29 May, 2015
A lifetime of flying
An accomplished and credible aviator, film icon John Travolta is a globetrotter with a passion for aviation. Hollywood’s highest flying star discusses his contribution as a test pilot on Bombardier’s Challenger 350
In between starring in a strong of Hollywood blockbusters, John Travolta has found the time to become a certified pilot rated on eleven different aircraft. He loves flying himself and his family around the world on his business jet, a Challenger 601, and aerial shots of his Florida home show as many aircraft parked outside as cars in the driveway. Whether filming or working as a brand ambassador for Qantas, Breitling and Bombardier, the actor is always on the go. During our time together Travolta told us he ‘felt like an astronaut’ when working as a test pilot in support of the Canadian airframer’s efforts to get the super-midsized Challenger 350 certified in 2013, while it was at the launch of Bombardier’s Challenger 650 this past October that we had the opportunity to sit down in Orlando. A small crowd had gathered in the sun in front of the mockup of Bombardier’s follow-on to the Challenger 605. On this beautiful morning at Orlando Executive Airport in Florida during NBAA2014, Bombardier was showcasing its latest version of the best-selling Challenger series, the new Challenger 650.
As the living screen legend stepped out of the aircraft mockup a slight shiver went through the audience. Here he was, right on time, and somewhat larger than life. With a big smile on his face, the actor said a few words, inviting everyone to have a look at the cabin. Accessible, he engaged with the crowd with easy manner, joking and chatting and making everyone feel remarkably comfortable. He even offered to take ‘selfies’ with the cell phones of some of his star-stricken admirers, pausing for photographers and apparently enjoying the moment. Minutes later, we sat down for a half-hour of affable conversation and an exclusive interview. We first met Travolta in Geneva during EBACE 2013, at the launch of the Challenger 350. Invited by the manufacturer to be part of the design team, the aviator had been asked to write a special report for the 350. ‘The first participation I had was in the test flight of the 350, based on the cockpit observation, and they just wanted to know what my opinion was of various instruments that they had improved. I was looking for efficiency, performance, and how long it takes to complete various tasks. It was all very impressive for me. It is rather quick: it takes only 20 minutes from start to take off and that’s quite rapid for a checklist!’ Commenting on the 350 and the Challenger series as a whole, Travolta told us: ‘Everything is beautifully laid out in the cockpit. It makes sense and it is pilot friendly. So I wrote my review based on what I was looking for. But I’m most impressed by how you can fly this fast, this far for this amount of money. I don’t think any aircraft can compete with the Challenger grouping because it’s so efficient. At the end of the day you have to consider what it’s costing you.’ The new Challenger 650 leans heavily on Bombardier’s experience in evolving the super-midsize Challenger 300 into the 350, with a heavy focus on comfort in the up-to-12 passenger cabin as well as improvements to the flight deck and avionics systems. Travolta explained why Bombardier is so special to him. ‘I said to Eric Martel the president of Bombardier Business Aircraft last night, as he thanked me for being a good ambassador helping sell aircraft to new buyers: ‘it’s easy, I don’t have to lie’. These aircraft are extraordinary for many reasons. The design alone is modern, it’s of today’s era of design, so you’re getting efficiency and quietness. They are also ‘green’ airplanes that burn less fuel.’
With almost 9,000 flying hours to his credit Travolta is a serious aviator who can fly almost any type of aircraft. He holds no less than 11 jet type ratings–for everything from small military aircraft to the Boeing 707 and Boeing 747. His qualifications include Challengers, Gulfstreams, Lears, Citations, the Eclipse jet and a few fighter jets. He was also the first non-test pilot to fly the A380 for Qantas. ‘I started very young, back in 1970’, he recalls to us flashing that iconic grin. ‘I was licensed in 1974 and became a jet pilot by 1981. It’s my other life and I take it very seriously.’ Aside from the CL601 and the Boeing 707, Travolta also owns an Eclipse jet. ‘It is adorable and just so efficient. It is more comfortable than any aircraft in its category and it burns 55-gallons an hour at 420 miles an hour. It is very important to pay attention to what you are spending because it does matter. It could mean the difference between owning a private aircraft for many more years. If you overspend you have to get rid of it. If you choose the aircraft that’s efficient economically, you can also keep it for much longer. And that’s just math.’ Previous to his acquisition of a Challenger 601 in 2012, Travolta owned a Gulfstream II for over 22- years. ‘I spent three years looking for a new aircraft, it had become very expensive on every front and unethical to operate anymore. So was I moving on to a G450 or a GIV or to something else? No matter what angle I would consider, the Challenger always won out. I would look at the Falcons too, but none of them had the efficiency or the economy of the Bombardier product.’ So cost and comfort eventually won the day for Travolta: ‘On a Challenger it’s at least a third less on every front than the GIV series. It gives you the same mission, you go the same distance, the same speed and yet you have a wider and a taller cabin. So if you could do it for a third of the operating costs, why would you not do that?’
