SST: Death Flight (1977)

“Ladies and gentlemen. If I may have your attention please. At this time we will begin boarding the SST Death Flight at Gate 32b. Thank you for flying whatever fake airline was created for this TV movie disaster.”

If it’s one thing I’ve learned from my background in aviation (I flew to Africa once and watched every Airport movie including International Airport), it’s that you don’t want to be a beta tester for the latest and greatest passenger jet. As if taking their cue from the greatest of all ill-fated maiden voyages, the Titanic, these new planes attract all manner of unexpected drama. There’s the time that art thieves accidentally crashed a new plane into the Bermuda Triangle in Airport ’77. And Robert Wagner literally killed himself trying to bring the Concorde down in The Concorde… Airport ’79  by shooting missiles at it, hiring a fighter jet to shoot it down and finally just hiring a guy to sabotage the cargo bay doors.

But while SST: Death Flight got its name because it sounded a like a sure thing for ABC’s Friday night movie which a catastrophe hungry mid ’70s television audience would have no choice but to gorge themselves on, it also lived up to its title! There were such luminaries as Bert Convy’s slimy womanizing PR guy, Regis Philbin’s obnoxious TV reporter and Martin Milner’s washed up jock loitering around the airport! This flight was already killing me and it hadn’t even taken off yet!

But this Death Flight is so overbooked with 1970s awesome, it doesn’t even bother to take Regis! But really, how could it when Robert Reed, Gilligan’s Island‘s Tina Louise, Peter Graves, and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s John DeLancie are already aboard with their own personal problems to sort out! Then there’s Lorne Greene, Burgess Meredith and Doug McClure as the three guys doing everything they can to save the plane on the ground and in the air! And isn’t that Billy Crystal and Quincy‘s Robert Ito also on the plane’s crew? Crud, it’s like some kind of Battle of the Network Stars, but on a plane that’s going to crash! Unless everyone dies of the flu first!

Crashing and a biohazard? It’s like all those other airplane movies were just cruising at 20,000 feet with their relatively tame crash-only storylines, while SST: Death Flight is at 40,000 feet and breaking Mach One Zillion when an explosion on the plane releases Senegal flu all over and then every wimpy airport in Europe refuses to let them land for fear of causing an outbreak!

Finally, London agrees to let them land, but it’s not clear that they’ll have a proper quarantine set up, prompting the ex-jock to take a vote of the passengers on where to land! London and risk killing thousands? Or try for Senegal where the flu originated and they are set up to handle it? He was a former professional football player who scored four touchdowns one Sunday, so I was immediately swayed by his argument to do the right thing and take a chance on Senegal as were the majority of passengers.

How they got into such a crazy situation is necessarily a bit of a convoluted mess. A disgruntled mechanic sabotaged the hydraulics with corrosive detergent in hopes of making the plane turn around and causing the flight to be a failure so that no one would buy the plane. But he failed to count on the stubbornness of Reed’s Captain Walsh, who just wouldn’t turn the freaking plane around, no matter how sweaty and deranged the mechanic was!

The hydraulics finally go out making it too late to turn the plane back, prompting an effort to reconnect things and bypass other things which resulted in all sorts of stuff blowing up, including the cooler container the flu virus! Following an ingenious plan (unless you’d been hitting the beverage cart a lot) to shut down the bathrooms and divert all the toilet water to the hydraulics to get some pressure, things are brought under control enough for everyone to start catching the flu instantly!

Director David Lowell Rich also made The Concorde… Aiport ’79 and in many ways, this TV movie feels like a dry run for that later theatrical film all the up to the crash-landing of the plane in the wilderness. But while The Concorde… Aiport ’79 was so outlandish I wasn’t sure if it was trying to be funny on purpose or not, SST: Death Flight was a more serious effort that didn’t have nearly the laugh out loud moments you would expect. (Especially from a movie that had Bert Convy groping a topless woman in a feeble attempt to join the 12 mile high club!)

The passengers had problems of varying degrees of drama (a May-December romance lost and rekindled, an ex-pilot having to work with the pilot who cost him his license, the ex-pilot trying to reconnect with his former stewardess lover, the ex-jock trying to find meaning after his playing days are over, the rehashing of the unwanted pregnancy angle from way back in the original Airport), but nothing as pointlessly stupid as the passenger with the bladder problem or the mere presence of Charo and Jimmie Walker in The Concorde… Airport ’79.

Doug McClure and Robert Reed, ably supported by Burgess Meredith easily outpaced the leads in The Concorde… Airport ’79 as well, handling things with a grim seriousness that George Kennedy and Robert Wagner didn’t. (With George opening the cockpit window in-flight to shoot a flare gun at a missile, how serious could anyone take it?)

SST: Death Flight though will leave you air sick with how awful every shot of the plane flying is. Watching these lame low tech shots, you wouldn’t know whether the film was shot in 1976 or 1936. The budget also didn’t allow for showing what is arguably the film’s climax, the crash in Senegal, cutting to black and then to a shot of strategically spread out plane rubble on the ground. Still, in keeping with the no-nonsense handling of things, plenty of people died (they even showed several rows of covered victims at the crash site!), though I’m not sure how anyone survived a crash that obliterated the plane like that.

If you’re coming to SST: Death Flight for some period kitsch and to laugh at a lame TV movie, you’ll likely be disappointed once the plane actually takes off and Regis Philbin disappears. If the cast sounds appealing though, fans of the 1970s air disaster genre won’t be let down. (Keeping in mind that the standard for these sorts of efforts are admittedly well below flight safety minimums in almost all cases.)

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