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When Concorde did a barrel roll: A history of the Airport films

As you social distance at home, remember that the '70s era was the golden age of the blockbuster disaster flick, and the Airport movies were the best of them all.

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Karen Black, as flight attendant Nancy Pryor, flies the plane and chews the scenery in Airport 1975.

Getty Images

The 1970s get a lot of flack. Some of it's deserved -- things like bell bottoms, men's perms and crippling events like the oil crisis and Britain's Winter of Discontent don't look great in the rearview mirror. But it also was a glorious decade for several reasons: Disco wasn't dead (yes, I mean that), the Boeing 747 entered service, Star Wars premiered, and the disaster film genre had its golden age. Movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Black Sunday (that's about terrorists trying to blow up the Goodyear Blimp over the Super Bowl) reached the highest levels of cinematic camp, which is exactly what made them so great. Overacting, melodrama and improbable situations were hallmarks, as an "all-star cast" struggled to avoid death (some unsuccessfully) while falling in love, arguing and succumbing to other human foibles.

As a kid, I was instantly hooked, and I'm still hooked today. Earthquake remains a top choice (I grew up in LA), but the Airport series rules the genre, hands down. Each had an airplane and George Kennedy, and they only got more spectacularly unbelievable as the series went on. Even better, they were brilliantly spoofed in my favorite film of all time, Airplane!, which was an almost shot-by-shot remake of the 1957 disaster flick, Zero Hour!

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From left to right, Otto the autopilot, Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays save the day in Airplane!

Paramount Pictures

If you're never watched the Airport series, I urge you to use this extended time at home wisely. To help you get started, here's a handy guide. There are abundant spoilers, but don't worry. For most of these films, plot is really just an afterthought.

Airport

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Universal Pictures

Plot: The most sober and believable of the series, Airport (1970) also was the touchstone for the decade's disaster films that came later. We start in Chicago, where a blizzard is invoking Murphy's Law at "Lincoln International Airport." As he struggles with a deteriorating marriage, airport manager Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) is faced with a stuck airplane blocking a runway, nearby residents complaining about jet noise, and a wacky old lady (Helen Hayes) trying to stow away on a flight to Rome.

Meanwhile, a construction demolitions expert (convenient!) who's lately been having a hard go of it, boards the same flight to Rome intending to blow it up with a suitcase bomb so his unknowing wife can collect life insurance. And if that wasn't enough drama, the flight's captain (Dean Martin) is married, but also sleeping with the chief flight attendant (Jacqueline Bisset) who's pregnant with his child.

After takeoff, everyone on the flight realizes the danger, but they're unable to prevent the bomb from exploding. Though the bomber is sucked out to his death, the captain is able to land the plane intact, saving everyone else on board. Of course, that's only after the disabled plane on the runway is towed out of the way just in time.

Believability rating: High, if you buy the part about a Boeing 707 landing safely after a bomb blows a hole in its side.

An all-star cast? Besides the above, you also get Gary Collins, Maureen Stapleton, Van Heflin and Barbara Hale.

George Kennedy's role? A mechanic called Joe Patroni who maneuvers the stuck airliner off the runway so the damaged Rome flight can land.

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Helen Hayes pretty much stole the show in the original Airport.

Getty Images

Trivia

  • Though based on Arthur Hailey's book of the same name -- Hailey also wrote the screenplay for Zero Hour! -- the plot also resembles a real-life event. After a Continental Airlines 707 crashed in Missouri in 1962, investigators determined that a passenger had intentionally exploded a bomb after purchasing a large life insurance policy.
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul's airport stood in for the fictional Lincoln airport, which stood in for O'Hare International Airport.

After the film

  • Much of the bombing sequence would be parodied in 1982's Airplane II: The Sequel when Sonny Bono played a suicide bomber. That sequel had its moments, but Airplane! is far superior.
  • Hayes would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her canny-ditsy character. Four years later, she'd play another kind but forgetful old lady in Herbie Rides Again.
  • The 707 aircraft used during the production would go on to crash in 1989 while in service with the airline Transbrasil.
  • Just a theory, but perhaps perpetual stowaway Marilyn Hartman's story was just life imitating art.

Airport 1975

Plot: Here's where things get a little crazier. A Columbia Airlines Boeing 747 is flying from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles with Hollywood royalty on board, including Gloria Swanson, who plays herself. Due to bad weather in Los Angeles, the flight is diverted to Salt Lake City -- when disaster strikes.

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Universal Pictures

The pilot of a small private plane flying nearby suffers a heart attack, which causes him to collide with the 747, ripping a large hole in the cockpit. With the flight crew killed or gravely injured, a flight attendant (a deliciously melodramatic Karen Black) takes the controls and prevents the plane from flying into a mountain.

That's all well and good, but everyone soon realizes that flying lessons over the radio will get them only so far. A safe landing comes only after Charlton Heston, the airline's chief pilot and Black's estranged boyfriend, is lowered into the cockpit in midair from a helicopter.

Believability rating: Low to medium.

An all-star cast? Oh my, yes! Not just Swanson, but also Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Sharon Gless, Sid Caesar, Erik Estrada, Linda Blair and Helen Reddy (she is woman, hear her roar). If only Joan Crawford had accepted a bit part.

George Kennedy's role? Still Joe Patroni, but now he's Columbia's vice president of operations.

Trivia

  • This was Swanson's last film appearance.
  • Heston and Kennedy finished filming Earthquake days before production on Airport 1975 started.
  • The actor who played the heart attack-victim pilot, Dana Andrews, was the original Ted Striker in Zero Hour!

After the film

Airport '77

Plot: Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is a nice rich guy who owns a private 747 outfitted with a bar, bedrooms and a posh lounge with a piano. He's flying his daughter (Pamela Bellwood), grandson and some pals down to his weekend house in Palm Beach, Florida. Sounds fun, right? Well, not so much.

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Universal Pictures

Also aboard is his collection of priceless art, which a few nefarious members of the crew are keen to steal. They knock out the passengers with sleeping gas and the evil co-pilot (Robert Foxworth) flies the plane low out of radar range smack in the middle of The Bermuda Triangle. Because where else?

The plan is to land the plane on a remote island, take the art and disappear. But trouble comes when the 747's wing collides with an oil platform in the middle of a fog bank. Foxworth is able to ditch in the ocean, but before the passengers can evacuate, the plane sinks to the seabed not far below the water's surface. Things look bad, but eventually most on board are saved when the US Navy raises the 747 momentarily, using several large balloons.

Believability rating: Low, though the closing credits tell viewers that the Navy rescue capabilities depicted on-screen are real.

An all-star cast? Like you need to ask. Watch for Christopher Lee, Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, Jack Lemmon and for you fans of The Golden Girls, Monte Markham (Blanche's gay brother) and Brenda Vaccaro (Dorothy's sister-in-law, Angela).

George Kennedy's role? Our friend Joe now works for Stewart's company, managing his aircraft fleet.

Trivia

  • Joan Crawford was again offered a role, but she declined. She died the same year, leaving poor Christina Crawford out of her will.
  • It was the only movie in the series where an aircraft used in the production was not later involved in a crash.
  • The video game Pong and an early laser-disc player both make appearances.

After the film

  • Even camp can be respectable. The film received two Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
  • Director Jerry Jameson had a thing for raising sunken transport. He also directed the spectacularly bad Raise the Titanic, released in 1980.

The Concorde... Airport '79

Plot: LOL. OK, try to stay with me. Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) is a wealthy industrialist with a dark secret: He's selling arms to communist countries during the Cold War. His girlfriend is Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), a tough-as-nails TV journalist who's about to fly to Moscow on a Concorde to cover the 1980 Olympics. At the controls are Joe Patroni, (yes, him) and actual French guy Paul Metrand (Alain Delon). Naturally, Paul is also involved with one of the flight attendants (oh la la!).

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Universal Pictures

Just before she boards the flight, Maggie learns of Kevin's secret and vows to report the truth. To stop her, he first tries to shoot down the flight with one of his company's totally realistic drones. When that fails, he hires a fighter jet (from Avis, I assume) to do the job with heat-seeking missiles. That also fails after Joe and Paul pull a few barrel rolls and distract the missile by firing a flare gun out the window at supersonic speed. Yes, you read that correctly.

When the Concorde lands safely in Paris, all seems well. But for the next flight to Moscow, one of Kevin's henchmen programs the baggage hold door to open midflight, which should cause the plane to explosively depressurize and crash. The door does open after takeoff and the fuselage almost ruptures, but Joe and Paul manage to land on a snowfield in the middle of the Alps. The passengers live, Kevin shoots himself while watching the whole thing on TV, and Maggie goes on to present her story.

Believability rating: You're kidding, right?

An all-star cast? Cuchi Cuchi! There's Charo for starters, but also Cicely Tyson, Jimmie Walker, John Davidson, Eddie Albert and Martha Raye. Harry Shearer also lends his voice as an announcer. Oh, and did I mention Charo? She needed something to do when she wasn't a Love Boat guest star.

George Kennedy's role? He's finally a pilot! But frankly, knowing his record thus far, I wouldn't go anywhere near that plane.

Trivia

  • An early scene (skip to 1:45) references the public outcry against Concorde flights in the United States over noise and environmental concerns when the aircraft started commercial service in 1976.
  • The film does its best to show the then-futuristic design of Washington Dulles and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports. The scene (keep watching the video I linked to above) when police pursue a bad guy across de Gaulle's runways is a highlight.

After the film

  • The Concorde used in the film was the same Air France Concorde that crashed after takeoff from Paris in 2000.
  • Despite the detente depicted on-screen, the United States would go on to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.