Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771 (Movie review)

Jay (Scott Bakula), realizing he is lost

Imagine you’ve been flying for over 14 hours non-stop over the Pacific Ocean. You see nothing but the ocean around you. You try to contact your destination airport but get no answer. You then realize you are lost in the middle of nowhere… on a Cessna airplane. Your only hope is for the Captain of a commercial flight nearby (or believed to be) to help you. This is what the made-for-TV movie Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771, based on a true story, is all about.

Plot summary

Jay Parkins (Scott Bakula) is an adventurous pilot. In the first scene, along with fellow pilot Frank (Alan Fletcher), he makes a demonstration on a helicopter crop duster for a local farmer, who thinks he is flying too high and asks him to fly lower. And so he complies… and almost touches the ground, and right after, decides to fly under a bridge. Yes, a bridge. The two pilots get fired on the spot.

Jay returns home in San Francisco to his wife, Ellen (Rebecca Rigg), who is pregnant. The couple makes a lot of projects for their future baby. Elsewhere, Gordon Vette (Robert Loggia), Captain for Air New Zealand, loudly complains to a manager that his fellow pilot, First Officer Ross Mann (Michael Bishop), has been denied a promotion to the rank of Captain. Gordon has been flying for Air New Zealand for over 33 years and is approaching retirement, so he is not afraid of voicing his concerns. He is also looking forward to spending more time with his wife (Sarah Kemp).

Later, Harry Hanson (Robert Benedetti) assigns Jay and Frank a very special flight: delivering two crop dusters to Sydney by Christmas. The route will take them through Honolulu, Pago Pago, Norfolk Island, and finally Sydney. The trip seems dangerous, but Hanson gives the pilots a pep talk and convinces them that they are perfect for this assignment, since they have the experience, and assures them they will get a lot of money for it.

The two cropdusters, flying out of San Francisco

Jay goes home and discusses the assignment with his wife, but she is afraid. She does not want her husband to risk his life for money. Even though Jay is unable to reassure his wife, he leaves with Frank for Honolulu the following morning. Frank makes a difficult take-off due to the extra fuel stored in the wings. To find their way, both pilots will be using an ADF freshly installed on their planes with electric tape, compliments of Hanson!

The flights to Honolulu and Pago Pago go smoothly. On Christmas morning at Pago Pago, Jay takes off without any problems, but Frank crashes in the water just past the runway. He swims away from the aircraft just before it explodes. Jay offers to land back in Pago Pago and return to San Francisco. Frank convinces Jay to carry on with the flight, as he will need money for his baby. This is enough to convince Jay, who sets course for Norfolk Island, unaware of a problem with his instruments…

Elsewhere, at Nadi International Airport in Fiji, Air New Zealand flight 308 is boarding its last passengers, including a group of children travelling with their chaperone. Nevertheless, it’s a quiet flight, with only 88 passengers. The plane takes off for a two-hour flight to Auckland, with Captain Gordon Vette, First Officer Ross Mann and Captain Warren Banks (Kit Taylor) as relief pilot.

Meanwhile, Cessna N30771, flown by Jay, is supposed to be over Norfolk Island, just North of New Zealand. Jay tries to contact Norfolk Tower, but gets no answer. He looks at his ADF and the needle indicates the same heading he is at: South West. He pushes the glass and the needle spins to a new heading. This can only mean one thing: the ADF was not working properly and Jay is off course. He contacts Auckland Centre on his HF radio and declares an emergency.

Frank’s plane exploding after the crash

The only rescue planes available are in Auckland and unable to take off immediately. In addition, there are no ships in the vicinity of N30771. The only plane in that air space is Air New Zealand flight 308. Auckland Centre asks Captain Vette if he can provide some help. The airline pilot talks with Jay, recommends that he save as much fuel as he can, talks to his flight crew and his passengers and convinces them to divert the flight and find the pilot.

However, Air New Zealand flight 308 is a commercial flight. It is not equipped for a rescue mission. Searching for the lost pilot will be difficult, and the crew will resort to such solutions as looking for the direction of the sun and using the VHF radio to determine distances (by taking into account that VHF radio has a range of 200 nautical miles). Jay slowly loses hope and is seriously considering a water landing. But if he does, it will be difficult to find him and he could die. Will flight 308 find Jay before it’s too late?

