The Beach Bum Has Flown West: Jimmy Buffett’s Legacy In The Sky

When he wasn’t in the studio, on stage, or in the sand, Jimmy Buffett flew the world in style with a fleet of amazing planes.

byStetson Payne|
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images.


Although best known for his flip-flop style, lots of margaritas, and decades of legendary music with his Coral Reefer Band, Jimmy Buffett loved to fly.

Buffett, who died Friday at 76, had a fleet of planes he used to island hop and travel the world on tour. The fan-made site cataloged Buffett’s time in the sky and his aircraft over the years. Buffett caught the flying bug from a pilot friend at the University of Southern Mississippi, but flying’s steep costs for planes, fuel, and instruction kept Buffett out of the sky.

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But as Buffett turned “Margaritaville” into an unmistakable brand one salt shaker at a time, the proceeds allowed the beach bum to get his single-engine land and sea ratings a year before his 40th birthday. He eventually earned his commercial pilot’s license and multi-engine certifications, which he put to use with his most famous aircraft, his Grumman HU-16C Albatross aptly named Hemisphere Dancer.

Hemisphere Dancer (Former U.S.N. BuNo. 137928) at its barstool parking place at Lone Palm Airport on Universal Studio's City Walk in Orlando, Florida. Max Lonzanida/DVIDS.

Buffett flew the former U.S. Navy flying boat turned winged motorhome/tour bus of sorts to concert locales as well as to remote destinations for pleasure, making the aircraft synonymous with his island lifestyle. There was really nothing else like it in terms of creature comforts and the ability to access locations no other fixed-wing aircraft with similar amenities could. A close call on January 16, 1996 in Hemisphere Dancer led to the hit song “Jamaica Mistaica.” 

Flying with Island Records’ Chris Blackwell as well as U2 frontman Bono and his family onboard, Buffett came in to land Hemisphere Dancer in the waters off Negril, Jamaica. Believing the Albatross was a drug smuggler’s aircraft, Jamaican police opened fire on the plane with small arms. 

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All onboard survived without injuries, and the Albatross (albeit with a few bullet holes) served Buffett faithfully until 2003. As the song says, “We had only come for chicken, we were not the ganja plane.” The Hemisphere Dancer now sits on display at “Lone Palm Airport” outside the Margaritaville Cafe at Universal Studios Orlando. 

Buffett owned numerous other aircraft, including a Pilatus PC-12, a Boeing E-75 Stearman biplane, and three different Dassault Falcon business jets. The Stearman was featured in the music video for Buffett’s 2004 single “Trip Around the Sun” with Martina McBride. In a video on his YouTube page, Buffett put some beautiful wingtip GoPro footage from a flight in the Caribbean to his song “Rocket That Grandpa Rode.”

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Given Buffett’s island-hopping nature, his love for seaplanes went well beyond Hemisphere Dancer. Buffett’s first aircraft was a Lake Renegade amphibian, and he later owned two different Cessna 208 Caravans equipped with floats.

Buffett also owned a Grumman G-21 Goose and a G-44 Widgeon, the latter meeting its end in the waters off Nantucket. On August 25, 1994, Buffett began his takeoff run and hit a swell. The plane nearly rolled from the wave, and the Widgeon nosed over into the water and sank. Buffett narrowly escaped and attributed his survival to Navy Survival Training he underwent before taking a ride in an F-14 Tomcat a few years prior. 

A further nod to his aviation ties, Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) in West Palm Beach, Florida put Buffett’s name on one of its departure procedures, BUFIT ONE. Buffett, who stored his fleet of planes at PBI, had the departure and its waypoints, including “FINNS”, “PYRUT”, and “JIMEY” named in his honor in 2009.

Jimmy Buffet performs for members of Joint Task Force Haiti behind the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 3, 2010. U.S. Navy.

Jimmy Buffett got to live what so many of us can only dream of, chasing sunsets from one city — or one beach — to another in the cockpit of some really cool planes. We can’t think of many better ways to see the world. 

Raise a cold (and salted) glass in his memory, Parrotheads. 

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