Campbell ‘Cam’ Harrod recounts his firsthand experience as the ‘Aeroplane Wrangler’ and Aerial Coordinator in the making of the 2009 film Amelia - the story of Amelia Earhart.
In Feb 2008, I was contacted by A.E. Electra Productions, a subsidiary of Avalon Pictures, to become involved in their latest movie project, ‘Amelia’. It was to star Hilary Swank as Amelia and Richard Gere as Amelia’s husband, George Putnam. Initially, I was offered the position of ‘Airplane Wrangler’ which would involve sourcing all the aircraft and pilots for the movie.
Once they realized the extent of my vintage aviation background, my involvement in the film grew. As well as the ‘wrangler’, I also became the Aviation Technical Advisor for wardrobe and for the building of the Lockheed Vega and Fokker Tri-Motor mock ups. I also had to supply most of the aviation artefacts used in the film. As the movie developed and the scope of flying scenes became greater, I became the Aerial Coordinator for all flying done in Canada.
Flying with ‘Amelia’
About this time, I met with Hilary Swank and she requested a flight in a vintage aircraft as part of her research into the role of ‘A.E’. At first the studio was dead set against allowing their star to fly – not only were there risks involved, but in fact although she had completed 20 hours dual in California she was not permitted to solo as per her contract agreement.
Eventually, the studio relented. I was requested to submit a complete history of my flying hours, the aircraft’s maintenance, history and everything else they could think of. Although the studio eventually approved me to fly her, one of the studio officials actually said that if I were to cause the death of their star, it would be advisable that I perish with her. The lawsuit would be more painful than my own death. No pressure, there, then!
I chose to take her up in my own biplane, a 1940 Fleet Finch 16R with no communication equipment except the period Gosport speaking tubes, as I wanted her to get an authentic experience. On the day of the flight, I assumed that she would have an ‘entourage’ as is normal in the film world, so I had three biplanes waiting at her disposal. When she arrived, with the exception of her driver, she was alone and in FULL costume as Amelia Earhart. I decided that our first flight would be in the form of ‘a lesson on flying vintage aircraft’ so we carried out a briefing talking about her experience, what our flight would consist of, then a walk around and briefing about the Fleet trainer.
As we lined up to take off, I welcomed her to my world: she thanked me very graciously, I opened the throttle and off we went. As for her flying, I demonstrated some turns, then let her fly the aircraft. It was immediately apparent that she had had some very professional instruction as she flew well and caught on very quickly to everything I showed her. She particularly enjoyed it when we flew with one of the Tiger Moths owned by the Tigerboys Aeroplane Works.
As for the aircraft used in the movie, I needed to hire a pre W.W.I replica, eleven biplanes of the thirties era, a Ford Tri-Motor, a DC-3, a Beech 18 and finally, but most importantly, a Lockheed Electra.
The biplanes were easy to find: there are many in my area (the majority came from the Tigerboys Aeroplane Works collection located in Guelph, Ontario, Canada). On the other hand, the Ford Tri-Motor was a challenge. There were three that might be available: one owned by Kermit Weeks in Florida, another with the Experimental Aviation Association in Wisconsin, and Greg Herrick had the third in his collection.
Only Greg’s 1927 4AT-B (Serial No. 10) was able to meet our schedule, but he was very reluctant to bring his rare and valuable aircraft all the way up to Canada from where it’s based at the Golden Wings Museum, near Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s a long trip and requires a very competent pilot with Ford Tri-Motor time. My solution to this problem was to hire Jimmy Leeward, world-renowned airshow pilot of vintage aircraft, Reno racer and a man I had admired for years. After the film, all I can say abut Jimmy is that the guy is first class and one hell of a great pilot. Also, as a result of the film, a good friend.
Looking for the Lockheed
The central aircraft in the film script was Amelia’s Lockheed, as used on her around the world flight attempts. The real Amelia flew a special Lockheed10E Electra, which was lost with her and Fred Noonan when they disappeared. Airworthy, available Lockheed 10s are hard to come by, but the smaller and faster Lockheed 12 – the ‘Junior’ – was available. The one we used was owned by Joe Sheppard. He had spent close to twenty years restoring this aircraft to ‘better than new’ condition and generously agreed to bring it to Canada to act as the leading aircraft in the movie. “When I got up to Canada”, Joe said, ”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.” Another piece of movie magic forced him to shave off his moustache and get into a coat and wig so he didn’t look too unlike Hilary Swank when taxiing or flying the Lockheed!
A second Lockheed was hired from Bernard Chabbert in France and flown down to South Africa to film the African scenes by the second unit, while a third, in parts (owned by Frank Moss), was used for the static shots.
The big flying scenes were actually filmed in Canada, and took place at Dunnville Airport, a former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base during W.W.II. Here we recreated the 1929 Women’s Air Races, better known as the ‘Powder Puff Derby’. To date, this is one of the more challenging things I have done in aviation. As well as coordinating the movement of all aircraft on the ground with the help of my hand-picked team, I had to ensure the safety of all 300 movie crew working around these aircraft. All of them unfamiliar with airfields and aeroplanes, and used to being in charge of their own domain. Then, I had to coordinate all the flying scenes working directly with the Director, Mira Nair, interpreting all of her direction to the pilots as they orbited above. Thankfully everything worked out well with no injury or damage to person or aircraft. This shoot went on for five days at 18 hours a day – and in the end, less than five minutes of film was actually used. That’s the movies!
The Movie’s Over
By the end of that week, I felt like I had run a million miles. The next day, I woke early, packed my bags and took off in my Fleet Finch, heading for the sky. I just enjoyed a nice, relaxing flight home and let the wonder of flying rejuvenate my batteries. With the Powder Puff shoot complete, I had only a few minor studio scenes left to advise on. Being involved in ‘Amelia’ was a real eye opener to how movies are made and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
For the movie, we built two full-size static aircraft. Both were externally very accurate. The first, a full size copy of Amelia’s Lockheed Vega looked so good that it fooled some very experienced vintage aircraft people. It’s now with the San Diego Air & Space Museum, as a movie exhibit. The second was a full-size Fokker Tri-Motor on floats. This model was actually put afloat in the Atlantic for scenes and was capable of some taxiing. It was powered by a small gas motor mounted behind the mock up engines. Today it resides in the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Museum in Sault St Marie, Ontario, Canada.
List of Aircraft in Amelia
• Lockheed 12 Electra Junior NC2072- Joe Sheppard
• Lockheed 12 Electra Junior F-AZLL - Bernard Chauble
• Waco Taperwing CF-BPM – Vintage Wings of Canada
• Beech Staggerwing CF-GKY – Vintage Wings of Canada
• DH Gypsy Moth CF-AAJ – Watt Martin
• DH Tiger Moths CF-CTN & C-GMTH – Tigerboys Aeroplane Works
• Thruxton Jackeroo C-FPHZ - Tigerboys Aeroplane Works
• New Waco C-GZPR – Peter Ramm
• New Waco C-GKLH – Hannu Halminen
• Bucker Jungmann C-FLAE – Larry Erniwine
• Stinson Reliant CF-CAJ – Toronto Aerospace Museum
• Douglas DC-3 (C-47) N345AB – 1941 Historical Aircraft Group
• Beech 18 (C-45) N45GC – 1941 Historical Aircraft Group
• Fleet 16R C-FDAF – Cam Harrod
• Bleriot XI replica – Airdrome Aeroplanes