Miracle Landing (Movie review)

After reaching cruising altitude, a small crack in the roof of the 737 developed into an crippling 18-foot hole. Based on Aloha flight 243.

Boeing 737-200… minus 18 ft. of fuselage

The disaster that occurred on April 28, 1988 is quite memorable. An Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 lost an 18 ft. section of its fuselage at 24,000 feet, due to metal fatigue. Miraculously, only one occupant, a flight attendant, perished during the sudden decompression. With an aircraft getting more and more difficult to control, one engine out of two working, and an aircraft that could fall apart any minute, the cockpit crew does the impossible: a Miracle Landing.

Plot summary

First Officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins (Connie Sellecca) is jogging in a beach near Honolulu, and her spouse, Randall, comes immediately with great news. Mimi will start her training program in order to become a Captain! She is the first female pilot in Paradise Airlines, hired in 1979. In the meantime, Flight attendant Michelle Honda (Ana-Alicia) is painting a portrait of her daughter, in the traditional Hawaiian costume. The painting is fine, but that’s not what her daughter thinks! Also, we get to meet Captain Robert Schornstheimer (Wayne Rogers), sailing with his wife.

Next day, Paradise Airlines flight 243 leaves Honolulu bound for Hilo with no problems, piloted by Captain Schornstheimer and First Officer Tompkins. After a smooth landing, the First Officer offers to the entire crew… cheesecake, which she baked before flying out of Honolulu. The crew is delighted, of course. This isn’t the kind of thing they get from the other pilots! This is where we get to meet C.B. Lansing (Nancy Kwan) and Jane Sato-Tomita (Patty Toy), the two other flight attendants aboard, besides Michelle Honda. C.B. is obviously the chief flight attendant, by her authority as she surprises previously her two other colleagues trying to munch into the cookies for the passengers! Also, she is the only one wearing a flower in her hair, Polynesian style.

Right after that, it’s boarding time and departure checklist for the flight crew. Among the passengers there is a luau dancer, an elderly couple, a mother and her son, and a couple coming back from their honeymoon at Waipi’o Valley, who happen to be friends of Michelle Honda. As the stairs are stowed and the baggage and cabin doors are closed, the music already tells us that this will be the last trip this 737 will ever do. The aircraft rolls smoothly to runway 8 at Hilo, the same runway the aircraft used previously for landing.

David (Will Estes), pointing at the crack

The aircraft takes-off smoothly and climbs to 24,000 feet, although with some “light chops”, according to Mimi. In the cabin, a young boy (Will Estes, credited as Will Nipper) suddenly notices a small crack on the roof, next to the overhead compartments. He timidly calls a Flight attendant, C.B…. “Excuse me, could you…” … C.B.’s last words are: “Is everything all right?” … The boy, pointing to the crack, says: “I don’t think so. Up there…”

The crack suddenly starts expanding. Due to the sudden change of pressure, condensation is briefly seen near the crack. In the flight deck, the crew is having trouble maintaining control of the aircraft. In a split second, the horror: the cabin suffers a sudden decompression. Everything, from carry-ons to inflight magazines, to cups and glasses, is immediately sucked out by the crack, still expanding, until a large portion of the roof is immediately ripped off. The flight crew starts a descent and sets the transponder to 7700. Mimi tries a distress call to Honolulu Center: “Mayday, Mayday! Paradise 2-4-3… Descending out of 2-4-0… Rapid depressurization… Declaring an emergency!”… But the controller doesn’t hear her.

Wanna know what comes next? Rent this excellent movie or wait until it is broadcast either at CBS or Lifetime Network. It is really worth it!


F/O Mimi Tompkins (Connie Sellecca) and Capt. Bob Schornstheimer (Wayne Rogers)

This is definitely one of the best air disaster movies made for TV. The special effects are excellent, the soundtrack music is very good, and the movie plays its role perfectly: showing us a true story without filling it too much with unnecessary action. They sure had the budget! They even went as far as painting a 737 in the colors of fictitious Paradise Airlines and doing everything from inflight magazines to ticket folders, to the wrapping for the cookies… I think there isn’t anything to add.

This masterpiece deserves 9.5 out of 10.
It isn’t perfect, but this is as close as you can get.

Things to notice

Miracle Landing is one of the most technically accurate air disaster movies ever. However these small goofs are the result of filming conditions.

  • The airport portrayed as Hilo (ITO) is actually Kahului (OGG), hence the scene where the 737 lands on “runway 2”, when in fact it was cleared to land on runway 8. Also, at the time of filming, ITO did have jetways, but the passengers boarding the 737 to Honolulu are using airstairs. It appears that this scene was filmed in OGG as well, which was still under construction at the time of filming, and did not have jetways yet. (Thanks to Bryan S. from Hilo for the details).
  • A very small mistake: the shadow inside the flight deck as the plane positions and holds doesn’t change, even though the plane turns. But you can’t ask too much to a made-for-TV movie!
  • This goof was discovered in the Internet Movie Database in early 2001: “Gail Kornberg’s gold hoop earrings disappear and reappear throughout the movie.”

Here are some trivia that compares the real event with the dramatization.

  • Nearly all the conversations during the emergency are somewhat verbatim, including the portion where the controller in Maui Tower is confused about the callsign of the flight with the emergency.
  • An air traffic controller was flying on the jump seat on flight 243, which is not shown in the movie.
  • The aircraft seen in the movie, assuming the registration wasn’t modified for filming, is N70723, which was at the time owned by… Aloha Airlines. It was re-registered C-GCWJ and was last flying with WestJet Airlines, from Canada. The real registration of the Aloha Airlines 737 involved in the crash is N73711.
  • The name of the real airline, Aloha Airlines, is never mentioned in the movie. At the end, the picture of each main character (the crew) is shown, with a narration of their life after the incident. For example the narrator says Mimi Tompkins successfully finished her training as a captain and continues to fly for “the airline portrayed in this movie”.

