Trav S.D.’s Guide to Airplane Disaster Movies of the 1970s

It’s National Aviation Day! To observe the occasion, I thought I would take a look at a genre that specifically celebrates professional aviators and those that support them: pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, troubleshooters, even airline and airport administrators: the Great Airplane Disaster Movies of the 1970s. It’s not my favorite sub-branch of the disaster movie genre — I prefer ones where survivors need to engage in some sort of Odyssey, where many assorted ills can befall them and be overcome. The casts in airline disaster films are by definition strapped in their seats for most of the movie just waiting for something to happen to them. By definition such films normally only contain one spectacular thrill moment, and when there are more, they tend to be contrived. The rest of the movie is so much tension (or, often as not, tedium). But if nothing else I cherish them for the melodrama and the camp celebrity casting. The thought process of producers seems to have been “Mm…folks really like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, so they’re bound to care deeply and take him seriously if he’s exposed to real danger!” That generally wasn’t the result however and these films only get more entertaining as camp the older they get. On that score they are devoutly to be savored.

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Airport (1970)

The first film in the Airport series, based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, is much different from what followed, although it establishes many elements of the template. Most of the film (over an hour really) is just a soap opera about the trials of running an airport. Really, really boring stuff….politics, administrative hassles….who the hell cares? It’s an HOUR of exposition. Thematic relevance includes marital troubles…airport manager Burt Lancaster has trouble with his wife because he works long hours, not because he’s unfaithful, although he’s beginning to look at his beautiful female colleague (Jean Seberg) and hooks up with her at the end. Pilot Dean Martin is a serial philanderer…he has knocked up a stewardess. He too chooses a younger, prettier, newer woman (Jacqueline Bisset). There is some degree of a natural disaster here: a blizzard, although it feels quotidian…that aspect could have been amped way up into something far more scary. The actual “disaster” of this film turns out to be a mad bomber (Van Heflin) who is going to blow up the plane so his wife (Maureen Stapleton) will get insurance money. It takes forever for anyone to discover it. Having found about it, it takes forever for anyone to do anything about it. Finally, the guy blows his bomb up…luckily he’s at the back of the plane so damage is minimal. There are a few scary minutes. Then it becomes about the tension of landing the plane…at the same airport the plane departed from, on the horrible, partially snow-cleared landing strips that Lancaster and Martin had been arguing about in the  beginning of the film, with George Kennedy’s airport trouble-shooter Joe Patroni finally saving the day. Not as many celebrity passengers as in the later films. Helen Hayes as an elderly stowaway (she’s supposed to be comical, but she’s dreadfully unfunny for a so-called “First Lady of the American stage”.) Vaudeville vet Benny Rubin is an extra. Also in the cast are Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, Barbara Hale, Gary Collins, Whit Bissell, and Virginia Grey.

Terror in the Sky (1971) 

This TV movie was also originally from the pen of Arthur Hailey, and since it is no less than the third version of this tale, it has as great a claim as Airport to founding the genre. It is also the basis of the plot of the Zucker Brothers’ parody Airplane! This is the one with the story about food poisoning affecting passengers and crew, necessitating an ex-pilot with battle fatigue being forced to take the controls. The original 1956 CBC version Flight Into Danger starred Zachary Scott, James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek) and Kate Reid (The Andromeda Strain). Better known to (some) Americans will be the U.S. theatrical version which arrived the following year, Zero Hour! , with Sterling Hayden , Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Jerry Paris (from The Dick Van Dyke Show.) I am a particular fan of this version as it truly does seem a very early precursor to what followed over a decade later. Finally, in the wake of the success of Airport, this CBS remake was produced in 1971 featuring Doug McClure, Roddy McDowall (shortly of The Poseidon Adventure) and Keenan Wynn. It’s entertaining but hard to watch with a straight face now that we associate it with Airplane!

Skyjacked (1972)

This early entry in the genre shows the influence of Airport without benefitting from some of the innovations that came after. Charlton Heston (soon of Earthquake and Airport 1975) is the pilot who is also having an affair with stewardess Yvette Mimieux. James Brolin as a mad bomber. Rosey Grier, Susan Dey (of The Partridge Family), Claude Akins, Jeanne Crain, Mariette Hartley, Walter Pidgeon, and Leslie Uggams as stars. The film has nearly no tension though. For most of the movie (as in Airport) there may or may not be a bomb…so characters (and hence audiences) are sort of only mildly concerned. The only scary scene happens when they almost crash into another plane, which has nothing to do with the actual plot. Finally the plane lands in Moscow where the villain is shot by soldiers. Thank you, International Workers Paradise!

