Now Mike Kendrick’s contribution to the industry has been recognised with his induction into the Living Legends of Aviation organisation – joining the likes of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and film star pilot John Travolta.
The 97-strong roll of honour includes entrepreneurs, innovators, industry leaders, astronauts, record breakers, pilots who have become celebrities, and celebrities who have become pilots.
The 72-year-old, who was brought up on a council estate in Wolverhampton, was nominated by Branson, a friend and former business partner, following a lifetime in the balloon and airship industry, which started in the early-1970s when he brought about a change in the law to allow advertising on aircraft.
This gave birth to the global aerial advertising market and the familiar sight of such balloons and airships now seen worldwide.
In 1988, he went into partnership with Sir Richard to form the Virgin Airship and Balloon Company in Telford.
The firm quickly grew to become the world’s largest aerial advertising agency, operating more than 180 aircraft in some 30 countries, with clients such as Goodyear and Budweiser.
The Wolverhampton Airport owner also introduced balloons and airships to many places that had never seen them before, including the first passenger flights over the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.
Based in Bridgnorth, he is now spearheading work with his company, Straightline Aviation, on the introduction of a revolutionary heavy-lift hybrid airship designed to transport cargo and passengers to remote parts of the world and engineered to use less fuel, emit less carbon dioxide and eliminate the need for costly ground-level infrastructure.
He also set up the Mineseeker Foundation, using airbuses to find and remove mines in Africa, a project supported by Nelson Mandela and actor and humanitarian Brad Pitt.
On receiving the award, he said: “It was a true surprise.
“I’m honoured and deeply humbled to be recognised in this way and am committed to ensuring that the commercial success of hybrid airships is combined with a commitment to make the planet a better and less toxic place to live.
“We intend to use our new aircraft for the good of all communities, particularly in remote places for those in need of help.”
He was inducted into the group in a ceremony in Austria by Airbus chief Tom Enders, who said: “The contribution to aviation made by Michael Kendrick is truly remarkable, and inspiring.”