Appreciation

Certain scenes of the movie are tense and would make me hold my breath. Loggia and Bakula nicely play their roles, along with the other secondary actors. The audiovisual quality is excellent and the air to air images are great (even if some of them might be stock footage). On the other hand, the special effects are a little amateurish and may even remind you of the movie Airport. It is also unfortunate that there are no specific indications as to the date of the real event.

I give this movie 8 out of 10.
It is an excellent movie to watch with the family, and will keep you restless at key moments.

Things to notice

Here are the goofs and trivia for Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771.

Capt. Gordon Vette (Robert Loggia)

  • In real life, Gordon Vette retired from Air New Zealand in the early eighties (1981 or 1982). However, the movie depicts Air New Zealand flight 308 as a Boeing 767 (which hadn’t entered service back then), and shows a Boeing 747-400 aircraft in San Francisco with large United titles (back in the early 1980s, those titles were much smaller, and the -400 wasn’t yet introduced).
  • On the ground at what is supposed to be Nadi Airport, you can see several planes from different airlines: Ansett Australia bearing a color scheme from the early 1990s and even an Australian Airlines plane. Australian was essentially a domestic airline. And back in the early 1980s, it was still known as TAA.
  • During the cockpit sequence, the engine needles (EPR, N1, N2) in the central video screens do not move, even though Captain Vette applies full thrust.
  • Air New Zealand flight 308 is a Boeing 767-200 in all sequences (mostly stock footage from ANZ), except on take-off when it becomes a Boeing 737-200, and at the Auckland Airport apron, where it is a Boeing 737-300/400 of Australian Airlines. The titles are barely visible since the scene is at night. Additionally, the hangar where Vette talks to a manager, in one of the first scenes, has a few Australian Airlines aircraft, minus titles.
  • In all the daylight sequences, the clouds seen from the inside of the 767 flight deck are perfectly still. For the night sequences however, the clouds appear to move. In the case of the Cessna, the clouds from the outside are moving (although they do not seem realistic).
  • The First Officer touches too many random and irrelevant buttons during the flight operations. For example, he sets the autopilot heading or course during the very final approach!
  • The take-off cockpit sequence was done (obviously) in a flight simulator.

You may be interested to know that…

Air New Zealand flight 308 changing course

  • As shown during the taxi sequence, the aircraft was christened “Aotearoa”, which is the Maori name of New Zealand and means “land of the long white cloud”. It is one of the first 767-200s used by Air New Zealand. The name can be seen as the plane lines up for take-off.
  • The major airport in the American Samoa is called Pago Pago, which is actually pronounced “Pango Pango”, as accurately depicted by the actors. The same thing can be said about Nadi, in Fiji, which is pronounced “Nandi”.
  • When the air traffic controller stands up to warn Hudson of the Cessna declaring an emergency, you can see, right above his radar scope, a bumper sticker saying: “I ♥ AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL”.

Here are the main differences between the real event and the movie depiction. This information comes from Stanley Stewart’s excellent book Emergency! Crisis on the Flight Deck.

  • Jay departed Pago Pago for Norfolk Island in the night of December 21, 1978, and landed one day later (due to the International Date Change line crossing). The movie depicts his departure (and Frank’s crash) as occurring after Christmas Day.
  • The only characters that were kept in the movie were Gordon Vette and Jay Prochnow, whose last name in the movie was changed for personal reasons. Both pilots were consultants in the production and appear in a cameo scene at the end of the movie.
  • Aboard what was really flight 103 (and not 308), there were also First Officer Arthur Dovey and Second Officer Gordon Brooks (later killed in the Mount Erebus, Antarctica crash on November 28, 1979). An Air New Zealand DC-8 First Officer, Malcolm Forsyth, flying off-duty as a passenger, later joined the three airmen.
  • The aircraft was a DC-10-30, registered ZK-NZS, and not a Boeing 767-200 as depicted in the movie. There are two accurate details, however: the flight was indeed from Nadi to Auckland, and there really were 88 passengers on board.
  • Jay did make the trip all the way to Pago Pago with a fellow pilot, flying a separate Cessna 188 crop duster. The departure from Pago Pago is relatively accurate. The fellow’s plane did experience difficulties on take-off, and its pilot was forced to ditch. It is interesting to note that, in real life, Jay landed back in Pago Pago after his colleague’s ditching. In the movie, Jay is compelled to resume his departure to Norfolk Island immediately after witnessing Frank’s ditching from the air.
  • It is believed that, on the second half of the movie, there are several scenes created for dramatic purposes, since the book makes no mention of them at all.

