Joe Shepherd sat in the Saturday shade cast by the shiny wing of his 1936 Lockheed 12A Electra Junior and watched as people attending the 2014 Boshears Skyfest & Fly-In stopped to admire the vintage aircraft.
They might have been drawn to the plane, itself, or maybe they were curious about the “Hollywood” sign in front of it. This plane had a starring role in the movie Amelia, with Hilary Swank and Richard Gere.
Swank even autographed it.
“She was great,” Shepherd said. “Hilary Swank is a really nice person. Very pleasant.”
Shepherd, who retired a decade ago as an international pilot for Northwest Airlines, first flew a vintage Lockheed in the 1980s. It belonged to a friend and he flew it frequently.
“Fell in love with it,” he said.
They were so rare, he never imagined he’d have his own until he learned of a Lockheed in Texas that needed rebuilding.
It had been sitting for 12 years.
“It was full of rats and wasps and snakes and grasshoppers, mice, all kinds of stuff,” he said.
He traded a Cessna 195 even up for it and spent the next 19 years restoring it.
“I wanted to save it. With eight of them left, it was something worth doing,” he said.
The Lockheed took flight in 2007.
In 2008, he was approached by Avalon Productions to use his plane in their biopic of Amelia Earhart.
He flew the plane to Toronto and St. Catherine’s, Canada, where most of the flying was filmed. According to her contract, Swank could not leave the ground in the antique plane, Shepherd said. So all of the scenes with her in the plane take place on the ground.
With more than 20,000 man hours and much of his savings invested in the aircraft, Shepherd doesn’t let anyone else fly it. He operated it, either hunched down so he wouldn’t appear on camera, or he was disguised for more obscure shots.
“It was great. They put a wig on me and shaved my moustache,” he said. “It was a great experience. I had a good time.”
That film led to other opportunities. The plane has also appeared in 42: The Jackie Robinson Story and several commercials, including one for Target. He’s hoping to find more opportunities to use the plane in films.
“I have an agent in California who’s looking for work,” Shepherd said. “If you think about how many movies need an antique airplane … really old antique ones you don’t see very often, but there will be more, I hope. It was exciting. I want to do more of that.”
Mostly, Shepherd, who lives in Fayetteville, Ga., shows off the plane at fly-ins across the country.
In July, the owners of at least five of the eight remaining 1930s Lockheeds will meet at a fly-in in OshKosh, Wis. It will be the first time most, if not all, of the owners will be together in one place.
Shepherd said not only do fly-ins give him the opportunity to show off his hard work, but they also give him a chance to fly the plane. He said it’s too expensive to fly for personal enjoyment. He and his wife have never even taken it for vacation.
“This thing burns 50 gallons an hour. Aviation fuel is $6 a gallon. That’s $300 an hour,” he said.
In their day, the planes were personal luxury vehicles. They went 200 mph, which is still fast for an airplane, he said.
Production of the planes ceased at the beginning of World War II, when all of the resources for building them went to building war planes instead.
“It’s quite a machine,” he said.