporation, of which the Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson owns more than 50%. Sheldon’s brief history is he was one of the co-founders of the COMDEX computer show, held in Las Vegas annually. It was sold in 1995 to the tune of $800million dollars, but Sheldon had already begun his expansion outside of the show purchasing the Sands Hotel in 1989 and expanding its foot print with a convention center added to the hotel. Fast forward to today, and Sheldon’s Las Vegas hotels now include The Venetian and The Palazzo hotels & casinos. His casino empire expanded internationally to include The Venetian in Macau, along with a Four Seasons and an exclusive invite only resort, the Paiza Mansions. The list of properties is extensive.
But Sheldon’s interest in aviation didn’t start with Sands Aviation. You can trace it back to 1984 when he ran a charter outfit “Five Star Airlines”, which he initially bought two TWA L-1011s to use during the winter months to fly attendees to his newly running COMDEX show in Las Vegas. During the summer months, Sheldon leased them back to TWA.
Sheldon’s empire is built with a number of interconnected companies. In the case of Sands Aviation, the aircraft are owned by Interface Operations, registered in Bermuda along with a series of subsidiaries. Sheldon’s company leases the aircraft to Sands Aviation, even though Sheldon owns the Bermuda based company. The current aircraft in the fleet range from a series of Gulfstream aircraft (currently 9) along with 2 Boeing 737-300s, a lone Boeing 767-300ER, a solo Boeing 747SP (now that the second aircraft has been damaged and written off), and finally a single Airbus A340-500.
Exclusive Fleet Fills Many Roles…All For High Rollers
This fleet of aircraft is used for a variety of purposes, from shuttling executives of Sands to various locations and properties worldwide, celebrities, and of course high rollers from all over the world. But these aren’t just any high rollers; they’re often referred to as “whales” because they gamble substantial amounts of money (think $50,000 USD per hand!).
During the height of recent wealth in China, Sands Aviation would fly over an empty Boeing 747SP to Macau or other parts of Asia, pick up usually five people (sometimes a high roller and their family/staff, sometimes multiple high rollers and their staff), and fly them back to Las Vegas. Most of the time the 747SP could do the flights without fuel stops in Anchorage, Alaska. But occasionally, especially during warmer summer months and with stronger head winds, a technical stop would be required westbound regardless. Eastbound the aircraft had no trouble flying non-stop. It wasn’t unheard of to turn the plane back around and fly it empty to Asia to pick up another handful of high rollers to bring back to Las Vegas.
L-1011 Was The Original High Roller Aircraft
It’s no surprise that one of Sheldon’s early acquisitions for the start of Sands Aviation was also an L-1011. With good range and an incredibly low acquisition cost, the L-1011 was the original high roller aircraft. It was rumored to have a casino-grade roulette table onboard so gambling could occur during flights. This aircraft would shuttle high rollers from Asia to Sheldon’s properties in Las Vegas. The issue with the L-1011 was it didn’t have the range to operate non-stop to Macau or other parts of China and Singapore. Enter the first Boeing 747SP to arrive, VP-BLK.
The 747SP Hit The Sweet Spot For High Value Shuttles Around The Globe
What many people do not know is that there were two Boeing 747SPs, one which was used to shuttle passengers (VP-BLK), while the second aircraft (VQ-BMS) was Sheldon’s personal aircraft at the time. Celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Kanye West have publicized their trips on Sands Aviation’s 747SP, but they were always on VP-BLK. VP-BLK got its start with TWA, before eventually becoming a VIP converted aircraft for the United Arab Emirates Amiri Flight. VQ-BMS started out with Pan Am, before eventually becoming an VIP aircraft for the Bahraini Government. VP-BLK joined the Sands Aviation fleet in 2007, and outside of minor interior modifications removing the more native Middle Eastern decorations, was largely kept as-is. VQ-BMS joined a year later in 2008, and just like VP-BLK, had minor modifications to it but was largely kept as-is. All the SPs carry fly-away kits in case of a mechanical or technical issue.
The floor plans for both aircraft are uniquely different, and the tour I got of VQ-BMS was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately because the aircraft was Sheldon’s “home away from home” I was not permitted to take photographs. The front of the aircraft had two large couches that converted into beds, with the section aft of the main door featuring the equivalent of a large living room, complete with a massive chair fit for a king. Then again, this aircraft did fly for middle eastern royalty. Aft of the living room, there was a small section next to the windows on the port side of the aircraft with a curtain that had two hammock beds (I was told that mechanics had slept there when traveling with the aircraft in case of issues), followed by a small business class section for, as I was told, “The guys with the guns” (Sheldon’s personal security detail). Finally in the rear was a small coach seating section for additional staff as necessary. The upper deck of VQ-BMS had a private but simple looking bedroom with a king-sized bed with the headboard against the windows, and simple end tables with a private bathroom.
Immaculate jets, Immaculate Hangar
The hangar of Sand’s was polished concrete and had a mirror finish. It was so clean and immaculate, you could eat off the floor! The general offices for the staff that keep Sands Aviation running are located both upstairs (pilots, staff, executives) and downstairs with those that maintain the aircraft, along with an area for spare parts. Sands does maintain their own aircraft, but heavy checks / maintenance the aircraft are sent out to licensed facilities.