The planes

Flight 308 is a Boeing 767-200 operated by Air New Zealand, flying a Nadi – Auckland route. (NAN-AKL). Cessna 771 is a Cessna crop duster privately owned and operated, flying a San Francisco – Honolulu – Pago Pago – Norfolk Island – Sydney route (SFO-HNL-PPG-NLK-SYD) for a delivery flight.

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A./New Zealand 1995. Produced by Anasazi Productions. Directed by Roger Young. Starring Robert Loggia, Scott Bakula, Rebecca Rigg, Alan Fletcher. Rated G. Also known as Sauvetage en plein vol (French), SOS über dem Pazifik (German).

UPDATE (Oct. 23, 2010): The real Jay Prochnow comments this movie review and tells the real story (see below).

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14 thoughts on “Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771 (Movie review)

  1. OMG, it’s such an honor to have Jay comment here! This has been a favorite movie of mine for years, just amazing. I also saw it the first time quite by accident. I tried then to purchase it, back in the VHS days, LOL. And it wasn’t available. Now I see I can finally own it, I am thrilled. It’s honestly my favorite Christmas movie because the story is so incredible. I’m on the edge of my chair every time I see it, even tho I know what happens that moment when the tower tells Jay “we see you” makes my cry! What can I say? Hard to imagine living through that. (And if I was Jay’s wife I would have killed him —- after I kissed him!)

  2. Hi Jay im Cristian Lemcke and i like to contact you.
    Im a ferry pilot and i ferried a lot of crop dusters from USA.

  3. Pingback: Aircraft saved by rudimentary Astro? - PPRuNe Forums

  4. I absolutely love this movie. I don’t understand why people feel the need to “pick apart” the inaccuracies in the movie. It is a MOVIE. They always take dramatic license. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to portray that this was an extraordinary situation that happily, turned out for the good. I think Scott Bakula is an amazing actor and did an excellent job in this film as he does in everything I have seen him in. Robert Loggia is also one of my favourite actors and I loved him in this movie. I have an uncanny ability to get really immersed in anything I am watching or reading, to the point that I feel I am actually there. Those two did such a great job that I was laughing and crying and sitting on the edge of my seat right along with them.
    Excellent movie that I would recommend to anyone!

  5. Yep, it’s me. Just a couple of comments from the “guy on the spot:”
    1. A 767 has no fuel dump capability. It’s too bad that they couldn’t use a DC 10 in the movie, but budget constraints dictated a change in the aircraft type for the movie. The 737 footage was of, I believe, a -200 series.
    2. My partner did land in the water at Pago. It occurred at about 0030 in the morning. A beautiful water landing if I ever saw one. The water was about 3 feet deep where he touched down in the lagoon and it sat there for some time, upright before it was salvaged. I heard that it was refurbished and was back flying. BTW they were brand new aircraft right out of the factory. I suspect that my partner had water in his fuel which caused him to lose power.
    3. I actually did land after he made his “water landing”. I assure you that his welfare was much more important to me than anything else at the moment. He was fine. I instructed him to remain in the aircraft if possible until we could get to him with a boat. We salvaged his avionics gear and he boarded the next Pan Am flight out to the US.
    4. Gordon Vette remains my good friend after all these years. Although the movie depicted him as a bit irascable, he is actually very low key and soft spoken, but a real mans man, very capable and incredibly intelligent. At the time of the incident, I had a few thousand hours in many aircraft and wasn’t sure how he could help me, but he soon gained my confidence when he and I (mostly he) started working out the solution. I flew as a US Navy pilot and have met many pilots whom I greatly respect. Gordon is at the top of the heap in my book.
    5. I met Arthur Dovey in Reno (where he came to visit me). He, too is quite an impressive guy.
    6. The gents that I was working for were extremely professional and were adamant that all the aircraft that were ferried were in good condition and had good equipment. The problems that I encountered were NOT due to poor maintenance, but due to a strange anomalycaused by the glass that covers the ADF needle vibrating down onto the needle thereby preventing it from tracking the station. The ADF DID track the station and turned the shaft , but not the needle. When I discovered what happened, I soon came to realize that it would take some mental gymnastics to figure out what my bearing to Norfolk Is was. That was when Gordon came on the scene. Good thing for me, because I was very fatigued, and needed his help. Our efforts didn’t work quite as planned, but our manuevers led me overhead an oil rig that was being towed to Brunei. It was well lighted and was a welcome sight in the event that I had to ditch. We were able to contact them and they gave us my position. Gordon then gave me the course and distance to Norfolk Is. where I landed with only a few gallons of fuel left. The folks at Norfolk Is. had a reception committee awaiting me with sandwiches and beer. Great hospitality!
    7. The Ag Truck had no autopilot but is very stable and was fun to fly. The instruments were strapped in and useable, but very basic. IFR was not difficult in it because of it’s inherent stability.

