On July 20th 2019, the Yorkshire Air Museum’s Chair of Trustees Martin Withers flew to Austria to be inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation. Created in 2003, The Living Legends of Aviation are admirable people of remarkable accomplishment including: entrepreneurs, innovators, astronauts, pilots. Awards are held annually in the USA and Europe, with John Travolta presenting the European awards this summer in Austria.
The award is not something to apply for. Recipients are nominated by organisations and their peers in the aviation industry as people who have made a significant contribution to aviation. Martin had been nominated by Airbus in recognition of his high profile RAF career flying the Vulcan and for his work with the VTST when displaying the Vulcan at airshows, for which Airbus had been a sponsor.
We caught up with Martin and talked about his thoughts on this remarkable event.
Q. Where did the European Living Legends of Aviation take place?
In Austria. We flew out to Salzburg early on the Friday getting there at 10:45. We had been expecting something to be taking place on the Friday night at the “Flying Bulls” headquarters at Hangar 7, the most futuristic hangar anywhere. It is full of shiny old aircraft and Red Bull Formula One cars.
We were met by a chauffeur driving a brand new BMW 7 series VIP Transport and whisked over to the hangar. A couple of hours later and we were flying at low level over the lakes and through the mountains in an immaculate old Douglas DC6. The route would have been a delight to fly in a Vulcan and we were well below 500 feet over the lakes. Not a bad way to start!
After canapés and drinks (Red Bull not beer!), we travelled in a luxury coach (with the other VIP’s) to Lake Wolfgansee. The venue, a large hotel and conference centre built around what was once a lakeside castle, was on the other side of the lake. We were transported across the lake in an old paddle-steamer to arrive in style on a red carpet at this very impressive building simply called “Scalaria”.
Only then did we get a picture of what the next day was going to be like!
Q. The Award has been given to a huge variety of aviators, did you know who else was going to receive the award with you?
No I wasn’t sure even then. By this time we had met a number of people, a mix of those already ‘Legends’, a couple of others who were also to be ‘Inductees’. Yet I still wasn’t sure exactly what sort of award I was to receive. It was actually at that point that I learned that I was to become one of the Living Legends!
I didn’t know how many people were going to receive this honour, with last year only 8 people being appointed at the first European event. I also was told that I had to make an acceptance speech!
Q. It must have been a fascinating environment?
It proved to be a very friendly environment, with an awful lot of talk about flying or other aspects of aviation. We felt we could get used to life in this luxury ‘all inclusive’ hotel. We had a great room overlooking the lake with the mountains beyond. There was no choice of beers (my only criticism), however plenty of good wine and Champagne flowing more than made up for it. Everyone was in good spirits that evening.
Q. So how did you receive your award?
By Saturday morning we felt very much at home and came down for breakfast definitely ‘part of the crowd’. I had to be in the ‘Theatre’ at 10:00 for a briefing from the event director. At that time I learned who the other recipients of the awards were going to be, and they did indeed number eight as last year. I also had my first sight of the video about me which was going to be played before I went on stage to be given my award by John Travolta.
The party started at 15:00 with the lawn on the lakeside full of guests in dinner jackets and long dresses drinking champagne and cocktails. The dinner itself was not the only highlight of the occasion, starting at 17:20 with a welcome address from John Travolta who had flown in especially in his own Gulfstream G2 and would be flying back home straight after the dinner!
While we had our starters, he handed awards to a variety of people for exceptional deeds in their own field, all with some connection to flight. Then after the main course, we all went outside to watch a flying display from the ‘the Flying Bulls’ over the lake.
They appeared to have a different interpretation of the rules! The Alpha Jets in particular were flying straight at and over the crowd at very low level yet no-one seemed upset, and I had taken earplugs, so didn’t care either. In all other respects the displays were extremely good.
We then returned to the tables in the Theatre and one at a time the eight of us were called forward to receive our large golden medallions presented by John Travolta (himself a Legend).
Afterwards he said his farewells, and we sat and watched a fantastic stage show with a variety of first class performers, before wandering outside to watch even more displays over the Lake, finishing at about 23:00.
The party went on thereafter until about 04:00, however Laura and I went up to our room to watch the incredible lightning and rain from a powerful thunderstorm beating down on the area we had just left a short time before. The timing was perfect!
Q. How does it feel to be a Living Legend of Aviation?
It was an incredible evening. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I was nominated to join this elite group of ‘Living Legends’ but I don’t think I am likely to regret it.
The whole thing was an unreal experience, Laura and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am very proud to be a recipient in such exalted company.