John Travolta: A Passionate Ambassador of Aviation

John Travolta: A Passionate Ambassador of Aviation
When John Travolta signed on as ambassador-at-large for Qantas, he took that mission seriously. He was just as earnest when he agreed to align with Breitling. His willingness to represent someone or something he believes in with his whole heart is the reason Airport Journals has selected the superstar as the recipient of its 2008 Cliff Robertson Ambassador of Aviation Award.

When it comes to aviation, Travolta is more than up to the task of serving as a messenger.

“I’m certainly genuine in my feelings about it,” he says. “I couldn’t be more authentic about my passion. It’s always allowed me distraction from the woes of life. I’ve used aviation as a beautiful expansion of the pleasures of my life. There’s not a thing about it, really, that I don’t enjoy. And I really want others to enjoy it.”

Born Feb. 18, 1954, it didn’t take long for Travolta to become intrigued with aviation. Even when he was a child, the entertainment industry and aviation merged. His mother, Helen Cecilia Burke, and sisters Ellen, Ann and Margaret were stage performers who often traveled.

“I was the baby of the family,” he said. “In the late ’50s, Ellen was off to college and then off to shows. All through the early ’60s, she was still traveling quite a bit. Whether it was Ellen, my other sister or my mother, I would say goodbye to them at the airport.”

Books were also a source of inspiration.

“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.”

0804046_1.jpgFeatured in 2008

One favorite was “Gordon’s Jet Flight,” a Little Golden Activity Book by Naomi J. Glasson. 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.

Another book also influenced Travolta to become a pilot: “Aviation from the Group Up,” by John Joseph Floherty.

“He explained every department of aviation,” Travolta said. “That was kind of my bible.”

Finally, in 1962, at 8 years old, Travolta flew on a National Airlines DC-6.

“That was the beginning of the reality of flying for me,” he said.

Every day, Travolta would wait for planes to fly over the family’s home in Englewood, N.J.

“Because of the path of LaGuardia Airport, the planes were about 2,000 feet by the time they got to my house,” he said. “I’d hear one coming, the drone of the big reciprocal engines—’brooooooom.’ I’d see it come out from a corner of the sky, and then I would sit and watch. Sometimes, I could make out the insignia of the airlines—TWA, Eastern, American or United. It was beautiful to watch them come in sight and go out of sight. A lot of Constellations left LaGuardia; 6s and 7s were popular, too. It was the height of the large propeller airliner days, and it was fascinating.”

His fascination continued as different aircraft began flying overhead.

“In 1964, LaGuardia started jet service,” he said. “As they replaced the Connies and the 6s and 7s, you could see the jets start to fly over. The jets had been out five years earlier. They were flying out of Kennedy and Newark, but not so much LaGuardia. So, for a long time, the propeller age was extended for me, in observation.”

Travolta’s passion went beyond observation.

“My dad and I would turn various machines into other machines,” he said. “One time, I wanted a plane reminiscent of an airliner that I could taxi around the neighborhood. He had a board, maybe eight or 10 feet, and he made a frame for it; he was going to put metal around that. Separately, we had another board that had two car generators that turned big wooden propellers, one on each side of the wing. The fuselage was going to be able to sit people my size—7 or 8.”

As captain, he would need “stewardesses,” so Travolta recruited various female friends who eagerly donned their Brownie uniforms.

“They had Barbie high heels, so I said, ‘Just wear those,'” he recalled. “We never quite finished that plane; we turned it into a go-cart. But my dad did finish another plane for me.”