    I feel that some of these facts need to be said to set the story straight regarding the outfit that I worked for and the people involved.
    Oh, by the way, I have never flown a helicopter, and have never flown under a bridge. Flying as a Navy pilot was exciting enough for me.

    • @Mr. Prochnow: It is an honor to have you comment on my review of a movie that, obviously, has taken many liberties. Your comment was fascinating and I agree that the facts need to be known to fully appreciate the scope of the story. I found many of the differences between the real-life event and the dramatization with Stanley Stewart’s book, but nothing beats a first-hand recount of the events like you did. Thank you very much for commenting.

    • hello!

      its really a pleasure to find you after all those years. i am a flight attendant for an international airline, and since i was a kid, i watched the movie and wondered what ever happened to you.
      so what do you do now? are you still flying? what airline do you fly with?

  6. There are some simple reasons for the discrepancies in this film/movie

    1) The film came out in the 1990′s not the time when it was depicted as this was 1978

    2) Air New Zealand had no DC-10′s in service when this film came out & they had been replaced by the Boeing 767-200, Although I Noticed one you didn’t pick up on and that was the cabin Interior from the plane is from a A300-B4 Air Newzealand Never had these in their fleet .

    3)The Dc-10 had a seating configuration similar to the Boeing 747 I, should know Because I have flown on an example from United airlines again before they went on to be replaced by the later models of Boeing 767’s & 737’s

    4) United Airlines had replaced there earlier 747
    -100, 200’s for 747-400′s

    5) the discrepancies shown when the Air Newzealand flight took off can be explained by footage of Air other newzealand flights taking off from that runway that’s probably why in some movie footage the Plane depicted changes from a Boeing 737 to a 767 as shown later in flight

    6) The Dc-10 that
    really took part in the rescue of flight 771 Sadly crashed into Mt Erebus Antarctica in the previous year that being back in 1977 with the loss of all on board so was unviable for the film/movie instead it’s registration was painted on the Boeing 767 there by depicted in the Movie.

    7) The actual rescue flight took place in December of 1978 one year later then the Mt Erebus Disaster which killed 237 people; This was & still is New Zealand’s deadliest air disaster A permanent memorial to the victims& their families is situated at Scott Base Antarctica
    8) At the time of the incident Air newzealand was owned by TAA (Trans Australian Airways) so would probably have not been in Air Newzealand Colors/ Corporate Livery.

    9) The flight number really was flight 103 and not 308 they may have changed this for the film because of the Negative association with Pan Am flight 103 which was a 747 that was tragically destroyed by a terrorist bomb again with the loss of all on board back in 1988 whilst on route to New York from Heathrow which crashed near Lockerbie Scotland.