The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) 

The genius of this one is that it mashed up two going trends of the day: airplane disaster movie meets The Exorcist! A rich couple have purchased a druid artifact, causing angry invisible demons to come out of the cargo hold and wreak havoc on the passengers. Chuck Connors is the Captain, aided in the cockpit by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island. An against-type Buddy Ebsen is the requisite irate businessman who “just has to get there”. William Shatner is an emotional priest who is beginning to lose his faith, while Paul Winfield is some sort of anthropologist/ witch doctor. Tammy Grimes also in the cast. TV director David Lowell Rich was an ideal man to helm this entertainment, having also been responsible for the spookfests Eye of the Cat (1969) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973), and while his only previous aeronautic story had been The Three Stooges Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), he went on to direct both SST: Death Flight (1977) and The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979), making him a minor kingpin of the genre.

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Airport 1975

This one may be thought of as the archetypal Airport movie, though the 1970 original is considered the best of the series. Clearly the producers of 1975 set out to inject their franchise with a lot of dross borrowed from Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Heston reprises his Earthquake role as the middle aged philanderer. George Kennedy returns in one of many increasingly implausible job promotions for his character Joe Patroni. The opening scenes of this movie are the best, as all the main characters are introduced and there is much hilarity revolving around the twin themes of sex and booze. Erik Estrada! Gloria Swanson! Myrna Loy! Sid Caesar! Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell and Conrad Janis! Helen Reddy as a singing nun! Larry Storch as a tv reporter!  Dana Andrews (who’d been in Terror in the Sky) plays a guy who crashed into the airplane in his Piper Cub. That’s the bulk of the excitement. The balance of the movie is boring and insanely implausible. With the pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr incapacitated, a stewardess with no flight experience (Karen Black) takes control of the plane. On a 747, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the odds are 100% that there would have been at least one person better qualified to take over: a professional or amateur pilot, a military veteran, a policeman, fireman or other rescue worker or anybody other than a weeping, apparently feeble-minded stewardess. Eventually they dangle Heston down on a rope from another jet and he climbs in a hole in the side of the plane to land it. Don’t laugh, it happens!

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Murder on Flight 502 (1975)

ABC TV movie Murder on Flight 502 debuted during the height of the craze, and is an obvious knockoff of both Airport and Airport 1975 (which actually came out in 1974). And, surprisingly, its all-star cast compares favorably with those films and others of the era like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and Towering Inferno (1974).  We meet most of them prior to takeoff in a corner of Kennedy Airport I like to call the Exposition Lounge. Going roughly in order of appearance:

There’s Walter Pidgeon (of Skyjacked) as a soporific octogenarian with three months to live, who gets seated next to Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon. Do they bond? Do they talk? Oy, gevalt, that’s all they do — inserts of their mundane conversations must fill a third of the film. Pidgeon must say “You’re a very lucky woman” to her about 15  times.  Little of Picon’s reputed genius is in evidence here. Essentially she’s relegated to playing the yenta from central casting. To hammer that home, familiar character actor Steve Franken plays her son, who sees her off at the airport and says things like, “Mama, don’t get so excited! You’re on vacation yet! So enjoy!”

Sonny Bono plays a fading rock star desperate for a comeback. Ironically, believe it or not, Sonny was one of the hottest stars in the cast, fresh off four years of his hit variety show with Cher, who had just left him for Gregg Allman. (In reference to that, which was big news at the time, in one particularly bathetic moment, Bono’s character stares off into the distance and says, “And the beat goes on.”)

Also in the cast is The Partridge Family’s Danny Bonaduce, typecast as an obnoxious, pranking teenager. His foil, for awhile at least, is singer Polly Bergen as a sassy, brassy, hard drinking mystery writer in sunglasses. Later, she will exchange Bonaduce for Fernando Lamas, playing a famous burglar who “once got away with seven million dollars”.

Theodore Bikel is a mysterious foreigner with a goatee — he’s clearly up to no good. Ralph Bellamy is one of the country’s top doctors, on his way to London to treat a “world leader”. And Dane Clark and Laraine Day (both actors with some name recognition in the 40s and 50s) play a tense, bickering middle aged couple.

And let’s not forget the crew! Robert Stack is the ridiculously stoic and omniscient pilot, paving his way for his performance five years later in Airplane! The stewardesses are none other than Brooke Adams (the lovable, clumsy one) and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, not yet famous as the star of Charlie’s Angels, although that was right around the corner.

