The 5th Annual Living Legends of Aviation ® awards ceremony, held Jan. 24, at California’s Beverly Hilton Hotel, was a spectacular, star-studded event. Aviation luminaries such as Dr. Buzz Aldrin, Maj. Gen. Bill Anders, Bob Hoover, Cliff Robertson, Clay Lacy and Kurt Russell walked the coveted red carpet. Six individuals received awards during the event: Pete Bunce, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, James D. Raisbeck, John Travolta, Dr. Forrest Bird and former Sen. George McGovern.
Airport Journals produced the event, sponsored by Porsche of Beverly Hills, Scheyden Precision Sun Eyewear and MotoArt.
Charlie Johnson, former president of Cessna Aircraft Company, served as emcee. After Jerry Lips introduced the current legends to the audience, Morgan Freeman lent his voice for a touching video tribute to some of the aviators who flew west in 2007: Steve Fossett, Brig. Gen. Tex Hill, Bob Pond, Robert Petersen, Wally Schirra, Hal Fishman, Gen. Paul Tibbets and Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.
General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, one of this year’s inductees, spoke on behalf of the new “Living Legends of Aviation.” Barrington Irving, the first person of African descent and the youngest person ever to fly solo around the globe, represented the young aviators that will provide a source for future nominees.
Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, was honored as the Aviation Industry Leader of the Year.
James D. Raisbeck, founder and president of Raisbeck Engineering and Raisbeck Commercial Air Group, was recognized as the Lifetime Aviation Entrepreneur.
HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, founder of Emirates Airlines, received the Aviation Entrepreneur of the Year award. Nigel Page, senior vice president of commercial North American operations for Emirates, accepted the award.
The Freedom of Flight award was presented to two recipients, former Sen. George McGovern and inventor and aeromedical scientist Dr. Forrest Bird.
Cliff Robertson presented fellow actor John Travolta with the first ever Cliff Robertson Ambassador of Aviation Award.
Travolta acknowledged that he probably wouldn’t have received the honor had it not been for his bonds with three aviation-related businesses. He planted the seeds for a relationship with Qantas Airlines when he was making a movie in Australia. He approached Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon to ask for permission to paint his 707 in Qantas colors. He added that he’d be happy to promote the airline.
Dixon said he’d consider Travolta’s proposal, but in the meantime, the U.S. suffered the terrorist act of 9/11. Shortly after that, Dixon called Travolta with a plan to get people back up in the air: Travolta would represent Qantas with a world tour in his 707. Travolta recalled Dixon saying, “John, we’re going to do this for all the airlines.”
“That’s what I love about Qantas,” Travolta said. “They’re always thinking about the bigger picture.”
Qantas trained its new ambassador-at-large in the Boeing 747 and helped subsidize his 707.
“This amazing airline—which I do think is the best airline in the world—allowed an American man to fulfill his childhood fantasy by becoming one of its pilots,” he said.
Travolta visited 13 cities and 10 countries on the two-month tour.
“It was so successful that we did it three more times,” Travolta said.
That relationship led to a proposal from Breitling watches.
“They were so impressed with what happened with Qantas that they asked if I would represent their 100-year-old aviation history with their watches,” he recalled.
Travolta has also formed an alliance with Eclipse Aviation. He explained that his relationship with Eclipse founder Vern Raburn began years ago when Raburn bought Travolta’s Lockheed Constellation. After reading about the Eclipse 500, the company’s innovative very light jet, Travolta approached Raburn regarding a possible liaison.
“The Eclipse 500 is one of the more genius things you’ll ever experience,” Travolta said. “I’m not just saying that because I’m representing them. It’s true. I’ve really enjoyed the last few months, flying this incredible airplane.”
Travolta ended his acceptance speech by telling what inspired him as a child to become a pilot. He read a few pages from his childhood book, “Gordon’s Jet Flight,” by Naomi J. Glasson.
“Every child has to be inspired by something, and this was the book I was inspired by,” he said.
In the book, as Gordon prepares to visit his grandmother for her birthday, his father makes a surprise announcement: Gordon would be traveling by Astrojet. As he meets his grandmother at the airport, he excitedly tells her about the flight, adding, “I’ll get another Astrojet ride when I go home!”
“I read this every day, back and forth. You never know what’s going to inspire a dream, or what you’ll decide when you’re 8 years old. Obviously, I decided to have a 707 in the backyard,” he jested.
“Gordon’s Jet Flight” wasn’t the only book that influenced Travolta to become a pilot.
“My mother and father believed in books to inspire their children,” he said. “They liked that I loved aviation, so they let me have any book that I wanted on that subject.”
One of those books was “Aviation from the Group Up,” by John Joseph Floherty.
“He explained every department of aviation,” Travolta said. “That was kind of my bible.”
Travolta told the more than 450 people in attendance that he also strives to inspire the next generation.
“I don’t know how to do that other than setting a good example, like everyone in this room has done for their next generation,” he said. “I hope that there’s a book out there for our new generations that will help them decide to become involved in our aerospace and aviation industries.”
Travolta is featured in “Living Legends of Aviation,” a collection of biographies by Di Freeze, Airport Journals editor-in-chief. In writing the book, which was given to event attendees, Freeze interviewed “aviation entrepreneurs, innovators, record breakers, astronauts, pilots who have become celebrities and celebrities who have become pilots.”
Anders, Bird, Hoover, Lacy, Lutz, Raburn, Raisbeck and Robertson are also featured in the book, as well as Barron Hilton, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, Kermit Weeks, Joe Clark, Julie Clark and Alan and Dale Klapmeier, all in attendance at the event. Some of the chapters were a combined effort between Freeze and other writers, including Airport Journals news editor Karen Di Piazza, Chuck Weirauch and Deb Grigsby Smith.
Morgan Freeman, Capt. Gene Cernan, Harrison Ford, Arnold Palmer, Sydney Pollack, A.L. Ueltschi, Patty Wagstaff and Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager are also featured in the book. The first in a series honoring our Living Legends of Aviation, the book additionally honors Fossett and Hill, interviewed by Di Freeze prior to their deaths. “Living Legends of Aviation” will be released to the public this spring.