Imagine flying for more than 14 hours non-stop over the Pacific Ocean. You see nothing but the ocean blue around you. You try to contact your landing airport… Nothing. Then you realize you are lost in the middle of nowhere… and you’re on a Cessna airplane. Your only hope is the determined 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. The movie is known as The Flight from Hell in Australia and New Zealand.
Jay Parkins (Scott Bakula) is something of a daredevil flyer. At the beginning of the movie, he is making, along with his flight partner Frank (Alan Fletcher) a helicopter crop duster demonstration, as he is flying too high, the farmer in charge asks him to fly lower. So he does… almost touching the ground and right after, passing under… a bridge with the helicopter. You guessed it, they got fired!
Back at home in San Francisco, Jay meets his wife Ellen (Rebecca Rigg), pregnant, and they make a lot of projects for the baby who spends his time resting or… kicking! In the meantime, Gordon Vette (Robert Loggia), Captain for Air New Zealand, does an energetic complain to his superior about his friend, First Officer Ross Mann (Michael Bishop), who has not yet been promoted as a Captain. Gordon is a veteran and has been working for 33 years on Air New Zealand. He plans to either retire or BE retired, and have more time with his wife (Sarah Kemp).
Meanwhile, Jay and Frank are called by Harry Hanson (Robert Benedetti), their supervisor, for a very special flight. They will be in charge of delivering two crop dusters to Sydney by Christmas. They will have to fly the leg by making stopovers at Honolulu, Pago Pago, Norfolk Island, and finally Sydney. The trip seems dangerous, but Hansen reassures the pilots, telling them they are experienced with this kind of situation. And it sounds like a very lucrative assignment.
Jay goes back home and discusses about it with his wife, who doesn’t seem to agree to put his life in danger just for the money. After much vain reassuring, Jay finally flies the morning after with Frank, who takes off quite roughly because of the fuel quantity higher than usual in the wings. Both pilots will be guided by the ADF just installed on both planes… with masking tape!
The flights to Honolulu and Pago Pago are very smooth. On Christmas morning at Pago Pago, Jay, piloting the Cessna registered as N30771 (callsign Cessna 771), takes-off with no major problems. But Frank cannot lift the plane. He reaches the end of the runway, stalls and crashes in the sea near the airport. Frank is okay and escapes before the torn Cessna turns into a fireball. Jay doesn’t want to fly alone anymore and proposes, by radio, to stop the journey and get back to San Francisco. Frank disagrees and convinces Jay to fly lonely to earn the money for the baby. He finally does, but unaware of a “small” problem.
Somewhere else, a little later, Air New Zealand flight 308 is on final boarding process at the Nadi International Airport in Fiji. A group of children travelling with their chaperone “invades” the jetliner, but besides that, it is very calm with only 88 passengers. Among the flight crew, there is Captain Gordon Vette, First Officer Ross Mann and Captain Warren Banks (Kit Taylor) on the two-hour ride to Auckland. Flight NZ308 finally takes-off quietly and climbs to cruising altitude.
At the same time, Cessna 771 is supposedly flying over Norfolk Island, at North of New Zealand. Jay tries to contact Norfolk Tower… but nothing. No answer. He looks at the ADF and the needle indicates the same heading he is flying into, near South West. But 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 has diverted from his original route. He contacts Auckland Center on his HF radio to find some help.
The rescue planes are far away at Auckland Airport and they are not able to leave at the moment. There are no ships nearby. The only plane in the air space is Air New Zealand flight 308. Auckland Center contacts 308 to ask for help, and Capt. Vette agrees to give a hand to the young lost pilot. After a few discussions with him by radio, telling him to save what’s left of fuel, he convinces his flight crew and his passengers to divert the flight and find the pilot.
The problem is that NZ308 is a commercial flight not equipped for the situation. With rudimentary methods, such as the sun orientation and the VHF radio (with a range of 200 nautical miles), the search is hard. Jay slowly loses any hope and is seriously thinking of landing on the water. But if he does, he won’t be found and he is most likely doomed. Will Jay be found by NZ308 before it’s too late?
The action in the movie is at some moments very tense and breath-holding. 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 magnificent, most likely professional commercial footage. However, that compensates for the “amateur” special effects, that might remind you of the movie Airport. Also, too bad they don’t give many precisions about the real event: no date is given at any time.
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.
- In real life, Gordon Vette retired from Air New Zealand in the early eighties (1981 or 1982), so even in the movie, the event should have been depicted before that time, when the Boeing 767 was not yet on commercial service… nor the 747-400s seen at San Francisco, bearing a fresher United Airlines color scheme (larger and more “squeezed” characters).
- Prior to departure, many planes are seen from the cockpit, among them a few Ansett Australia planes bearing the “Australian Flag”, when the action occurred in the early eighties (at the time Ansett used the “Star” livery).
- I see an Australian Airlines plane in the ground cockpit scene at Fiji. Has Australian Airlines ever flown to Fiji? Did it even exist when the incident occurred (early eighties)? Or was it still called 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 challenges one of his supervisors, in one of the first scenes, hosts a couple of Australian Airlines aircraft, minus titles.
- In all the daylight sequences, the clouds seen from the inside the cockpit of the 767 are perfectly still. A poster was probably used. For the night sequences however, the clouds really move. In the case of the Cessna, the clouds from the outside are moving, but the use of background film is obvious.
- 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…
- 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. This can be noticed as the plane taxies to the runway… before it becomes a 737-200.
- The major airport in the American Samoa is in a city 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 about 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 balked departure) 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’s route was indeed a Nadi-Auckland run, and there were really 88 passengers.
- 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.
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.
- IMDb – Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771
Trailer, goofs, quotes, trivia and more from the world’s widest movie database.
- Navworld – Mayday in December
Recount of the true event that occurred at Christmastime in 1978.
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).