Panic in the Skies! (Movie review)

Royce Air flight 115 is struck by lightning on take-off, instantly killing the entire flight crew and crippling the autopilot…

I have seen up to now nothing but bad comments about the movie I’m about to review. I first read the small summary and it brought my attention. A plane being struck by lightning, leaving the plane pilotless. An unbelievable story. Anyway, I decided I should leave this movie a chance to impress me. And believe me, it did, however not the way they intended to. Here goes Panic in the Skies!.

Plot summary

It all starts in New York City, with a weather alert mentioning heavy thunderstorms in the area. Yet, we see a Boeing 747 in what we presume to be JFK Airport, being towed to the gate. The plane later loads luggage, including a red Corvette.

The last passengers on Royce Air International, flight 115 to London, are checking in. In the meantime, a TV crew is at the airport and interviewing many passengers, asking if they’re worried about flying during a thunderstorm. Laurie Ann (Kate Jackson), the Chief Flight Attendant, boards the aircraft and is greeted by a rookie Flight Attendant.

The flight crew, directed by Capt. Davidson (Fred Henderson), is completing the checklist for departure. By the way, the actor playing the Captain also played another Captain in Falling from the Sky: Flight 174, however training in a simulator. Passengers all take their seats. Among them, two celebrities: a basketball player, recognized immediately by a young girl (Brittney Irvin), and Ethan Walker, a movie star (Erik Estrada), just like in real life! (remember him playing Ponch in CHiPs?)

There’s also a couple of newlyweds on their way to a honeymoon, an elderly couple, a pregnant woman flying alone, and many others. Also, on board, is what we later find out to be some kind of “criminal”, Brett Young (Ed Marinaro), as an investigator approaches the check-in counter asking the attendant if she saw the man go on board. It’s too late. Don’t worry, this guy won’t hijack the aircraft. I mean having the plane struck by lightning is already bad enough!

So, the plane pushes back, taxies to the runway, and aligns. The Captain informs the passengers there could be some turbulence during take-off. Laurie takes a chance to chat with one of the flight attendants, Charlene, who came back after a year of absence. We later find out she survived a terrible plane crash on a B747 a year before, in Miami. Right after that, the plane rolls on the runway for what sounds like a smooth take-off. Naah. The plane is immediately shaken by thunder and turbulence and…

…you guessed it, the flight deck is struck by lightning, electrocuting the flight crew. The lights go off, the passengers panic, and Laurie tries to calm them down, after she switches to the emergency lanterns. Uh-oh… Is that a plane heading into us? Oh no!!!

Hopefully, it was nothing more than a near-miss. The New York ATC control (which happens to be extremely small and nothing compared to what we could see in, say Pushing Tin) monitors the aircraft and lost all radio contact with it. The plane hasn’t changed heading and is flying to Philadelphia, and into heavy traffic. Not a good sign.

Wanna know what happens next? You can either email me, or wait until this unfortunately bad movie is aired again on Family Channel, or somewhere else.


The story is at first unbelievable. It is extremely rare that planes get struck by lightning and if they do, the electricity disperses itself on the fuselage and there is barely any damage. I would have been able to believe this story (just like a Beechcraft Baron hitting a 747 right into the cockpit, in Airport 1975) if it wasn’t of all the goofs. Read the full list in the “Things to notice” section.

The aviation enthusiasts won’t be able to watch this movie, or will rather have fun detecting all the goofs. The “regular people” will find it either boring or pointless. This is the result of an obviously low-budget, and the absence of an aviation consultant because otherwise, it would have made a not-so-bad movie. One last thing: the actors are just as good as in most made-for-TV movies. Erik Estrada is goofy most of the time. Ed Marinaro saves the day. And Kate Jackson plays a nice flight attendant.

I am being generous if I give this movie 5 out of 10.
An awful story, an awful visual quality, for an awful movie. As usual, a shame in the already shameful air disaster movie industry.

Things to notice

Panic in the Skies! is a very inaccurate movie in many aviation aspects. The list of technical goofs is long…

