The Shepherd: 5 Secrets of Travolta’s Ghostly Spy Plane Movie

John Travolta's The Shepherd unfolds on Christmas Eve with a Royal Air Force pilot (Ben Radcliffe) anxious to hurry home when his compass malfunctions while flying over the North Sea. His crackling radio sits in hushed silence. As his instruments falter and his Vampire Mk9 jet appears to suffer from an electrical failure, the young pilot contemplates his death. A second Royal Air Force pilot (Travolta) materializes in a sleek Mosquito spy plane to help shepherd him home but can they possibly land safely with dwindling fuel? 

The movie is based on Frederick Forsyth's book of the same name. It struck a chord with Travolta, a pilot who experienced a total electrical failure years ago - not in a Vampire but in a corporate jet over Washington D.C. "I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you're going to die because I had two good jet engines but I had no instruments. No electric. Nothing," Travolta told journalists.

Intrigued? Here are five more behind-the-scenes secrets of Disney+'s The Shepherd.

1. Forsyth was a British spy

As an 18-year-old in National Service, Forsyth flew the de Havilland Vampire Mk9, a single-seat jet fighter developed in the 1940s and used during the Cold War for reconnaissance. It remained in front-line Royal Air Force (RAF) service until 1953.

In his autobiography, Forsyth reveals that in addition to being a pilot, he was also a spy for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for more than two decades starting in 1967. The Cold War was very much on,” he told the BBC. “If someone asked: ‘Can you see your way clear to do us a favor?’, it was very hard to say no.”

Ben Radcliffe stars as a young Royal Air Force pilot

2. The Shepherd was written on a dare

While the newlywed Forsyths celebrated the holidays in Dublin in 1974, Forsyth pretended he'd forgotten his wife’s present (he actually had a diamond ring in his pocket). She taunted him to write her a ghost story instead. While Forsyth knew nothing about the spirit world, he knew quite a lot about flying - he’d trained as a RAF pilot long before writing The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, and other spy thrillers. After lunch, Forsyth settled down with a typewriter in the hotel library.  "I knew of the utter emptiness and loneliness of the night sky at 30,000 feet with the stratospheric temperature outside the tiny cockpit far below zero and a freezing death inevitable if the life-giving systems failed. So I began to write," Forsyth said. He completed The Shepherd in time for evening drinks.

The Shepherd: 5 Secrets of Travolta’s Ghostly Spy Plane Movie

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John Travolta's The Shepherd unfolds on Christmas Eve with a Royal Air Force pilot (Ben Radcliffe) anxious to hurry home when his compass malfunctions while flying over the North Sea. His crackling radio sits in hushed silence. As his instruments falter and his Vampire Mk9 jet appears to suffer from an electrical failure, the young pilot contemplates his death. A second Royal Air Force pilot (Travolta) materializes in a sleek Mosquito spy plane to help shepherd him home but can they possibly land safely with dwindling fuel? 

The movie is based on Frederick Forsyth's book of the same name. It struck a chord with Travolta, a pilot who experienced a total electrical failure years ago - not in a Vampire but in a corporate jet over Washington D.C. "I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you're going to die because I had two good jet engines but I had no instruments. No electric. Nothing," Travolta told journalists.

Intrigued? Here are five more behind-the-scenes secrets of Disney+'s The Shepherd.

1. Forsyth was a British spy

As an 18-year-old in National Service, Forsyth flew the de Havilland Vampire Mk9, a single-seat jet fighter developed in the 1940s and used during the Cold War for reconnaissance. It remained in front-line Royal Air Force (RAF) service until 1953.

In his autobiography, Forsyth reveals that in addition to being a pilot, he was also a spy for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for more than two decades starting in 1967. The Cold War was very much on,” he told the BBC. “If someone asked: ‘Can you see your way clear to do us a favor?’, it was very hard to say no.”

Ben Radcliffe stars as a young Royal Air Force pilot

2. The Shepherd was written on a dare

While the newlywed Forsyths celebrated the holidays in Dublin in 1974, Forsyth pretended he'd forgotten his wife’s present (he actually had a diamond ring in his pocket). She taunted him to write her a ghost story instead. While Forsyth knew nothing about the spirit world, he knew quite a lot about flying - he’d trained as a RAF pilot long before writing The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, and other spy thrillers. After lunch, Forsyth settled down with a typewriter in the hotel library.  "I knew of the utter emptiness and loneliness of the night sky at 30,000 feet with the stratospheric temperature outside the tiny cockpit far below zero and a freezing death inevitable if the life-giving systems failed. So I began to write," Forsyth said. He completed The Shepherd in time for evening drinks.

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3. Travolta considered The Shepherd for 30 years

Movie producer Richard Johns approached writer/director Iain Softley to adapt the novella into a film. “It is an exquisite, contained Christmas fable, both mysterious and profoundly moving with a couple of unexpected twists,” Softley told Variety. They learned John Travolta had optioned the novella 30 years earlier with his eye on the lead role, but wondered if he would now prefer to play the older pilot, the ‘shepherd’. Travolta has a lifelong passion for flying and agreed to both star and executive produce The Shepherd (2023).

When Travolta first read The Shepherd decades earlier, it resonated because of his own near-death experience while flying over D.C. "I thought it was over, just like this boy, portrayed so beautifully [by actor Ben Radcliffe]. He captured that despair when you think you're actually going to die," Travolta said. "I had my family on board and I said, 'This is it. I can't believe I'm going to die in this plane.' And then, as if by a miracle, we descended to a lower altitude, I saw the Washington D.C. Monument and identified that Washington National Airport was right next to it, and I made a landing just like [character Freddie] does in the film. So I'm reading this book saying, I've lived this."

4. Forsyth and Travolta had a spooky lunch

Frederick Forsyth was excited to discover his novella would finally be made into a movie and met Travolta at a former WWII RAF base in windblown east England. "I believe it has been optioned as a film half a dozen times, which now at last has been made, with one of my filmic heroes, John Travolta as co-star,” Forsyth said. “I drove to the film set, the former RAF base of West Raynham in Norfolk, to lunch with him. He is another airplane 'nut' who collects and flies all sorts of jets.” Travolta reportedly owns at least seven jets. The pilots bonded instantly.


There are 30 or so DH 98 Mosquito spy planes still around, including at the US Air Force Museum


5. The ‘Mossie’ was a WWII spy plane

Travolta flies a Mosquito in The Shepherd, a plane with a reputation as a rebel rule-breaker that helped defeat Nazi Germany. It is one of the most celebrated planes in history along with the Spitfire and P-51 Mustang. Nicknamed the ‘Mossie’ - it is impossibly sleek, blindingly fast, built of lightweight wood, and was equipped with a formidable arsenal of weaponry. When Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive Army (SOE) spies set out to destroy the Gestapo HQ in Copenhagen, there was only one machine for the job - the Mosquito. Of the almost 8,000 Mosquitoes built in Britain, Canada, and Australia, there are still about 30 non-flying Mosquitoes around the world including a preserved Mosquito in the US Air Force Museum.

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