    10) 2 of the people you notice standing at the control tower in Auckland Newzealand where the real Capt. Gordon vette(r.e.t) retired & Capt. Jay Parkins who later after he was rescued went on to fly commercial airliners for a Major US Airline, The pilots you see depicted as Jay & Gordon in the movie where professional stunt Doubles

    11) It should be said Please Don’t attempt to recreate this flight as You Probably won’t make it to dry land again, unless you have adequate fuel on board your plane, Crop dusters where not or designed to meant to fly long-haul distances where as Airliners are it was a miracle Capt Jay made it that far with the Fuel he had on that fateful day & that at the time he made his distress call a Air Newzealand Flight was in the area and was able to divert to help guide him to a safe landing at Auckland Airport.

    12) Because at the time no Air Newzealand pilots were on hand to be filmed in the cockpit of the aircraft was obviously filmed in the comfort of a full motion flight simulator
    11) The first officer in the real rescue flight was named Greg cassin not Ross Mann as depicted in the movie Tragically 1st officer Greg Cassin was killed in the Mt Erebus air disaster.

    13) So obviously as a matter of respect to his family his name was changed for the movie to Ross Mann (who was a fictitious Character based on him) played by the actor Michael Bishop the main roll of (Capt Gordon Vette) was played by well known actor Robert Loggia.

    14) Whilst Tragically 1st officer Greg Cassin was allocated on that day as the 1st officer of flight TE901, Fortunately Capt Gordon Vette was not allocated that day as the captain of that flight & so survived to write the book on the disaster called “Impact Erebus”

    • @James: Thanks for commenting and for expressing your point of view. With your indulgence, I’d like to respond to some of the points you raised.

      1) The date of release of a movie is irrelevant to the date of the action. For example Titanic, released in 1997, depicts an accident that occurred in 1912.

      2) The shape of the overhead compartments, windows, window shades, and 2-3-2 abreast seating in economy class depicted in the movie are consistent with a Boeing 767 aircraft, not an A300. Also, the absence of an actual Air New Zealand DC-10 aircraft could have been overcome with the use of stock footage (if available) or repainting a DC-10 aircraft.

      5) The shot of the Boeing 737 taking off appears to be stock footage. Why was there no stock footage of an Air New Zealand Boeing 767 taking off? Who knows…

      6) and 7) According to the Aviation Safety Network, the DC-10 that crashed on Mt Erebus in 1979 (flight TE901) was registered ZK-NZP: http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19791128-0
      However, the DC-10 involved in the real-life rescue mission above the Pacific in 1978 (flight TE103), was ZK-NZS, according to Emergency! Crisis on the Flight Deck. Same aircraft type but different registrations…

      8) According to Air New Zealand’s website, the airline was owned by the government of New Zealand until 1989: http://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/company-history . Furthermore, ownership of an airline sometimes has no impact on the color scheme of the aircraft.

      11a) According to Emergency! Crisis on the Flight Deck, the first officer on flight TE103 was Arthur Dovey.

      13) According to the same source, it is the flight engineer, Gordon Brooks, who sadly died in the crash of TE901 on Mt Erebus, and you are probably correct saying that the character’s name was changed for that reason.

      Sorry if you interpreted the tone of the article as being harsh on the filming crew for not accurately depicting the rescue mission. I was just reporting the differences and obvious inaccuracies (such as the NZ flight being a 737 on take-off, a 767 throughout the movie). I am totally aware that movies based on true stories often have no choice but to take liberties because of a budget limitations, legal concerns, or the reasons you mentioned earlier. Thanks again for commenting.

  7. This is one of my all-time favorite films and I have immense respect for Capt. Vette, a truly remarkable human being.
    The suspense in this movie builds magnificently and when, at the end, the little plane lands and the pilot meets the man who saved him, it is impossible not to cry happy tears in a flow of relief. The people who put this movie together did a superb job and even if a few facts were changed for dramatic purposes, the basic story stands as a testament to man’s courage and dedication.

  8. Looking at the google maps, I can’t believe how he got lost. I think after he realized that he had missed norfolk, he have had to turn a bit right, and arrive at somewhere australia…
    That time, there were no “B plan” in case something goes wrong…? LOL

  9. Great movie and Robert Logia is my favorite actor and this movie is a great example of how right and important it is in life to ask for help in any situation not only in flying but in life or job or proffesion etc.
    J M Betz
    FAA Pilot since 1966

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