The year was 1992, and John Travolta was flying a corporate jet with his family on board when he experienced “a total electrical failure” during the flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Rockland, Maine on Thanksgiving Day.
“I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you’re going to die,” the 69-year-old actor recalled (via Variety) at a special screening of his new Disney+ film, The Shepherd, in London. “I had two good jet engines, but I had no instruments, no electric, nothing. And I thought it was over.”
But just when Travolta thought he was going to crash the Gulfstream II turbojet, he says a “miracle” occurred.
“And then as if by a miracle, we descended as per the rules to lower altitude. I saw the Washington D.C. monument and identified that Washington National Airport was next to it and I made a landing just like [Freddie] does in the film,” he explained
And it’s this near-death experience (he was 38 at the time) is what inspired Travolta to adapt Frederick Forsyth’s 1975 novel of the same name. The book tells the story of a young Royal Air Force pilot flying home for Christmas. Similar to Travolta’s distressing tale, the young pilot, Freddie Hooke (portrayed by Ben Radcliffe), also suffers total electrical failure. Freddie’s miracle? A pilot (played by Travolta), who shows up out of nowhere and guides the young pilot to a safe landing.
“So when I read [Forsyth’s] book, it resonated even more because of this experience I had personally had,” Travolta explained.
According to The Washington Post, Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston, was on board with their then-7-month-old son, Jett, who died in 2009 following a seizure. Preston died from breast cancer in 2020. They were headed to their island vacation home in Maime to celebrate Jett’s first Thanksgiving. According to the newspaper, the incident triggered the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to briefly suspend flights at four airports. An investigation later concluded that the scary incident could have actually been far worse, after the jet nearly collided mid-air with a Boeing 727 carrying 182 passengers.
Variety reports that shortly after the incident — which included blowing the jet’s tires during the emergency landing — Travolta went and purchased his own de Havilland Vampire jet, which is the same jet depicted in Forsyth’s novel.
“So, I’m reading this book saying, ‘I’ve lived this,'” he says (via Variety). “And of course, I was young enough then that I could have played this part [of Freddie]. But I had to wait 30 years to play the Shepherd.”
The outlet reports Travolta acquired the screen rights to Forsyth’s book, but he never had time to work on this passion project.
“Because it was right after Pulp Fiction, I was doing one move after another,” he explained. “After 10 years, I just let it go and decided that I was never going to really get to do it.”
The Shepherd drops Dec. 1 on Disney+.