And Hugh O’Brian is an off-duty New York City police detective, that’s all. And that’s about to come in handy. Why?

Oops! We left out a celebrity. The airport security chief is played by George Maharis of Route 66 (not to be confused with George Chakiris of West Side Story). After diffusing a cake bomb left in the waiting area as a prank by Bonaduce (this was in the era when authorities just said to such scofflaws, “Alright now, you incorrigible rascal! Go ahead and get on the plane! We wouldn’t want you to miss your flight!), Maharis receives a letter informing him that there will be murders on Flight 502. (It’s not intended to warn him; he accidentally receives the letter early). In between complaints about a toothache (the screenwriters’ substitute for creating a character) Maharis begins investigating all the passengers to try to determine who the killer and his victim(s) might be.

And now is when it starts to get really silly. It turns out several people on board ARE planning murders against fellow passengers — separate, coincidental murders that aren’t even the ones promised in the letter. Bikel wants to kill Bellamy for skipping out on an operation that might have saved his wife’s life. Ironically at the very moment we learn that information, Bikel has a heart attack and Bellamy saves his life. Not only is Bikel now too incapacitated to kill him, he has to sit and listen to a lecture from him about how noble the medical profession is. (I hope he kills him later).

THEN Dane Clark tries to stab Sonny Bono with a knife! It turns out his teenage daughter OD’d while partying in Bono’s mansion. Instead of tying the man up, they make him listen to a conciliatory talk by Bono (“Kids today, they wanna be part of somethin’, Mr. Garwood. But ya oughta be proud. My roadie said she was a very special girl.” (I also hope HE gets killed later).

It isn’t until 2/3 of the way through the film that we get our first murder. A priest! Who turns out to be one of Fernando Lamas’s crime partners! Strangled and placed in a dumb waiter for maximum theatrical effect! And then stewardess Brooke Adams! Stabbed in the neck with a meat carving fork, because they used to serve real meals on planes!

Investigating all of this throughout, in conjunction with Stack and Maharis, is O’Brian, who is even more subdued and laconic than usual in this picture. Is he supposed to be “world weary” here? Drunk? On downers? Just wallowing? It seems to take him an eternity to spit out his lines, a no-no for actors. But then the big twist: it turns out HE was the killer, it’s his idea of justice since the gang of robbers had gotten off scot-free. He gathers all of the celebrities together so he can have his big dramatic moment, and then he shoots Lamas, which triggers an electrical fire. Here, in the film’s final moments, do we get our “disaster”, although the fire is soon put out and the plane has a safe landing. A little anti-climatic, but not as anti-climactic as I imagine this new Sully movie is gonna be! (“They ditched in the Hudson and nobody even got wet!”)

When last we see O’Brian, London bobbies are leading him away in handcuffs while he mutters insanely like Tony Perkins at the end of Psycho. Looks like the tables have turned, eh, Wyatt Earp?

Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (1976) 

The all star crew: David Janssen as Captain, aided by Christopher George and Dandy Don MeredithMarjoe Gortner (lately of Earthquake), as a psycho criminal being transported by lawman Broderick Crawford. Ray Milland as an alcoholic doctor. In a gratuitously unnecessary subplot, Jane Powell plays the wife of one of the crew members (who is not on on the plane) who is about to have an operation. Also in the cast, Al Molinaro and Linda Day George (wife of Christopher). Disasterwise, Crawford dies of a heart attack, Gortner gets his gun and shoots the pilot and a stewardess and knocks out the hydraulics, hampering control of the plane as well as the ability to safely land. Gortner is finally subdued and Milland sobers up to take care of the injured. After about an our of our time (and three of theirs), as well as several melodramatic conversations, they’re able to land and Jane Powell, who we haven’t given a minute’s thought to, announces that she is cancer free.

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Airport ’77

While every bit as implausible as the other Airport movies, this one at least has the Poseidon-esque virtue of focusing on a very few characters and stranding them. It also borrows from Poseidon the idea of putting them underwater, and entertaining us with a song (though, like the one in Towering Inferno and unlike the one in The Poseidon Adventure it did not become a hit). The song is unbelievably awful — a blind guy singing “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The premise is that it’s a special luxury plane featuring entire furnished rooms. It’s owned by millionaire Jimmy Stewart and is carrying many art treasures from his collection, along with Captain Jack Lemmon (trying his best to be macho), Darren McGaven, Christopher Lee, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland etc . Bad guys try to steal the plane by putting everyone to sleep with gas but then they hit an oil derrick and crash into the sea and sink to the bottom…completely intact. They’re pretty much on their own (no radio contact) but George Kennedy‘s Joe Patroni still manages to put his two cents in.

