It is Christmas Eve, 1957, and a young Royal Air Force officer stationed in Germany is granted leave at nearly the last minute, allowing him just enough time to fly home for the holiday.
The pilot straps into his de Havilland Vampire fighter, is cleared for takeoff and heads toward his home field, RAF Lakenheath. The night flight will take about an hour and he has plenty of fuel.
The weather is overcast with fog but our protagonist is instrument-rated and current so all is well—until an electrical failure renders certain critical instruments useless and leaves the pilot unable to navigate to his destination without assistance.
From here The Shepherd, a classic short story from prolific English author Frederick Forsyth, grows increasingly riveting. It is a wonderful aviation tale that hits close to home for pilots, especially those who have had doubts regarding fuel, the weather, or their aircraft’s equipment during a long cross-country flight.
Forsyth, who brought us thrillers including The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, has a way with suspense, and The Shepherd draws you in and does not let go. For years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has played a reading of the story on Christmas Eve. I stumbled upon this tradition a decade ago and have been hooked ever since.
You can listen to the CBC reading here. A screen adaptation by writer and director Iain Softley, starring John Travolta and Ben Radcliffe, begins streaming on Disney+ today. You can watch the trailer here.