“"How many leaders actively seek out and encourage views alien and at odds with their own? All too few...Who in your organization serves as your Challenger In Chief? Interrogating the choices you are considering making? Making you consider the uncontemplated, the unimaginable and that which contradicts or refutes your position? And also challenging you?"”
It’s not every day you get to share sushi and spring rolls with one of the world’s most iconic actors, and I have dined out on the story ever since. Though John Travolta and I were hunched over a low table and the wasabi dip was making my eyes stream, I felt entirely at ease thanks to his friendly, down-to-earth manner—which perhaps explains some of his phenomenal success.
After gaining recognition starting in 1975 on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta scored box-office smashes with Saturday Night Fever—released when he was all of 23—Grease and Urban Cowboy. And while he was performing, he was acquiring flying skills and vintage aircraft. (He’s enthusiastic about aviation history.) Although the film hits stopped coming for Travolta during the 1980s, he rebounded at the end of the decade with the popular comedy Look Who’s Talking, followed by a memorable performance as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. He received Academy Award Best Actor nominations for Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, and won a Golden Globe Best Actor prize for Get Shorty.
Flying is oxygen to Travolta, who once said that his acting funded his passion for aviation. He earned his private pilot’s license at age 22 and today owns several aircraft, including a Boeing 707-138 that was previously part of Qantas Airways’ fleet. His home is in Jumbolair Aviation Estates, a fly-in community at north central Florida’s private Greystone Airport. He has a taxiway right to his door, where he parks the 707.
One yardstick for pilots is the number of aircraft types they can fly, and Travolta’s list impresses. He holds 11 jet type ratings, for everything from small military aircraft to the Boeing 707. He has just bought and trained on a Bombardier Challenger 601, an aircraft based on a design by Learjet inventor Bill Lear.
Travolta married actress Kelly Preston in 1991, and the couple have had three children. Jett, their oldest, suffered from Kawasaki disease, which causes seizures. He died suddenly on Jan. 2, 2009, while the family was vacationing in the Bahamas. The dignity that the Travoltas displayed after his death won them worldwide sympathy.
Not only did the family have their grief to contend with, they also had to endure a multimillion-dollar extortion plot regarding the circumstances of their son’s death. Travolta took the extortionists to court but dropped charges after a mistrial. He has subsequently said that his family and faith—he has been a Scientologist since 1975—helped him survive the traumatic events.
Travolta uses his skill as a pilot for both humanitarian causes and fun. He flew the 707 to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, bringing medical supplies and doctors into the disaster area. During the 2010 season of Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, he flew with her entire studio audience to Australia, taking the controls for some of the journey, which Winfrey bankrolled.
When he’s not flying, he’s still making movies.
His latest, which was released last July, is Savages, which Oliver Stone directed. Also in the works are Killing Season, with Robert de Niro, and Gotti, with Travolta playing mobster John Gotti.
You just bought and learned to fly a Bombardier Challenger 601. What attracted you to this aircraft?
It uses Canadair technology, which has evolved to an extraordinary degree since the 1970s, although it is a 30-year-old Learjet design.
What about your passengers?
I like to take my family around, [so] it has to be comfortable in the back.
You regularly use and are a strong advocate for business aviation. What is the value of an organization like the U.S. National Business Aviation Association?
It is very important to establish a scene at which the corporate aviation groups are allowed to show what’s new and up-to-date.
The one thing that my mechanics and pilots always want me to do is finance them to go to those yearly conventions.
They say, “John, it’s not just a joyride. We find out things that you don’t necessarily get elsewhere.” That’s thanks to events like safety standdowns and technical training.
The loss of your first son was a terrible event, but it seems as though some good has come out of your grief with the establishment of the Jett Foundation.
All these years, people have suffered from seizures and there is no cure. Yet it is electronically oriented. It is misfiring synapses of the brain. Why can’t that be controlled? There is a company that has some great ideas about that, so I’m looking forward to donating to it via the Jett Foundation.
You worked with your daughter as well as your wife in the film Old Dogs. Is the next generation following in your footsteps?
Ella’s getting her own career now. She’s just signed up to do a movie with Helen Hunt playing her mother, and she got that all on her own—nothing to do with us.
Do you see her learning to fly, too?
She’s so good on the computer that my [sense] is that she probably will take it up, because she’s really quick. I wouldn’t be surprised.
She comes from determined stock. I heard you spent close to a year learning to dance for Saturday Night Fever.
I needed to learn, because I had to be excellent in it.
You were the first non-test pilot to fly the Airbus A380. How did that happen?
The Qantas chairman of the board said to me, “If I could finagle a test flight for you, would you want to do it?” I said, “Are you kidding?” So she was out dining with the manufacturers, and at the appropriate time she said, “It’s really important to me to have John fly tomorrow.” She leveraged them and they said, “Yes.”
What would be the definitive aviation movie?
It would need to include authenticity, where they shoot the planes as if they were characters in a novel. I’d love that. A story that might work is my little novella [“Propeller One-Way Night Coach”]. If I filmed it, I think I could nail it. There’s another one called “The Shepherd”, which is a great aviation ghost story by Fredrick Forsythe. I like that one because I used to own a Vampire [one of the aircraft in the book].
You famously loved a book called Gordon’s Jet Fighter when you were a child, which fueled your passion. Have you read the story to your kids?
I tried to, but because we own our own airliner it didn’t seem as fascinating to them. I still love it, but I was Gordon, of course.
Who are your aviation heroes? If you were doing what I’m doing now, who would be the people you’d want to talk to?
Howard Hughes, but the best would be [Sir Frank] Whittle, who invented the jet engine. I’d prefer to talk to the teams that designed airplanes rather than the pilots, because I love the idea of knowing what’s involved in designing a plane.
NAME: John Joseph Travolta
BORN: Feb. 18, 1954, in Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.
OCCUPATION: Actor, dancer, singer and producer.
AVOCATION: Aviation. Travolta, a longtime pilot, is the current “Living Legends of Aviation” ambassador as well as a brand ambassador for Bombardier Business Jets. He won the American Institute of Aeronautics Foundation Award for Excellence in 2003.
TRANSPORTATION: Owns a Bombardier Challenger 601, a Boeing 707-138B and an Eclipse 500. Also has a Soko Galeb G-2 fighter jet and two ultralights.
PERSONAL: Married since 1991 to actress Kelly Preston. Lives in Florida with daughter Ella Bleu (born 2000) and son Benjamin (born 2010).