John Travolta is opening up about a terrifying near-death experience that happened over 30 years ago while he was flying a plane with his family onboard. The actor says the incident was so traumatic that it later inspired his upcoming movie "The Shepherd."
Travolta’s Plane Suffers Complete Electrical Failure on Thanksgiving Weekend
On November 24th, 1991, Travolta was piloting his Gulfstream N728T jet to Maine to spend Thanksgiving weekend with his family. His wife Kelly Preston was seated next to him in the cockpit, while their young son Jett and daughter Ella were in the main cabin along with two other passengers.
About an hour into the flight, Travolta noticed some electrical problems. Initially, he didn’t think too much of it. However, only a few minutes later at 3:30 am, the cockpit "filled with smoke and the plane went completely dark," Travolta told British newspaper The Standard this week.
"I couldn’t see anything. I immediately went to emergency electrical power so at least some light came on,” he recalled.
To make matters worse, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. Heavy rain was pelting onto the windshield, making it almost impossible for Travolta to see out the window.
"I knew the runway had an approach light I could see through the weather, but that was it. That was all I had," said Travolta.
Travolta Manually Flies Plane to Emergency Landing
With no other choice, the actor manually flew the plane entirely via the emergency electrical system towards the small airport in Bangor, Maine which he knew had an approach light. Miraculously, he managed to land the plane safely on the runway around 4 am in the early hours of that November morning.
"I landed safely but I had to manually fly the thing. With all the rain and wind I couldn’t see anything," Travolta told The Standard.
After getting his family safely off the plane, the exhausted actor then had to write up a detailed report for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about everything that had transpired. The experience deeply rattled Travolta, who says those tense minutes struggling to land plane in bad weather with his family onboard was “the most terrifying moment I’ve ever experienced.”
Since that incident over 30 years ago, this is the first time the 68-year-old actor has spoken publicly about it. He says reliving that trauma while filming his upcoming movie "The Shepherd" inspired him to finally open up.
Travolta Has History of Flying Own Planes
Travolta first learned how to fly planes nearly 50 years ago in 1976, according to Gulfstream Aerospace. He earned his private pilot license that same year at age 22, and has logged over 5,000 hours in the pilot seat over the decades.
The avid pilot owns a collection of aircrafts and even built his $5 million Florida home complete with a runway that leads right to his front door. Travolta’s passion for aviation is so intense that people close to him were not surprised when he personally piloted relief planes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
So Travolta’s ability to troubleshoot that terrifying electrical failure incident and manually land the powerless plane likely comes from his depth of flying experience. Nonetheless, the "Grease" star says the traumatic memories from almost crashing with his family onboard have stuck with him for over 30 years.
New Movie "The Shepherd" Inspired by Actor’s Near-Death Experience
Travolta’s upcoming new movie for Disney called “The Shepherd” tells the story of a pilot who must make an emergency landing at JFK airport after encountering bad weather and a loss of visibility. The drama film shares eerie similarities with Travolta’s own near-death experience back in 1991 struggling to land his powerless plane in poor weather conditions.
The movie directed by and starring Travolta is actually an adaptation of well-known author Frederick Forsyth’s novella “The Shepherd." But Travolta says he was instantly drawn to the story because it "was so close to what happened to me.”
Filming dramatic scenes inside airplane cockpits brought up intense and traumatic memories for the actor that he had long suppressed.
"It took me right back to that moment and as I was doing the scenes I could feel all the sensations of fear, as if it had just happened again,” Travolta told The Standard. “My heart felt pain in my chest, the feeling of compression because of things going wrong.”
By channeling those panicked sensations, the veteran performer was able to deliver an authentic, gripping performance. Travolta also took inspiration from his 1991 near-death experience to make tweaks Forsyth’s original story, including changing the location to better match his memory of that terrifying flight headed to Maine 30 years ago.
While the project has been an emotionally Heavy one, Travolta says recounting that trauma has also been cathartic. "It was really helpful to interpret it and relive it. It has given closure to the whole incident,” he told British GQ magazine this month.
Travolta’s Wife Supported Him Through Trauma
Travolta says reliving that horrific flight for his new movie would not have been possible without the support of Preston, who was sitting right beside him when the electrical failure occurred. Sadly, Preston passed away in 2020 after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
In an emotional interview alongside their daughter Ella, 21, earlier this month, Travolta told "Good Morning America" that filming dramatic airplane scenes in "The Shepherd" allowed him to feel closer to Preston’s memory.
“It was a short love story too, actually, because Kelly was with me making this film,” Travolta said. "She was right next to me through this whole adventure.”
Ella added that she became extremely close with her father while working on this “very personal project” inspired by a harrowing experience they went through together when she was a baby.
“I know my mom would just be so happy that we’re doing this,” she said. “This really meant a lot to all of us.”
Future of "The Shepherd" Movie
Travolta’s thriller film "The Shepherd" wrapped up filming earlier this fall. It is expected to premiere on Disney+ next year, though an exact release date has not yet been set.
The movie co-stars Taye Diggs from "All American", Emmy-winner Anna Maria Horsford from "Amen", and TV star Tom Everett Scott from “13 Reasons Why.” Travolta told GQ Magazine that he cried during a private screening with Ella because some dramatic cockpit scenes reminded him so intensely of almost losing her as a baby in that deadly emergency landing in 1991.
With this deeply personal film, the veteran performer takes on dual roles of director and star while also reliving incredible trauma. Only someone as experienced and emotionally dedicated as Travolta could guide this ambitious project inspired by his own riveting true story of cheating death at 40,000 feet in the air. Movie critics are already hailing "The Shepherd" as a compelling career-defining drama signaling a potential renaissance for the prolific actor.
Table summarizing key details about Travolta’s 1991 near-death experience:
|November 24, 1991
|Flight from Florida to Maine
|Wife Kelly Preston, young children, two other passengers
|Complete electrical failure at 3:30 am, followed by poor visibility due to heavy rain
|Travolta manually landed the powerless, smoke-filled plane at small Maine airport at 4 am
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