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High flyers: Five famous people who lead – or have led – double lives as pilots

Article published
2.8.2017 at 06:00
Cabin window view of aircraft wing.
From a British novelist to a Brazilian supermodel, these individuals all caught the aviation bug.

When it was revealed earlier this year that for more than two decades, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander held down a part-time second job alongside his royal duties, it made headlines. After all, it’s not every day that you hear about a monarch who moonlights as a co-pilot on KLM passenger flights sometimes as often as twice a month.

And Willem-Alexander isn’t alone in his fascination with flying. Here are five more famous people who lead – or have led – double lives as aviators.

Roald Dahl

Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, the British novelist and short story writer served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. When he crash-landed his fighter plane on the North African coast while delivering a new aircraft to his squadron, he came face to face with death. This terrifying experience changed Dahl forever: His children’s book The Gremlins, published in 1943, was inspired by his time in the RAF.

Bruce Dickinson

The Iron Maiden singer holds an airline transport pilot's license. In his role as captain for the now-defunct UK charter airline Astraeus, he regularly flew Boeing 757s. In 2008, he was one of the pilots who helped rescue passengers stranded by the collapse of airline XL. At around the same time, during Iron Maiden’s “Somewhere Back in Time World Tour,” he piloted the band’s chartered Boeing 757, which was converted to carry the band’s equipment between continents. This became the subject of the documentary film Iron Maiden: Flight 666.

Gisele Bündchen

Pregnant with her first child in 2009, the Brazilian supermodel took to the skies at Marshfield Airport in Massachusetts to understand what makes helicopters fly. She became interested in learning the nuts and bolts of aviation while working as a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Environmental Programme. Her goal was to find an alternative source of jet fuel.

Harry Houdini

1909 was the year the Hungarian-American illusionist became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5,000m, which was built especially for him and resembled a large box kite. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight in Hamburg, Germany in November of that year. In 1910, Houdini made the first heavier-than-air flight in Australia, becoming the first escape artist to set a record recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Hilary Swank

The actress caught the aviation bug while filming the 2009 film Amelia, about pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart. Swank considered Earhart, who disappeared mysteriously during a 1937 flight, more than just an impressive pilot. “She had the Amelia Earhart clothing line, the Amelia Earhart luggage – and it was all to finance her flying,” she once said. In fact, Swank loved learning to fly for her role in the film so much that she took a detour during her training for her pilot's license, cancelled her then-boyfriend’s flight and took her plane to pick him up instead.

Read about when Jayne Mansfield arrived in Helsinki in 1963.

People & Aviation