When conversation turns to the thrill of being in the cockpit, Travolta admits that in addition to flying himself he also employs two pilots. ‘I do the fun parts, take off and landing’, he says with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Usually I take off and about an hour and a half into the flight, when we’re established on the course and everybody is happy about where we are headed, I go back and have dinner. If I need a nap, I’ll take a nap.’ Asked about the different challenges these two manoeuvres that book-end a flight present, Travolta replies with the candor of an ethusiast. ‘The take off is always the most exciting, but the landing is filled with art. The take off is exhilarating, but the landing is estimation, perception, you feel the landing. My points of excellence are landings, because I use all my perceptions as an artist to land. Because you can do it by the books and you will get a safe landing, but if you use your perceptions, you can have a smooth and elegant landing.’ Hitting his stride as he warms to his specialist subject, Travolta leans forward and gestures to emphasize his points. ‘Take off and landing are my expertise areas. I fly beautifully, but once it’s on autopilot and the aircraft is taking itself across the ocean or cross country, it might actually be more fun being in the back. There isn’t much to do in truth. But, once you step into the arrivals pattern for a busy airport, then it gets exciting! The real skill comes into manoeuvering your way into a complicated scene. Departures are the same way.’ Repeating the issue several times during our discussion, safety is a subject that Travolta is obviously adamant about. ‘You have a responsibility as a pilot. It’s a personal question that the pilot has do deal with himself. Do I have the alertness, the awareness, intuitiveness to pay attention to what I’m doing? I’m strict on ethics in the cockpit, it’s very important.’
Travolta’s Challenger 601 extended range version with extra tanks is specially fitted with a sleeping set-up using courtesy curtains. ‘Since I’ve been involved with Bombardier, I’ve told them we’ve got to make the JT sleeper jet. I want to do that, it’ll be my signature. I’ll design it and Bombardier can manufacture it, as I told Steve Ridolfi, I don’t want anything for it financially, I just want people to have the same experience I enjoy. For spending this money, they deserve the luxury.’ Travolta spreads some plans in front of us and starts to talk us through the nuances of his design. ‘It’s something I keep pressing for, because it works so well for my family. I love it. In my plane you take two seats and fill the middle with a simple piece of apparatus. Over that comes the bedding, very comfortable bedding with pillows and sheets. Curtains then surround these two seats that have been turned into a bed, so you have your privacy. You can eat, read or sleep without disturbing the other passengers, because that’s one of the primary complaints on a corporate plane.’ It’s not just Travolta’s family that appreciates the neat solution he’s designed either, as he highlights with a delightful anecdote. ‘So I’m shooting the movie ‘Killing Season’ in Bulgaria with Robert de Niro. The producer says to me, ‘would you do me a favor and take Robert to New York? You’re going to New York anyway and it would save me a lot of money on another charter for him.’ So I tell him it’s not a problem. In the morning on the set I say to Robert, ‘I understand I’m taking you to New York tonight, you’re in for a treat!’ He’s older than me, he’s travelled on every kind of airplane, so he asks: ‘Why is that?’ Settling back in his chair and continuing with the art of a professional storyteller, Travolta continues to reenact the conversation. ‘So I said, ‘this is what’s going to happen: you’re going to get onboard, you’re going to sit in the back, have a Martini and then a beautiful bottle of wine–red or white depending on how you feel. You’re going to have a gorgeous dinner, and then it’s time to put you to bed, and I’m going to put you to bed behind these curtains, you will wake up in New York and you will have had the best flight you ever had’. And you know what? That’s exactly how it happened. I did the same thing with Barbra Streisand, and I did the same thing for Marlon Brando. And they were dumbfounded by this concept. Because they weren’t used to unwinding that much.’