You may be interested to know that…

F/A Michelle Honda (Ana-Alicia), Capt. Bob Schornstheimer (Wayne Rogers) and F/O Mimi Tompkins (Connie Sellecca)
  • During the decompression, a passenger is reading a magazine and it is quickly sucked out, along with his tray table. The magazine was open on an ad for America West Airlines starting its 747 service to… Hawaii. This is also where you notice the Paradise inflight magazine in the seatback pocket.
  • The two take-off scenes are in fact the same action filmed under two different angles. You can see an American DC-10 taxiing into position and holding, while a Hawaiian DC-9 is holding short.
  • The filming of Miracle Landing was hazardous for Ana-Alicia’s health. She ended up with a broken rib and lung infection (due to the smoke). She says the doctor thought she was an abused wife. (source: Falcon Crest – A Tribute)
  • In the movie, C.B. Lansing is called “C.B.” by her friends and even her name tag says “C.B.”. It is a diminutive for her real name, Clarabelle. (source: Popular Mechanics, Aug. 1988)

The aircraft

It is a Boeing 737-200, registration N70723, flown by Paradise Airlines, flight 243 from Hilo (ITO) to Honolulu (HNL).

Movie links

F/A C.B. Lansing (Nancy Kwan), the sole casualty on flight 243


U.S.A. 1990. Produced by CBS Entertainment Productions. Directed by Dick Lowry. Starring Connie Sellecca, Wayne Rogers, Ana-Alicia, Nancy Kwan, James Cromwell, Jay Thomas. Rated PG. Also known as Panique en plein ciel (French), Katastrophenflug 243 (German).

UPDATE (October 10, 2015): Garner Simmons, writer of Miracle Landing, comments this movie review (see below).


10 thoughts on “Miracle Landing (Movie review)”

  1. I remember when i watched this movie for the first time as a child. It was so emotional, the music and the flashbacks of the characters. The detail of the cabine flying away is incredible. I was in touch with John Mesa one of the camera operators long ago. I‘m still trying to get some records of the music by Mark Snow or some Making Of footage of the Cabine Mockup. I also was able to get one of the last original VHS on ebay few years ago. So if somebody can help with the musik or some making of footage i would be very grateful. And yes, its one of the best and accurate plane movie still today! Best Regards Andy – Ruesch Productions

    1. Andy — Thanks for the query regarding the musical score and “making of” footage. I wish i could help you but to my knowledge neither either exists nor was made available by CBS Productions at the time of the film’s initial release. At the same time, as the writer, I am very pleased to know you found this film made some 30 years ago so compelling. It remains one of the films of which I am most proud. Wish I could be of more help. Best of luck in your continuing quest. — Garner Simmons (screenwriter of “Miracle Landing:)

  2. Saw the movie, loved it as I have made several trips to most the the Hawaiian islands. I think Connie Selleca is a wonderful human being and a terrific actress.

      1. Sergio — As the writer of Miracle Landing, I want to thank you taking the time to review it (despite not listing who wrote it ;-). Hired by CBS’s Norman Powell to write the screenplay, I flew over to Hawaii and spent considerable time with Bob Schornsteimer and Mimi Tompkins as well as Michelle Honda going over every detail. I also interviewed the investigator from the Transportation Safety Administration assigned to the case and obtained a transcript of the flight recorder. For legal reasons, the name of the actual airline had to fictionalized, but I made every effort to represent the facts as they had occurred that day. I even spent a day with Bob and Mimi as passengers flying that same route — “reliving” every detail from take-of to eventual landing. Given what I learned I came away with tremendous appreciation for the skill and focus of those man the controls. Schornsteimer stands 6’4″ and had to physically muscle the aircraft in time to avoid crashing as he managed tto regain control while plummeting from 24,000 feet in less than a minute. I will always remember him describing the moments immediately after the fuselage ripped away along with the cabin door. Because the floor boards had also been dislodged blocking his view, when he turned to look back, all he could see was “blue sky” and had no idea how much of the plane was actually intact. When something like this happens, he said, you suddenly become “a test pilot a plane that was never design to flight like this and just one chance to land it. Despite all the complications, he and Mimi simply never gave up. At the time I spoke with them — more than a year after the incident, they were still receiving gifts from the survivors for saving their lives. Best regards, Garner Simmons

      2. @Garner Simmons: Thank you for writing such a great movie and for taking the time to comment the review. It was a pleasure reading your valuable insight. 🙂

    1. I have no idea where one can buy it – but I loved it so much that took a copy of what I found off Youtube and created full captions for it (and shared it with a deaf friend of mine – she loved it!). I turned it into a DVD with hardcoded subs, a custom menu, and extras such as a slideshow of photos of the actual plane and people and the ATC audio recording. If you’re still interested and can’t find it for purchase (I couldn’t at the time I looked, or I would have bought the DVD!), I can get you a copy that way, if you wanted. Just e-mail my nick at yahoo dot com.

      I should also note that this film triggered an interest of mine into learning more about aviation, air disasters, and ATC – I’ve now seen most of the Air Crash Investigation series as a result! The movie was fantastic and I wish so badly that the soundtrack was released as a CD to buy – I would have purchased it ages ago! (I had to settle for clipping music out of the film, but it’s not quite the same.)

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