  • The cabin of the aircraft is obviously not a Boeing 747. It looks more like a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, if you take a close look at the windows, the overhead compartments, and the oxygen masks coming out of the seatbacks. I would add it is American Airlines, because of the seat cover pattern. It features a circular stairway like a 747, but the front section does not shrink as you go forward.
  • May I ask Royce Air International how come the Captain is sitting in the RIGHT SEAT?
  • The New York ATC control is a small room located in an office and is directed by Rob Barnes (Robert Guillaume). The controller uses a computer monitor, and the flight appears as “RAI 115-H” only. This control room, which is not busy at all, can even spot the aircraft on any position in the North American continent.
  • When the plane gets struck by lightning, we are inside the flight deck. The lightning strikes the instruments, and there is a fire inside. However the glass should have broken or at least teared somehow with the tremendous amount of electricity suddenly shot at the cockpit. This, however, would have made the aircraft impossible to fly above 12,000 to 14,000 feet.
  • A cable suddenly popped from the front of the flight deck, and whenever this cable was moved, the plane would make incredible movements, suddenly losing or gaining altitude or speed. Since when does that kind of cable just appear?
  • The navigation computer looks more like a video game, displaying, almost à la Windows, the destination in large characters, and a detailed road map quickly scrolling underneath it. A more realistic onboard computer, or Flight Management System, would have been a black display with monospaced green characters, and a small keypad underneath it.
  • A computer expert, assisted by an electrician, connects the onboard computer to his laptop and is partially able to control the plane. May I ask since when those systems are fully compatible and allow a user with a laptop to control the plane? It is to wonder if the flight computer runs on Windows 95! Good thing it doesn’t (we all know how stable Win95 really is!)
  • At one moment, Kate and Brett take the elevator and instead of ending up to the other galley, go to the luggage compartments! That’s impossible in real life.
  • The aircraft is supposed to fly a 6-hour trip to London, yet it has more than 13 hours of fuel onboard. That would have made a pretty heavy landing in London.
  • Later in the flight, the computer accidentally turns on the video screen, displaying once again the safety demonstration. The 10-year-old fan comes up front to press some buttons on the VCR, located right underneath the screen! I thought that kind of system was located either in the overhead compartment or near the galleys or the cabin crew seats. She changes the video displayed to the live news coverage of the incident.
  • When the aircraft runs out of fuel, an engine flames out. The plane does not even bank. I would guess the autopilot kept the plane on a straight pattern. Totally unlike China Airlines Flight 006 that lost control over the Pacific Ocean when an engine flamed out and the plane was left on autopilot? The plane banked almost to 90 degrees and plunged 30,000 feet before the pilot could regain controls.
  • Eventually, the planes comes to a landing… in Vancouver. Now, I was pretty INSULTED to see they pictured Vancouver as a tiny airport with a runway just as narrow as a taxiway. No wait, it WAS a taxiway! Vancouver Airport is not JFK, however it is almost as large. And the news bulletin says that all the fire and ambulances from the city were called in. And it’s only about a dozen vehicles in total. Wow. That makes of Vancouver the smallest city in Canada or what??? To the ignoramus who made Panic in the Skies!: Vancouver is the third most important agglomeration in Canada with a 1.4 million population, the third most important airport, and the gateway to Canada via the Pacific. It also holds the nation’s largest Chinatown (no wonder why)!
  • Clock designed to look like an altimeter... except to the production crew!
  • I kept the WORST MISTAKE for the end, and I am surprised I didn’t notice it at first. The altimeter pictured in the flight deck is nothing more than an aviation enthusiast clock!!! You probably saw those clocks, like the one to your right, that say “Altitude” and depict (with the font used) a commercial aircraft altimeter, with the only difference that it goes from 0 to 11… (Instead of 0 to 9, and a readout of the altitude). That’s the altimeter they used. Unbelievable. And it scrolls incredibly fast when the plane climbs or descends.

Here are the continuity errors regarding the Boeing 747, which changes color scheme and type several times….

  • Most of the footage used is from the Oceanic Airlines Boeing 747-200 (N707CK – leased by now defunct American International Airways), from the movie Executive Decision, where the “OA” logo on the tail was preserved, but the “Oceanic” title was replaced by an ugly “Royce Air”. We get to see the darkened image of the Oceanic Airlines 747 on the take-off scene we were never meant to see in the movie Executive Decision.
  • On some sequences, and on landing, the plane bears a color scheme similar to the Boeing 747SP rollout colors (and a solid blue tail), and becomes a 747-300.
  • When the plane is at the gate (747-200) it bears a white fuselage and the colors of Air Club International, a defunct Canadian charter airline, as clearly visible on the engines and part of the tail.

The aircraft

It is a Boeing 747 (either -200 or -300), registration sometimes being N707CK, flown by Royce Air International, as flight 115. It is flying from New York (JFK or Newark) to London-Heathrow.

Movie links


U.S.A. 1996. Produced by Regent Entertainment. Directed by Paul Ziller. Starring Kate Jackson, Ed Marinaro, Erik Estrada, Maureen McCormick, Billy Warlock, Howard G.H. Dell, Robert Maloney, Brandy Sanders. Rated PG. Also known as Alerte en plein vol (French), Blitzschlag im Cockpit – Katastrophe in der Wolken (German).


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