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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- 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…
- 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.
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.
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- 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).