SST: Death Flight (1977)

Another sheer (see what I did there?) delight by ABC TV. The advent of commercial super-sonic transport was one of the few genuinely exciting, futuristic things to happen during the 1970s (as far as I was concerned, I was a kid at the time), and gallingly it was not an American innovation. The U.S. had canceled its lunar space program and was mired in inflation, oil shortages, crime, and God knows what. Meanwhile, Britain and France, in what was for both nations a rare post World War Two international triumph, produced Concorde. It was a limited triumph — only British Aiirways and Air France flew it. But still it got you from the US to Europe in less than half the time than the next fastest transatlantic airliners. You could get from New York to London in about three hours. I’ve aways been sad that the kinks were never worked out. People complained about the noise, and tickets aways remained out of reach for the average flier. Only the rich could afford it, and eventually even they decided the speed wasn’t worth the money. After just over a quarter century of operation, the last Concordes were pulled out of service early in this century (which was supposed to be the futuristic one!). Significantly, America NEVER developed a commercial SST and no American airline ever bought and operated one. Instead, America did what it now apparently does best — made stupid movies about it, movies that reinforced primitive emotions like fear and anti-technological bias. (Digression: the Soviets also developed an SST but it didn’t even last as long as Concorde).

Given the realities then, SST: Death Flight technically rates as a sci-fi film, since like I say America never ran an SST. This one chronicles the ill-fated maiden flight of America’s fictional first SST and the tragedies that befall it. Robert Reed of the Brady Bunch is the Captain, with Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island as a stewardess and Billy Crystal, soon to be associated with his gay character on Soap, as a steward (a relatively novel concept on planes at the time, though it had been common enough on ships). Burgess Meredith (later of Irwin Allen’s When Time Ran Out) is the plane’s designer, on board in much the same spirit as Thomas Andrews was on the Titanic. Game show host Bert Convy is a PR man for the airlines, with Doug McClure of Terror in the Sky on board as an aircraft buyer. Others include Peter Graves (later of Airplane), Martin Milner, and Susan Strasberg. Regis Philbin plays a reporter at the airport, a role similar to Larry Storch’s in Airport 1975.

We’ve got the celebrities, but where’s the disaster?  A disgruntled employee played by George Maharis (Murder on Flight 502 ) sabotages the hydraulic system, and when the crew tries to repair it they cause an explosion which results in the release of the deadly Senegal Flu, which is being transported by a doctor who’s aboard (I might have said that was science fiction too but at the moment it sounds pretty realistic to me!) With the cabin now filled with a deadly virus, no airport will allow it to land, and the plane crash lands on a mountain!

The Crash of Flight  401 (1978)

This TV movie is a fictionalized depiction of a real plane crash that happened in 1972 in the Florida Everglades. William Shatner from The Horror at 37,000 Feet is back as the NTSB investigator who wants to get to the bottom of things. Eddie Albert of Green Acres is the Captain, and it’s also got Adrienne Barbeau of Maude, Ron Glass of Barney Miller, Sharon Gless of Cagney and Lacey, Christopher Connelly of Peyton Place, as well as — wait for it — George Maharis yet again! Some guys can’t get enough of crashing and burning!

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The Concorde…Airport ’79

In this one, George Kennedy‘s Patroni character is elevated to the Captain of the endangered aircraft, putting him front and center for once instead of the periphery of the disaster. On the other hand…it’s the cheesiest of a very cheesy series. They try to generate interest by setting it on the trendy, relatively new supersonic plane, but that doeesn’t really add anything to the story. And the celebrities in this one are a new low….Charo! John Davidson! Jimmy “J.J.” Walker! Martha Raye! And what happens to them? Evil arms dealer Robert Wagner keeps trying to shoot the plane they’re on out of the sky with missiles, because reporter Susan Blakely is about to do an expose on his illegal arms sales. Ya know, like ya do.

At any rate, soon after this the Airplane! spoofs made any more movies like this impossible for a time. How could you do this seriously when stars of the genre like Robert Stack and Peter Graves were sending it up? Decades later of course, we would once again get things like United 93 (2006), Flight (2012), and Sully (2016), though these films are much more tasteful (and by definition less colorful) than the pioneering exercises in excess the 1970s produced.