While watching an episode of Top Gear recently (the English version on BBC America with Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond) I noticed that a familiar American celebrity popped up on screen. Tom Cruise was given the cheery task of being their Star in a Reasonably Priced Car feature for the episode. He did this job in tandem with Cameron Diaz, his co-star in whatever movie they were plugging at the time. But that’s beside the point.
What caught my attention was that Clarkson, a gear-head of massive proportions (and I say that with the greatest respect) was very interested in Tom’s P-51 Mustang. It’s little wonder that an Englishman of Clarkson’s age would be fascinated by stories of the power and speed of the Mustang that came from North American, over the one that comes from Ford.
But the incident got me to thinking about celebrities, airplanes, and how the rest of us view the two. We may have developed some misconceptions that are not in our best interest or the best interests of the celebrities we revere so fervently.
John Travolta famously owns a Boeing 707, and is type rated in the 747. You can’t help but admire a man who has indulged his hobby to the point that he has reached the pinnacle of the pastime by flying virtually everything he ever had the urge to fly. I envy him that. I suspect most of us do. However, I do not envy him. And the distinction is important. To wish to fly big, fast, exotic machines is, it seems to me, a perfectly reasonable fantasy to harbor in one’s heart. On the other hand, to wish to be another person who we truly know precious little about is nuts.
I’m happy with who I am. You should be happy with who you are, too. After all, you’re going to be hanging around with yourself for quite a long time. So you might as well make an effort to develop a set of interests and skills that entertain and amuse you. Otherwise you will become quite a dull person. And if you bore yourself, that is not good by anyone’s standard.
There are other celebrity pilots besides Travolta, of course. In fact there are loads of them and there have been since very shortly after powered flight was developed. Given the requisite cash-flow that would allow us to fly more often, in more impressive aircraft, and to destinations where we would be met with all the fanfare and pomp our imagination allows, who of us can’t see the rationale behind celebrities becoming pilots? Heck, we did it, and we’re just regular Joe’s and Jane’s hanging around the water cooler, or passing the time on the porch at the local FBO.
The central term in that last paragraph is critical. The magic word is “imagination.” Because the celebrity contingent among us are fundamentally no different than the rest of us. They have good days and they have bad days. They fight with their spouses. They yell at their kids. They pick up litter from the side of the road, and sometimes they do something absolutely wonderful for no apparent reason at all — just like you and I do. The pedestal they stand upon is one of our own making. They are real people, not much different from you and me really, except they have to put up with the added annoyance of a camera in their face on an alarmingly frequent basis.
Sure, Travolta flies a big kerosene burning transport category machine these days. But he started out flying the most humble of general aviation’s fleet — the Ercoupe. I suspect that, if asked, he would share fond memories of the little H tail wonder he learned to fly in. I’m just guessing mind you, but I suspect he had a good time building hours and experience in a low-powered, two-seat spam can.
Similarly, Tom Cruise may own a P-51 today and take great pride in it — and frankly who would own a P-51 and not take great pride in it? But I’m thinking that it’s possible, probable in fact, that he took his initial training in an airplane very much like the one the rest of the civilian market learned to fly in. It seems likely that he treasures those memories too.
My point is simple. Let’s start to treat our celebrity brethren like the people they are. Let’s take them down from the mantle piece, dust them off, and start to view them as men and women who share more in common with us than we might otherwise think. While they may have the wherewithal to fly bigger, faster, more exotic aircraft than you fly (or I fly), that doesn’t mean they don’t have happy memories of puttering around in something as simple and basic as a Champ on a grass field one sunny afternoon.
I mention this not so much for the pilots among us, but for the benefit of the non-pilots we know. Because while we all meet people who would love to fly with us now and then, and many of us take them up on that interest and tote a friend or co-worker along on a flight from time to time, wouldn’t it be uniquely inspirational if we had a practical answer to the oft asked question, “Could you fly the plane that John Travolta (or Tom Cruise, or Angelina Jolie, or Michael Dorn, or Dennis Quaid) flies?”
Most general aviation pilots would sputter and falter and try to come up with a plausible answer that was understandable to a layman who has no understanding of type ratings and high-powered aircraft. But what if you could simply turn to your passenger, encourage them to take the controls (under supervision of course) and reply, “Well you know, John Travolta learned to fly in an Ercoupe just like this one,” and watch the smile of satisfaction and wonder start to spread across their face.
With that in mind, wouldn’t it be a fantastic motivational tool for prospective pilots if we knew what sort of airplane our most admired celebrity pilots learned the basics in? If you know, share. I have no doubt your fellow readers would love to know that little tid bit of trivia. And if you happen to hang out with Tom Cruise at the airport, please let him know that last turn in the Kia Cee’d was a real hoot. Two-wheels on the ground and a rotation underway…I guess that’s just the way a P-51 pilot does it.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.
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