My Visit To Sands Aviation
When I visited Sands Aviation, it was with the notion to produce a documentary on the 747SP specifically, and a coffee table book about Sands Aviation. Now, it took over a year of communication to get over the hump to even be invited in to discuss further. However, from the beginning, it was made very clear Sands Aviation is a lowkey operation, and senior executives of Sands Corporation were lukewarm on the idea.
As unfortunate as it is, the private aspect of the operation makes doing a film or book a non-starter. Sands Aviation gets requests all the time to do interviews from high end publications, but they always decline. But some persistence at least resulted in a visit and a test flight for this lucky writer, along with a lifelong friendship with the Chief Pilot for the Airbus A340/Boeing 747SP, Captain Danny Burke.
What is amazing is that many of the key people at Sands Aviation that I spoke with all had a long history in the airline business, and just casually chatting with them brought forth unique and interesting stories from their past endeavors (hence the idea of a book).
Unique Stories Abound with The Sands Crew
One of the mechanics that joined me on the test flight mentioned there’s a ghost on VQ-BMS, and that others in the company have seen it. They don’t know the origins of what or why, and it doesn’t really bother anyone, but can be unnerving if you don’t know about it. Captain Danny Burke was the most jovial and friendly individual I encountered. He clearly loved what he did, and would talk your ears off on his history in the airline business. We stayed in touch and I learned he got his start as a pilot with TWA flying Lockheed Constellations, later working his way up to the Boeing 747SP. After he retired from TWA (aged out at 60) he kept flying for private operators, eventually landing at Sands Aviation after some stints flying royalty in the middle east. The irony to end your airline career on a TWA 747SP, and years later reunite to fly the same aircraft that flew with the same airline.
One of the many stories Danny shared was flying the Convair 880-22, calling it “Smoke, noise, and speed!” He said they’d set the power to 103% for takeoff, then slowly bring it back during the climb and cruise so you wouldn’t ring the Vmo bell. What he also mentioned was the bell rang a lot on a typical flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia, cruising at Mach .92, and that their aircraft had balance boards to allow the flight controls to move. The subsequent “M” models that Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific bought had a power rudder, but only when the flaps were extended he noted.
Sands Also Flies A Number Of Charitable Trips
Sheldon would donate the aircraft for a variety of charitable causes, covering the cost to transport whatever endeavor he was participating in. But these events were always kept on the down low, with nary a mention in the press. One event he does semi-annually is flying up to 50 NFL Hall of Famers for a tour of the Holy Land (Israel). Additionally, he supported the military and would often engage in events including transport for veterans on Sand’s aircraft. Once the Airbus A340-500 arrived in the fleet, Sheldon preferred taking it because it could fly from Las Vegas all the way to Singapore with no technical stop.
My Ride in the Boeing 747SP
During my visit in 2016, when I met Danny, he mentioned they needed to take one of the SP’s (BMS) up for a technical flight, and invited me along. The crew were great to watch, all having unique personalities and happy to share special stories from their careers. But once the aircraft door was closed, Danny ran a sterile cockpit meaning no talking or interruptions and everyone got down to business. [You can see snippets of this flight on my YouTube page: avgeektv]
We took off on runway 1L north bound turning over Sheldon’s hotels the Venetian and the Palazzo, heading westbound towards California. We climbed to about 10k feet while the flight crew immediately began running all their tests from their checklists, testing out every switch and all functions of the aircraft. After about an hour and turning left making a complete circle around the Ivanpah Solar Electric farm in California we began our descent and landed again on runway 1L. When the aircraft isn’t scheduled to fly within 20 days, they’re required to take the aircraft up for a test flight and ensure everything is operating.
Danny maintained an apartment in Las Vegas when he was due to fly, but when he was off, he commuted to his home in Tahiti, where he and his wife became citizens. According to his wife, Danny had no plans to retire and planned to fly until the day he died. That day unfortunately came on October 7, 2019 when Danny passed away. A wonderful and private service was held for him at his son’s home in California, where everyone shared stories of Danny.
Sands Flights Continue
Sands Aviation continues to operate with one less 747SP, VQ-BMS which received damage due to a hurricane, and has since been written off. High roller flights slowed (and even stopped for a while) due to the world economic turmoil that began in 2008 and continued for some time. It was also rumored that China didn’t like its wealthy citizens running off to Las Vegas to gamble, taking money out of China and depositing it in another country. There have been lots of changes over the past years, including adoption of anti-corruption laws to limit gambling activities.
While there are rumors that Sheldon may sell his U.S. based corporation, nothing has happened as of today, nor is it clear what would happen (if anything) to Sands Aviation. But in the end, it’s clear why high rollers were flown in from China, and why Sheldon may continue to focus on Macau: it accounts for 63% of the revenue that the Sands Corporation brings in. It must be nice to have a private 747SP pick just you and anyone else you designate to accompany you, and fly you nearly half way around the world.