An Electra goes to the movies

November 3, 2009

Mira Nair, director of Amelia, autographs the cabin door of Joe Shepherd’s Electra Junior. Mira Nair, director of Amelia, autographs the cabin door of Joe Shepherd’s Electra Junior.

When Joe Shepherd of Fayetteville, Ga., traded a Cessna 195 for a Lockheed 12A Electra Junior in 1988, he never thought that he’d spend 18 years restoring the airplane. And he certainly never expected to find himself sweating in its cockpit on a hot summer day, wearing a wig and scarf intended to make him look—from a distance—like Amelia Earhart.

Or maybe it was Hilary Swank that Shepherd was supposed to resemble. She stars as aviatrix Amelia Earhart in the movie Amelia, about the pilot who disappeared over the Pacific during an attempted around-the-world flight in 1937. The film, directed by Mira Nair, opened in theaters on Oct. 23. Shepherd’s Electra was one of the airplanes used in the filming of the movie; it’s on display at Peter O. Knight Airport during AOPA Summit, and Shepherd will participate in Summit’s GA at the Movies luncheon on Friday.

Rebuilding history

Shepherd, a retired airline pilot who flies from Willow Pond Airport south of Atlanta, had the chance to fly an Electra that was based there for several years. “I basically fell in love with the Lockheed,” he said, and spent two years looking for one he could buy. Shepherd found one advertised in Trade-A-Plane by an owner in Texas who wanted to trade for a Cessna 195. “I had a 195 at the time. I got out there, and we made a deal that evening.”

The Electra had been sitting for 12 years, but it wasn’t derelict. Shepherd said the engines were run several times a year, and all the major components were in good condition. He made four or five trips to Texas, ferrying parts and friends in his Twin Bonanza, to make the Electra airworthy. “My idea was to get this thing home and go through it, and really clean it up.” But Shepherd found some questionable cables and pulleys, and removed the wings to repair them. “That’s the way it started.”

When they stripped the paint, “we found a bunch of Bond-O around the nose of the aircraft,” probably covering dents from ice shed by the propellers. “We reskinned most of the nose, and then we decided we’d polish the aircraft. We’re polishing it right now.” Shepherd is teaching Adam Fellabaum, a friend of his daughter, how to fly; he earns flight time by polishing the Lockheed.

His objective was to keep the airplane as original as possible. “We were very fortunate that it had the original seats,” he said. The aircraft has the chromed frames that came from the factory. The cabin also features original lights and air vents. The restoration would take 18 years to complete. “What was I thinking?” Shepherd laughed.

Fame finds plane

Amelia Electra in hangar: Painted to look like Earhart’s Electra, Shepherd’s airplane is in a hangar waiting to be filmed. Amelia Electra in hangar: Painted to look like Earhart’s Electra, Shepherd’s airplane is in a hangar waiting to be filmed.

The producers of Amelia valued authenticity, and they wanted to use real aircraft instead of computer animations. They looked for an airworthy Lockheed 10, the model Earhart flew, but couldn’t find one—so they settled on the similar-looking but smaller, faster, and better-performing Lockheed 12A.

A Canadian pilot landed Shepherd and his airplane in the movie. When Peter Ramm bought a Lockheed 12, Shepherd checked him out in the twin-engine taildragger. Ramm’s Lockheed was under restoration when the producers called. “He asked if I’d be interested in using my airplane in the movie,” Shepherd recalled.

During the summer of 2008, Shepherd made three trips to Canada for filming. Two weeks were spent in a World War II-era hangar in Toronto, and the flying sequences were filmed in St. Catharines. “When I got up to Canada they painted the airplane up just like Amelia’s Lockheed 10. It was called removable paint—when they were done with it, they put a solution on there and hosed it right off. It was movie magic.”

Jay McClure, who also owns a Lockheed 12, served as Shepherd’s co-pilot during the filming. McClure, a real estate attorney in Atlanta, owns a Cessna 195 and recently acquired the Lockheed, which is currently being restored; his wife also is a pilot. “Riding around with me has cost him a fortune,” Shepherd laughed.

One morning when they arrived at the airport, they were sent to makeup. “They said, ‘this moustache is going to go.’ I said, ‘OK’…they paid me for the moustache,” Shepherd explained. “They shaved it and put makeup on me, and a scarf, and a wig, and a long leather jacket. I have to tell you, it wasn’t pretty. It’s supposed to give the appearance of a blonde woman flying.”

They spent a steamy day taxiing and flying, and couldn’t get out of the airplane. “We really got hot in there,” Shepherd said. The proud 40-year AOPA member had never done a movie before. “That was a really nice bunch of folks to be around. It was hard work but it was a lot of fun.” All told, Shepherd flew more than 50 hours for the film.

After the cameras

Hilary Swank, left, who plays Amelia Earhart in the movie Amelia, poses with Joe Shepherd, Adam Fellabaum, and Michelle Shepherd. Hilary Swank, left, who plays Amelia Earhart in the movie Amelia, poses with Joe Shepherd, Adam Fellabaum, and Michelle Shepherd.

Shepherd flew his Lockheed to New York City for an Oct. 16 promotional appearance with the film’s cast. But much of the fall has been spent taking the airplane to regional fly-ins, something Shepherd and his family enjoy. “This is our fly-in time of the year, so we’re always cleaning it up,” he said.

Aviation is important to the Shepherd family. His father flew fighters in World War II; his son learned to fly and is now a Boeing 747 captain for UPS. “We have a family aviation thing going on here.”

Shepherd’s Lockheed garnered additional notoriety earlier this year. It belonged to Texaco in 1941, and Texaco will use his airplane, with his N number, as the basis for its 2009 die-cast aircraft model. “This airplane has had this N number since day one, when it left the factory,” he said.

The model is due out in November and may be available at Summit, and Shepherd’s Electra Junior is on display at Peter O. Knight Airport. If you miss them, or if you can’t get enough of the vintage Lockheed, you can always re-read Barry Schiff’s article “Love Story” on the Electra Junior, which appeared in the November 2006 issue of AOPA Pilot.