Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (1976)

Mayday! Mayday! Flight engineer Mike Fuller keeps striking out with the new stew! Experiencing a great deal of cock blocking by retiring mother hen stew! Preparing to make several more passes with good old boy charm to avoid crashing into a lonely night of drinking a the hotel bar!

Were this the only problem on Transcon Flight 602, it might give you pause about ever fly again. If the ex-football playing stud can’t even nab some 70s air hostess tail, what hope does any guy have?

But stow that rocket in your pocket, Fuller! That upright position your forced to handle all by yourself is the least of problems currently facing surly Captain Pete Douglass! First of all, his wife is across the country in a hospital room about to undergo surgery to find out if she has the big C!

Captain Pete speaks for all us air jockeys with a little woman waiting for us back at the hangar when he says that he loves two things in this world – flying and his wife. And if something ever happened to his wife, flying wouldn’t be enough!

So he’s going to push through the biggest snowstorm seen in North America since people were riding Wooly Mammoths and he’s going to be completely distracted while doing it! But really, is there any difference between flying at 25,000 feet in clear skies or 35,000 feet with the wiper blades on when you’re trying to remember how good of health insurance your wife has through Transcon?

While Captain Pete is a legend in the air, co-pilot Stan Burkhart is a relative unknown! Does he have what it takes if something were to happen to Captain Pete during the flight? We already know that he’s a pro with the ladies because he hooked up with old flame Susan just before take off and convinced her to take his flight back to New York and asked her to marry him once they were flying!

But who’s flying the plane if Captain Pete is curled up in the fetal position whimpering about whether a tumor is benign or not and with Co-Pilot Stan picking out floral arrangements with his fiancée of five minutes back in coach? That’s what autopilot was invented for dummy!

And if having to fend off Flight Engineer’s Mike clumsy attempts at sexually harassing them isn’t bad enough, the stewardesses have to contain with one of their own being so green, she can’t handle the rigors of serving alcohol to passengers, providing first aid to the injured or making announcements about how the plane is about to crash.

There’s no time to nursemaid some nubile noob though because as soon as Marjoe Gortner was brought aboard by a federal marshal in hand cuffs, you knew that not only were some passengers and crew going to be shot, but that the planes hydraulics were going to be pumped full of lead as well! The hydraulics go out on these air disaster movies go out so often, you wonder why the hydraulics manufacturers don’t sue for defamation!

Mayday at 40,000 Feet! ‘s flight plan is an obviously routine one as far as films inspired by the success of Airport goes. A bevy of familiar names and faces of varying quality have been rounded up (The Fugitive‘s David Janssen, Gortner, Christoper George of City of the Living Dead, his real life wife Lynda Day George, Don Meredith, Ray Milland, Jane Powell, and even a fleeting glimpse of Broderick Crawford) and given personal dramas that act as background to some in-flight disaster.

The film takes its time to build up to the in-flight crisis, the first half devoted to establishing Captain Pete’s wife medical issues, that Gortner’s prisoner is a scum who will attempt escape at every opportunity, that the marshal is at risk of a heart attack and Co-Pliot Stan’s romancing of his ex. Surprisingly, none of it comes off as silly and contrived as it does in Airport ’77 or especially in The Concorde… Airport ’79. Only Ray Milland’s depressed doctor feels like a character created solely to inhabit the flight.

And while Meredith’s womanizing character is terrifically annoying the first half of the film (like Erik Estrada’s similar one was in Airport 1975), by the end of the movie when he was the only one keeping his wits about him (Captain Pete was shot and Co-Pilot Stan was distraught over his girlfriend also getting shot leaving Fuller to deal with the wounded and the prisoner), you don’t hate him nearly as much as you probably should.

Mayday at 40,000 Feet! is one of those generically titled TV movies full of people you’ve sort of heard of that you expect almost nothing from, but the cast does a nice job though it feels like a missed opportunity that Gortner’s villain is not given more to do than look wild-eyed after his initial escape attempt on the plane.

Director Robert Butler (The Secret of Boyne Castle) does a great job with pacing the various developments (the need to work in some suspense prior to commercial breaks may have helped keep the film on task) and making the most of what he had to work with, expertly weaving shots of the interior of the cabin with exterior shots of the plane and the airport preparing for the emergency landing. Surpassing the low expectations any sane viewer would have for a 1970s made for TV knock off, Mayday at 40,000 Feet! nimbly flies circles around its often goofy and frequently leaden bigger budgeted, star-studded cinematic cousins.

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