Airport 1975 (Movie review)

Columbia Airlines Boeing 747

After the movie Airport was thought to be the only one comes a sequel that marks the beginning of the air disaster movie saga. Based on a totally fictional story comes, in 1974, what is meant to become yet another classic: Airport 1975.

Plot summary

The movie starts, just like in Airport, with love problems, but this time, Nancy Pryor (Karen Black), a stewardess and Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston), a businessman, meet at the Washington Dulles airport after Murdock comes back from a trip to Europe. Nancy wants to “talk”, but Al has to fly back the same night. A while later, it’s the very late night (or very early morning!) in Washington, D.C… At Dulles Airport, a Columbia Airlines Boeing 747 receives its passengers, bound for Los Angeles on what Columbia calls the “Red Eye Special”.

Among the passengers, you’ll find a nun (Helen Reddy), a teenager waiting for a kidney transplant (Linda Blair), an alcoholic (Myrna Loy), a poor movie actor (Sid Caesar) and… Gloria Swanson in First Class playing her own role, for the last time. There’s also the wife (Susan Clark) and son (Brian Morrisson) of Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), who passed from head mechanic at TWA to vice-president of the operations at Columbia.

After a couple of sexist jokes in the cockpit and a farewell call from Al to Nancy (who happens to be the first stewardess on flight 409), the plane takes-off smoothly. In the meantime, another plane, a Beechcraft Baron flown by a businessman, Scott Freeman (Dana Andrews), takes-off from Gallup, New Mexico in the rain and flies to Boise, Idaho. The flight continues as American Graffiti turns out to be the inflight movie with… Sid Caesar supposedly in the cast! But after the “picture broke”, it’s time for a song by Sister Ruth to the ill teenager, Janice Abbott.

Scott Freeman (Dana Andrews) phoning his wife

As the 747 slowly approaches the West Coast, Captain Stacy (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is advised of the bad weather and diverts to the alternate airport, Salt Lake City. But guess what? Freeman’s prop plane (callsign: “Baron 232 Zulu”) is also diverted to Salt Lake City at the same time. Flight 409 slowly descends and is bound to land before 232 Zulu. But after sunrise, Freeman suffers a severe heart attack and the plane makes some unusual maneuvers. It finally slams into the 747, killing the flight engineer (Erik Estrada), turning the co-pilot (Roy Thinnes) into a skydiver, and seriously injuring the captain… without counting the flight director (Ken Samson) falling down the stairs and the extreme panic among the passengers as the plane suffers a severe shake.

Nancy sends a desperate Mayday to the Salt Lake City control, panicked and shocked as she sees the cockpit half-gone: “Salt Lake? Salt Lake? This is Columbia 409… It’s Nancy Pryor, stewardess. Something hit us. All the flight crew is… either dead or… or badly injured. There’s no one left to fly the plane! HELP US!!!”

Janice (Linda Blair) and Sister Ruth (Helen Reddy)

In this touchy situation, and in a time a plane cannot land on auto-pilot (unlike the movie Turbulence), Nancy must take the controls and fly the plane. Alan Murdock flies immediately to the rescue and guides Nancy by the radio, instructing her how to turn the plane. But soon enough, the “rescue team” realizes there are too many mountains out there for Nancy to handle flying through. The decision is made to lower a pilot into the 747 to fly the plane in for a landing. This is one of the most incredible stunt scenes ever filmed.

But let’s not say more than this. Go ahead and watch the movie!

Appreciation

Nancy (Karen Black), screaming

Airport 1975 is very interesting to watch. Unlike Airport, the action happens much faster, and at last, a real plane is used for the air-to-air scenes. The mid-air collision is very surprising. It is supposed to be a dramatic movie, but I’ll admit that the second time I watched it, I was amused by some reactions of the passengers, particularly that lady behind Sid Caesar that stands up and yells like a maniac. I was also amused by Erik Estrada, trying to seduce the flight attendants, and Karen Black panicking on the radio. The rest of the dramatic scenes really get you stuck to your seat.

I give Airport 1975 a good grade: 8 out of 10. At first I thought it was better than Airport. It sure has a lot more action. But on second thought, nothing beats the “classic”.

Things to notice

Panic in the cabin

Airport 1975 is quite accurate, but I have found these filming goofs. More can be found on the IMDb.

  • The callsign of the Beechcraft Baron is “Baron 232 Zulu”, even though its tail number is N9750Y. This particular plane was actually in a mid-air collision in 1989 (see “The REAL aircraft” below).
  • When the mobile lounge vehicle gets close to the 747 and stops, it is at ground level. On the next shot, it is already up and getting closer to the door. This COULD be an ellipse (a scene happening much later than the one right before, without showing what’s in between)
  • When the plane flies at dawn, some interior shots showing total darkness outside are followed by scenes of the 747 flying with some sunlight.
  • There are several other discrepancies between scenes in which, for instance, the view from the 747 flight deck shows it is flying above the clouds, but it is later seen flying between the mountains, well below the clouds.
  • After the collision, Captain Stacey struggles to turn the “A” switch of the auto-pilot on “manual” and leaves the “B” switch in “off”. But in the rest of the movie, Nancy turns on and off the “B” switch while the “A” (she never touched it) remains off.

Now here is some trivia, and things to notice when playing the movie in slow motion.

Urias (a dummy replacing Roy Thinnes) becoming an impromptu skydiver

  • Red-eye transcontinental flights generally fly eastbound, leaving the West coast in the late evening to arrive in the East coast in the early morning. Therefore, they imitate the concept of the night train, thus saving passengers the cost of a hotel room. So, the other way around would be of little use: for a Westbound flight to arrive in the early morning, it would have to leave… in the early morning. (Thanks to Scott for the input.)
  • Gloria Swanson, playing her own role, talks about two of her former actress friends, Carole Lombard and Grace Moore, saying: “I was a rebel too”. She says that onboard flight 409 and it is interesting to notice both have died on plane crashes in the 1940s.
  • Right after the collision, a rattling sound is heard in the cockpit, which means an engine fire. Previously considered as a goof, this is now a trivia entry since we thought of something. What if that sound indicates a fire in one of the engines, caused by the ingestion of chunks of the Beechcraft Baron destroyed on impact? Most likely. And by coincidence, it HAS to be engine 3, the one Urias and Stacy discuss about on the ground, saying it has been running roughly.
  • An interesting fact about Charlton Heston in this movie. He was sent to the American Airlines Simulator in Fort Worth, TX, to practice in the 747, then he really flew the jumbo for an hour and a half.
  • Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston), giving instructions to Nancy

    The cabin safety signals are both in English and in German: “Fasten seat belt/Bitte anschnallen” and “No smoking/Nicht rauchen”. The German equivalents literally mean in English “Please buckle up” and “Do not smoke”.

  • The book read by one of the passengers, called “Epicurean Sexual Delights” by Joyce Freed, does not exist. Extensive web search showed there is no such book, and no writer named Joyce Freed.
  • The cabin crew uniforms are very diverse and, in the movie, it is rare that you will find two stewardesses wearing the same exact uniform. The colors of a stewardess’ uniform are the same as the seat covers of the class she is serving: purple for First Class and red for Economy (and brown for the First Steward or Stewardess).
  • The concept of the helicopter scene with the 747 has been reused in the movie Air Force One. The camera angles are almost identical. The resemblance is striking.
  • A low-budget air disaster movie called Sonic Impact starring Ice-T recycled many scenes from Airport 1975, including certain unused stock shots, like an alternate take-off scene. Scenes were also recycled for an episode of the TV series The Incredible Hulk.

Now for the video covers. see for yourself…

Original versus new cover

  • The original video cover has been replaced in later VHS or DVD versions by a mode modern cover, a little unrealistic though. On that cover, the collision occurs at nighttime and the 747 is almost totally destroyed in the front and the livery resembles to All-Nippon Airways.
  • Even worse: the back side of the new video cover shows… the Trans Global Airlines Boeing 707, with the gear down, struck by the light plane.

The aircraft

Columbia Airlines flight 409 is a Boeing 747-100 flying from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Los Angeles (LAX) and diverting into Salt Lake City (SLC).

The Beechcraft Baron is registered N9750Y but has callsign “232 Zulu”. Its route is from Gallup, NM (GUP) to Boise, ID (BOI) via Elko, NV (EKO), but is rerouted into Salt Lake City too.

The REAL aircraft

N9675, a Boeing 747-123 (msn/ln 20390/136), delivered on May 7, 1971, was operated at the time by American Airlines and later became an all-freight plane (flying as “American Freighter”). It temporarily had the registration OD-AGM for a lease. When American Airlines disposed of its 747 fleet, it was sold to UPS which now flies it as N675UP.

N9750Y, the Beechcraft Baron, was actually destroyed in a crash following a mid-air collision with a Cessna 180 (N42695) on August 24, 1989 over California. The pilots of both aircraft died in the accident. (Thanks to Greg B. for the details. See the NTSB report).

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1974, Produced by Universal Studios. Directed by Jack Smight. Starring Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Rated PG. Also known as 747 en péril (French), Airport ’75 – Giganten am Himmel (German).

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6 comments on “Airport 1975 (Movie review)
  1. What about the New Caledonia aircraft parked on the tarmac at the Salt Lake City airport. Is it a DC-8 or what? I would have have thought an airplane buff would have spotted that an commented.

    Thanks

  2. Sam says:

    The one big casting/continuity goof that Universal should be ashamed of is that in the original, Patroni’s wife was named Marie, and he mentioned having ‘kids’ (plural). In this film, Susan Clark plays his wife named Helen(!) and she is traveling with their son Joe Jr., but there is no mention of any other kids(?)

    • Sergio Ortega says:

      @Sam: Other than the actress swap, that would be a huge mistake indeed. I’m looking into it.

  3. Graham says:

    Interesting review. I wonder how many times NTSB members have tried to figure out what happened to the Beechcraft Baron after the collision?

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