Airplane! (Movie review)

In this spoof of air disaster movies, the flight crew of a transcon flight suffers food intoxication, leaving no one aboard to fly the plane but Ted Striker!

Randy (Lorna Patterson) playing the guitar, knocking out the little girl’s IV

Surely you have seen (and loved) the Airport movies from the 1970s. But this is, according to Wikipedia, the movie that ended in beauty this decade of air disaster movies by making fun of them: Airplane! It’s a composite spoof of pretty much everything you remember from the 1970s… or think you know about it, including the 1971 made-for-TV movie Terror in The Sky (itself a remake of Zero Hour, written by Airport‘s Arthur Hailey.)

Plot summary

It isn’t possible to make a detailed plot summary as usual with a comedy having gags one after the other. So, you’ll be spared most of the gags, so that you can enjoy them (read: laugh them off) when you see them.

At Los Angeles International Airport, passengers are checking in for Trans American Airlines flight 209 to Chicago. Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a cab driver and former fighter pilot, pulls over and boards a passenger (Howard Jarvis)… and immediately leaves, turning on his meter. He tried catching his girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), a flight attendant for Trans American Airlines. She just left Ted, blaming him for not being responsible enough and not getting over the aftermath of the loss of many lives during the war. Extremely shaken, and at the very last minute, he buys a ticket on flight 209, where Elaine is to work this evening.

Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) is in the flight deck, with Flight Engineer Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore) and… Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, uh, I mean First Officer Roger Murdock. Oveur, Victor, Roger… You’ll understand why they have these colorful names later on with transmissions like: “We have clearance, Clarence. – Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” Their aircraft looks like a Boeing 707 jet airliner from outside… but flies under the constant hum of a prop plane!

Ted (Robert Hays) trying to control the plane as it dives.

À la Airport 1975, there is a girl named Lisa Davis (Jill Whelan), on her way for a heart transplant, who exclaims herself “Oh mother, this is so exciting!”, and who gets a guitar song. However, this time, it’s not from a singing nun, but from Flight Attendant Randy (Lorna Patterson), singing Peter, Paul and Mary’s “River of Jordan”… while knocking out the little girl’s I.V. endlessly! There is no Joe Patroni Jr. or Schuyler Schultz, but you do have your average little passenger, Joey Hammen (Rossie Harris) who visits the flight deck… and recognizes Kareem!

During the flight, Ted recounts to the old lady next to him (Ann M. Nelson) and other passengers how he met Elaine. The flashbacks are one joke after the other, and some scenes have become classics, like the two girl scouts fighting, and Ted dancing madly while the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” plays, or their passionate kiss on the beach, making fun of the original scene from the 1953 movie From Here to Eternity with Deborah Kerr and Airport‘s Burt Lancaster (although the DVD commentary claims this was unintentional.)

But the fun doesn’t stop here. The real story in Airplane! is that, like Zero Hour, some passengers and the entire flight crew suffer food poisoning. Everyone who had fish for dinner will be very ill within 30 minutes. Dr. Rumack (Leslie “Don’t Call Me Shirley” Nielsen) describes the symptoms: “The poison goes to work on the central nervous system, causing severe muscle spasms followed by the inevitable drooling. At this point, the entire digestive system collapses accompanied by uncontrollable flatulence. Until finally, the poor bastard is reduced to a quivering wasted piece of jelly.” This scene is very well illustrated!

Joey (Rossie Harris) and Captain Oveur (Peter Graves)

With no flight crew, it’s not George (nickname given to the autopilot) but Otto, an inflatable pilot, that controls the plane, “assisted” by Elaine, talked over by an air traffic control manager, Steve McCroskey (the late Lloyd Bridges, spoofing his role in the TV series San Francisco International Airport). Panic on board leads Elaine to make a reassuring announcement, followed by her question: “By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?”

Yes. Ted Striker… but can he cope with his fear of everything related to flight?


Please, take this movie for what it has to offer: prime entertainment with loads of gags one after the other, and forget about the inaccuracies. People of this author’s generation might not recognize the gags like Mrs. Hammen thinking: “Jim never takes a second cup of coffee at home”, but the fun is still there!

I give this movie 8 out of 10. Surely, you have to see this movie. And yes, I know your name is not Shirley.

Things to notice

Goofs are not considered in this movie, since the movie being a parody, they are intentional. But here are some interesting trivia for Airplane!:

TransAmerican Airlines plane
  • During the opening sequence, the two P.A. announcers have an impromptu argument about an abortion (“Oh really, Vernon! Why pretend?”). It is actually a verbatim excerpt from Arthur Hailey’s novel Airport. The “Don’t Call Me Shirley” DVD version says instead it comes from “a cheap, dime-store novel”, probably for legal reasons.
  • Looks like the producers had a lot of help from TWA. They used one of their Boeing 707s for the ground sequence when the passengers board the aircraft. They used their check-in counters at LAX. No wonder their logos and livery look so much alike!
  • At the newspaper shop, Capt. Oveur is reading a copy of “Modern Sperm” magazine, from the “Whacking material” section.
  • According to Airplane II: The Sequel, the incident happened in March 1984, and it was on a Boeing 767, at a time the real 767 wasn’t flown by the airlines yet.
  • The passengers need a large menu, just to choose between steak and fish!
  • The cabin set is from a DC-9, since it is extremely small and offers a 2-3 seating pattern. You think it’s a middle galley? Look behind and you’ll find the aft lavatories!
  • Charlotte Zucker (David and Jerry’s mother) plays the make-up lady on the plane. You’ll recognize this part when you see it.
  • Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is so tall (7″ 2′) he has to slightly bend over to get inside the cockpit!
  • 1980s technology being what it is, you can sometimes see wires to make Otto, the autopilot, or the human heart, move. Please try not to notice!

The aircraft

It’s a Trans American Airlines “Boeing 767” (!), known simply as “flight 209”, operating the Los Angeles – Chicago route.

Movie links


U.S.A. 1980, Produced by Paramount Pictures. Directed by Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker. Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack. Rated PG. Also known as Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (French), Die Unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug (German).


One thought on “Airplane! (Movie review)”

  1. One of the best, all-time satirical spoofs to make it to the silver screen! The sequel was pretty hilarious as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: