Terror In The Sky (1971)


I know there are thirty-seven people back there. All we have to hope for is that one of them knows how to fly a plane, and…hasn’t had chicken for dinner.”


Director:  Bernard L. Kowalski

Starring:  Doug McClure, Roddy McDowall, Lois Nettleton, Leif Erickson, Kenneth Tobey, Jack Ginn, Leonard Stone, Sam Melville, Loretta Leversee

Screenplay:  Steven Karpf, Elinor Karpf and Dick Nelson, based upon a story by Arthur Hailey



Synopsis:  At Minneapolis Airport, an already much delayed flight to Seattle is held for a few more minutes to allow for the arrival of a final tardy passenger, George Spencer (Doug McClure). On the plane, Emmett Milton (Keenan Wynn), who is in charge of a rowdy and rather drunken group of football fans, irately demands to know how much longer they will have to wait? The stewardess, Janet Turner (Lois Nettleton), does her best to soothe him – and make him sit down – but he is still standing by the door when George bolts across the tarmac and climbs the stairs to the cabin. Milton abuses the latecomer before returning to his seat. George apologises to Janet, who laughs it off, reporting the final arrival to the pilot. Captain Wilson (Kenneth Tobey) tells her to get him strapped in: the weather is closing in and they must take off immediately. George makes his way to his seat as the plane prepares for takeoff. Glancing at his neighbour, George is startled to see him produce a liquor bottle from what is clearly a doctor’s bag. Introducing himself as Dr Ralph Baird (Roddy McDowall), George’s companion confesses to being terrified of flying. He shudders as the engines roar, commenting that he has always believed that they do that so that if anything is wrong, it will go wrong while they’re still on the ground. George laughs, explaining that they do it to make sure they have full power in all four engines. Surprised, Baird asks if George has done some flying himself? George replies that he has, but says nothing more. After takeoff, Janet carries coffee to the cockpit. As she leaves, First Officer Stewart (Sam Melville) makes his interest in her clear. Wilson tells him drily that he’d better be prepared to take on a ready-made family: Janet has two young children, and has recently been forced to return to work because her ex-husband has failed to pay child support. Out in the cabin, the passengers receive their dinners. Having finished serving, Janet returns to the cockpit, telling the pilots they have a choice between lamb chops or chicken pot pie. When Wilson tells Stewart to go ahead, he initially asks for the lamb but then, remembering that he had lamb the day before, changes his order. Later, as Janet is removing the pilots’ trays from the cockpit and most of the passengers are settling down to sleep, one of the women, Mrs McCann (Loretta Leversee), complains of nausea and a headache. Noticing, Baird asks Janet quietly if there is anything he can do, and she gratefully accepts his services. Baird learns that on top of the headache and nausea, the woman is now suffering abdominal pain. Meanwhile, Janet is speaking to two other passengers who have also been taken ill. She reports this to Baird who, after speaking to the men, insists on seeing the pilot. Leaving Stewart in control, Wilson meets with Baird in the galley. The doctor tells him that he suspects food poisoning, and that they should put down at the nearest landing field. Wilson replies that this is impossible: the weather has closed in, and they will have to push on to Seattle, more than three hours’ flying away. Suddenly, the plane plunges violently. As the passengers scream, Wilson and Baird manage to make their way to the cockpit, where Stewart is bent over in pain. Wilson fights to regain control of the plane as Baird helps Stewart from his seat. As he examines the co-pilot, Baird tells Wilson to have Janet bring a pillow, a blanket and the dinner-plan. She does so, and Baird learns that Stewart and the three sick passengers all had the chicken pot pie for dinner. Listening, Wilson turns pale: he, too, had the chicken for dinner…

Comments:  I didn’t mean to do this; I really didn’t. I had quite another film picked out for this Roundtable – another disaster movie, as it happens; but that’s not important now – but in the end the temptation was too much for me. Those few of you who have been paying attention to my various ramblings might remember that quite early in the year I mentioned a film that I intended to review as soon as I received an interlibrary loan to support the job; and that later, I was muttering instead about the world’s slowest interlibrary loan. The film was, of course, Zero Hour!, and the book, Flight Into Danger. February had turned into June before I got my hands on the latter, and July was almost gone before reading, watching and writing had been accomplished…leaving us a mere week short of a Roundtable dealing (predominantly) with Made-For-Television Movies of the 1970s. The lure was too strong: no sooner had I posted Zero Hour! last Sunday evening than I was in front of the television watching Doug McClure, Leif Erickson, Lois Nettleton and Roddy McDowall go through some very familiar paces…and I was hooked all over again.

…and pain in your retinas.

I suppose I should apologise to the rest of you for the overkill. Feel free to move along if you’ve had enough of planes, food poisoning and reluctant heroes; I promise I won’t blame you a bit. But from my own peculiar point of view, I have to confess that the more I thought about this film, the more fascinated with it I became: far too much to just put it aside for another time.

Terror In The Sky is, on its own merits, a typical 70s MFTVM: in other words, unambitious, but quite enjoyable and completely professional. However, its place in the Flight Into Danger / Zero Hour! / Flying High! family tree adds a whole other layer of entertainment value to this otherwise innocuous little film; so much so that there is – as I assure you I am very well aware – a real danger of me completely overselling it. It would therefore behove those not as obsessed as I am with the minutiae of the disaster movie generally and of this particular genealogical branch of it in particular should take everything I say from this point onwards with the appropriate dose of salt.

The first thing to know about Terror In The Sky is that it is a Paramount production. All of the major studios had established television production arms in the 1960s; and while most of them were dedicated to the making of drama series, the overwhelming success of the ABC television network’s Movie Of The Week program drew fierce competition from not just rival networks but from the major movie studios, too. Of course, this sudden need for scripts for movies that could fit into a ninety-minute time-slot gave the movie studios an advantage, at least in terms of speed of production: a great many old screenplays from the 50s and 60s, produced and unproduced, were pressed into service while the TV networks were still busy optioning original works. At Paramount, one of the screenplays brought out of the vault and dusted off was the Hall Bartlett-John Champion penned Zero Hour!

I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating with emphasis: the MFTVM of this era were, at worst, always professional works; the directors, the writers and the actors involved were the kind of solid, reliable types that just don’t seem to have a place in the entertainment industry any more, more’s the pity. As a consequence, a remarkable number of these rapidly-shot, inexpensively produced little movies hold up astonishingly well; and some, indeed, are wonderful and memorable by any standard. Terror In The Sky certainly isn’t amongst the cream of the crop: were it not for the unfair advantage of its accidental cousinship, the film would sit comfortably in the second or third echelon of MFTVMs. It’s not one of those where a mention evokes a gasp of, “Oh, that’s the one where – !!”, or even shuddering memories of childhood nightmares; but it is one that provokes a reminiscent smile. It’s the kind of film you were glad to find playing when you were flicking the dial after midnight, or on a Sunday afternoon, and could always watch again.

Here he comes to save the da-aa-ayyy…

A glance at the credits for Terror In The Sky finds us in secure hands. Director Bernard L. Kowalski had an amazingly long and successful career as a television director – but it is not for that that I personally admire him: along with Terror In The Sky, Kowalksi was behind the camera for Attack Of The Giant Leeches and for Sssssss…both of which I really need to get around to… He also directed another aeroplane-based disaster movie, Flight Into Holocaust, which I haven’t managed to get my hands on yet. (It’s about a plane that flies into a building, which might explain why it’s disappeared from view.)

Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife writing team of Steven and Elinor Karpf were responsible for two of my other favourite MFTVMs, Gargoyles and A Cry In The Wilderness (the latter featuring a skunk-bitten and possibly rabid George Kennedy: what’s not to love?), as well as Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell. Their co-writer, Dick Nelson, another television mainstay, doesn’t have quite the same B-Movie cred, but he did pen yet another airborne disaster movie that has so far eluded me, Mayday At 40,000 Feet! (And again with the exclamation mark.)

And it is here that my admiration for those responsible for Terror In The Sky begins to rise, because the making-over of the story for this film really is a clever piece of work. Fascinatingly, it is very apparent that Nelson and the Karpfs went through exactly the same process here, turning Zero Hour! into Terror In The Sky, as Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers did turning Zero Hour! into Flying High! – only they went the other way. Just like ZAZ, the three of them obviously pounced on every overly melodramatic moment in Zero Hour!, all those scenes that would make us snicker even without the Flying High! connection; but instead of making them even more ridiculous, they defused them. Most, although not all, of the infamous lines are still here, but they’ve been transformed in the writing and direction. Most often, instead of being delivered straight, they’re delivered sarcastically, or nervous-jokily: the sting has been taken out of them.

Now, for some people the removal of the unintentional entertainment value of Terror In The Sky might mean there’s no reason to watch it; but it had the opposite effect on me. Having sat and studied Flight Into Danger and Zero Hour! and Flying High!, the perceptiveness of the rewrite and the judgement shown in the film’s direction inspired me with a real affection for it – and besides, I found that the substitute game of “spot the re-touch” made it, in its own quiet way, almost as amusing as its companion-pieces.

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit chugging booze…”

I mentioned the briskness of Zero Hour!, with its running-time of only eighty-one minutes. Terror In The Sky outdoes even that, being a convenient TV length of just under seventy-five minutes; ninety with ads. It certainly hits the ground running, with this evening’s George Spencer doing a dash through Minneapolis Airport and across the tarmac onto his flight to Seattle.

Now, as a B-Master, I am almost literally surrounded by unabashed Doug McClure groupies; so it is with some sense of shame that I realise that this is the first Doug McClure film I’ve ever reviewed. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that Doug is “the star” of Terror In The Sky, though: the revamped script divides the work evenly amongst its cast of dependable character actors, rather than having “a” star. Indeed, after his introduction, Doug pretty much disappears for the next half an hour, during which time Roddy McDowall dominates the film as Dr Baird; while during the second half of the film, Doug shares screentime with Leif Erickson, this version’s Martin Treleavan. Lois Nettleton, meanwhile, lends support to both plot-threads. Even the credits acknowledge this divvying up of the workload, resorting to listing the actors in alphabetical order.

Back in the cabin, we find a very rowdy crowd of football fans, all of whom have spent the time during which their flight was delayed getting soused to the gills, who are still passing bottles around even now, and who think it’s the height of sophisticated humour to let off air-horns in each other’s ears. Given that the world has just lived through the Vuvuzela Horror, I’m sure that you’ll all join with me in saying – they deserve food poisoning.

In charge of this obnoxious bunch is one Emmett Milton, our Pain In The Neck du jour, played by Keenan Wynn, who tells off George Spencer for his presumption in holding up the flight. It isn’t just George that is to blame for that, though. As the plane begins to taxi, Janet gets on the PA and apologises for the delay, explaining that a mechanical fault in their 737 was responsible for the need to change planes. They are now on a T-400, a four-engine propeller job, rather than a jetliner.

(One of the few subtle jokes in Flying High! is the fact that you can hear a propeller all the way through, even though they’re on a jet.)

There’s never a homicidal orca around when you need one.

As George takes his aisle seat, the pilot revs the engines, sending shudders through George’s new travelling companion, who produces a bottle of hooch from his bag and starts swigging. His eyebrows travelling up his forehead, George’s glance moves from the stencil on the bag – Ralph Baird M.D. – to the bottle. “I thought you were a doctor,” he comments. Unmoved, his companion admits it, and also that his bottle is, “The best cure I know for what ails me”. In other words, he’s terrified of flying. As the engines roar, Dr Baird adds that he always figured that was a bizarre safety check: “If anything’s going to fly off, it will do it while we’re still on the ground.” George laughs, explaining that the routine is to, “Test the mags; the magnetos. They want to make sure they have full power in all four engines.” Dr Baird is somewhat comforted by this, remarking as an afterthought, “You sound like you’ve done some flying yourself.”

“Some,” says George wryly, his tone not encouraging further conversation.

One of the nice things about Terror In The Sky is its casting of Kenneth Tobey as Captain Wilson; it’s always good to see him. There are a number of hints that ZAZ studied this film as well as Zero Hour! when preparing for Flying High! – and didn’t find what they were looking for – and Tobey’s presence in both is one of them. Another nice thing is the fact that most of the dialogue in the film, including those bits we know with hindsight to be “significant”, actually sounds like normal conversation.

This scene is a good example. Stewart is interested in Janet, but doesn’t say so outright; he just manages to make his chat with Wilson keep circling back that way, which in turn allows Wilson, in the guise of offering a friendly warning, to give us Janet’s potted history: divorced, two kids, bum ex. Janet is also interested in Stewart, but she doesn’t say so either. When both pilots are taken ill, though, it is Stewart she silently hovers over. This light sketching is characteristic of the film as a whole, which in its refusal to indulge in Big, Emotional Scenes is almost enough to make you say, “And you call yourself a disaster movie!?”

And speaking of, “And you call yourself a disaster movie!?”, out in the cabin, Janet is discovering that two of the passengers, young women, are deaf and dumb. Now, I’m not well-versed enough (yet) in the pre-Airport disaster movies to know how far the passenger with a disability or a medical condition was already a cliché by 1971; but if it wasn’t one by then, boy oh boy, they sure made up for it afterwards! So we expect the worst when this particular subplot rears its ugly head.

“And you’re sure there are no small boys on this flight?”

And do you know how it works out? It doesn’t. The two women are the first on their feet when the crisis hits, offering to help; and that’s what they do for the rest of the film, look after the sick passengers. Their condition is not schmaltzed up, nor does it increase their danger in any way. In fact, it plays no part at all in the story, but is merely an incidental detail.

I love this film for that.

The next thing we know, Janet is taking dinner orders, and offering a choice between – duh-da-da-daahh! – lamb chops and chicken pot pie. That’s right: they decided to give the poor beleaguered fish a break for once, while still pushing lamb as “the safe alternative”. I dunno: maybe the lamb industry had mob connections; everyone seems mighty afraid of offending in that direction. Anyway, both George and Dr Baird order lamb, of course. Up in the cockpit, Wilson is doing the paperwork and tells Stewart he can have dinner first. Stewart orders the lamb, apparently out of habit, because he then recalls he had lamb for dinner yesterday, and so changes his mind… Back in the cabin, Mr and Mrs McCann are having one of each. Mrs McCann comments on how nice everything looks, and Janet agrees in a relieved tone of voice, explaining that they’d had to try a new caterer.

Later on, as everyone is settling down for the night, Janet is called back to Mrs McCann, who complains of headache and nausea. Janet goes to get her some aspirin, pointing out the dreaded paper bags first, though. (They’re less coy about that aspect of things here than they were in Zero Hour!, but we still don’t see anyone using them.) Baird is just putting his seat back, and through the gap sees what is going on. As Janet passes him, he asks her quietly if he can help. She replies that she doesn’t think it’s serious, but that seeing a doctor might reassure Mrs McCann. Baird has to climb over the sleepy George to get out, by which time Janet is helping two more sick passengers, two of the football crowd, who are inclined to blame their symptoms on their pre-flight booze-up.

The chicken pot pie…of DEATH!!
[Brought to you by the Lamb Council of America.]
[Eat lamb.]

But with Mrs McCann now complaining of abdominal pain – and already sans appendix – and having questioned the two men as well, Baird has far other ideas. He asks Janet to get Wilson for him. The two men meet for a low-toned conversation in the galley, where Baird insists on landing, and Wilson explains that they can’t: that the weather has, “Closed down everything on this side of the mountains”, but that Seattle is still open.

Suddenly, the plane goes into a dive. The passengers scream as they are thrown around. Janet falls over, and is helped up by George. Wilson and Baird hurry as fast as they can to the cockpit, where Stewart is bent over in agony. Wilson regains control of the plane as Baird examines the co-pilot, asking Wilson to summon Janet with the dinner list. He does so, and the problem is soon apparent; all too apparent for Wilson. There’s no silly “afterthought” here: as soon as Baird mentions the chicken, he blenches, and speaks up. Much exchanging of silent wide-eyed looks follows, and—

Cue ad-break.

More passengers get sick, and as Baird and Janet try to cope, our Pain In The Neck decides that this would be a good time to do what he does best. Janet manages to evade him, and it is George who wins everyone’s gratitude by suggesting – forcibly – that Milton sit down and shut up. Baird and Janet are making muttered game-plans in the aisle when Wilson appears in the doorway up ahead, summoning Baird with an expression of embarrassed apology. It turns out that Wilson is feeling very post-emetic. He and Baird have a spat here, with Baird insisting Wilson put the plane down, and Wilson adamant that he can’t, and that Baird has to keep him going. It’s stalemate, of course; although Wilson gets the last word with his reflection that, left on autopilot, they should have enough fuel to travel about 300 miles straight past Seattle…

“Well, then…somebody else just has to land the plane,” offers Baird weakly, prompting a rueful chuckle from his companion. Baird goes to check on his other patients, while Wilson radios Seattle with the glad tidings.

Reasonably Efficient Tom, rockin’ his seventies ‘do.

Terror In The Sky does a terrible thing to me here as we cut to the ground, because although this film has a Harry Burdick, it sure isn’t my Harry Burdick. In fact, that name is given to someone else, the manager of the airline to which the plane belongs, and a right weasel he is, too; but we won’t meet him for some time yet. Here, the airport operations manager is someone we know only as “Tom”, whose hair and tie seem to be locked in a Startling Width contest. With this streamlined version of the story, Tom, while still reasonably efficient, gets much less to do than my Harry Burdick did.

We also get a welcome reminder here that the times, they were thankfully a-changing: while Zero Hour! was completely whitebread, there are both black passengers on the plane, and black employees at the airport. Not many lines between them, but at least it’s a start. Non-Caucasian characters in important roles were notable by their absence in the disaster genre for far too long.

(And what film, at long last, finally redressed that imbalance? Why, Snakes On A Plane, of course…just one of its many, many virtues…)

George helps Baird carry Mrs McCann to the internal luggage bay, in the tail, where a makeshift bed has been put together on the floor. Meanwhile, Wilson finally has to give up his fight. After she and Baird settle him on the floor of the cockpit, Janet starts to panic, insisting that Baird has to give Wilson something to get him up, get better, just long enough, just long enough to land…

A no less panicky Baird bites her head off, snapping that far from getting him up, he’s not even sure he can save him. The two gather themselves for a moment, after which Baird, more in hope than expectation, starts inquiring about other airline employees on board…and then asks whether, maybe, just possibly, Janet…?

She rejects the idea, declaring it ridiculous; but we’re nevertheless left with the notion that she might have taken a crack at it, had things been different. The trouble is, Janet’s used to working 737s; she knows nothing about this particular model of plane. So – no go.

An historic moment in Disaster Movies. Sad to say.

By now, Baird has passed the point of panic and is almost despairingly calm, even seeing the sickly funny side of it, as he starts calculating the odds.

“I know there are thirty-seven people back there. All we have to hope for is that one of them knows how to fly a plane,” he remarks; adding after a moment’s reflection, “And…hasn’t had chicken for dinner.”

All things considered, I think Roddy McDowall’s performance is what I like best about Terror In The Sky. His Dr Baird doesn’t exactly strike us as the world’s greatest doctor, but there’s something reassuring about his lack of assurance, if you know what I mean. But that line— You could not, could not, imagine a greater distance than that which lies between Geoffrey Toone’s pompously melodramatic delivery in Zero Hour!, and Roddy’s rueful, Ah, ya gotta laugh tone here; which means that while we do indeed laugh, for the first time we’re laughing with that line, and not at it.

Finally, Baird and Janet decide on the old, “Can anyone help with the radio?” ploy. Baird gets onto the speaker, and we get an absolutely unforgettable moment, unique to this film, as he asks the passengers to check their bags for medication he could use to help the sick people – namely, antibiotics and barbiturates.

Ah, the early seventies! – when not only could anyone be carrying barbiturates, but they were so commonplace that you could forget whether you were carrying them or not. I’m going to give Baird the benefit of the doubt here, and assume, as with the morphine shot in Zero Hour!, that he wants the drugs to help with the pain and to slow the action of the toxin. All the same, I always get a distinct sense here that while the antibiotics might be for the patients, the barbiturates are for Baird. His attitude, as he envisions seeing what kind of pharmacy we can put together, is just a little too eager. (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit popping pills!”)

That out of the way, Baird then asks, oh so casually, whether anyone has flying experience, and could maybe help with the radio…?

Me land the plane!? Who do you think I am, Karen Black?”

You can almost hear crickets chirping.

Baird and Janet exchange a, Well – that’s that look. Janet goes to sit with the pilots. And then Baird recalls that brief conversation of some hours earlier, and realises that there is someone on board with flying experience…

Baird is mad now, not just scared-mad, but really mad, as he makes his way down the aisle. He doesn’t want anyone to overhear, of course, so he lowers his voice and, barely above a whisper, speaks accusingly into George Spencer’s ear:

You’re a flyer…”

George still isn’t budging, though, protesting that he’s done some flying but that he’s not a flyer; that they don’t need him; that pilots are trained to do double-duty. Baird isn’t having any, first asking George to the cockpit, and then, dropping his voice still more, “Correction: I’m telling you. You are coming with me to that cockpit even if I have to drag you there. Uh-huh. I believe you’re beginning to get the picture,” he adds softly as George’s eyes suddenly open wide in shocked realisation.

This is, I think, my favourite scene in Terror In The Sky, and it’s Roddy’s delivery again that does it, his enunciation getting clearer and clearer as his voice gets lower and lower, and as Baird gets madder and madder…

Left with no choice, George makes his way to the cockpit – giving us something we haven’t seen before: a George Spencer (or Ted Stryker) with an idea of what he’s in for before he sets foot in the cockpit. Just the same, Janet and Baird react as their predecessors did: as soon as they have George where they want him, they put their backs to the door so he can’t get out again.

And as it turns out, perhaps it’s just as well: after one glance around tells him that Wilson is not just sick, but down for the count, George not only starts yelling at the pilot to get up, but tries to drag him to his feet. The ensuing shouting match reveals that George flew helicopters, and in Vietnam – “For eighteen fun-filled months!” – and that he doesn’t believe there’s any point in him even trying to land the plane. More shouting follows, in the course of which Baird sarcastically uses the expression reluctant hero; and George finally capitulates with a despairing cry of, “Jesus!” As he climbs into the pilot’s seat, Baird heads for the cabin. Janet moves to follow him, but George points at the co-pilot’s seat and orders her brusquely to, “Put it there!”, before telling Baird that he does have reasons for his reluctance.

“…but we’ll be fine as long as we have barbiturates; lots and lots of barbiturates…”

“Let’s hope we get the chance to talk about that sometime,” responds Baird; with which, he vanishes for most the remaining running-time, as Roddy McDowall hands the baton to Doug McClure.

It hardly starts well: George has to ask Janet where the radio is. He sends a mayday, and almost collapses in relief when he gets an immediate response. (Another new thing here: a speaker in the ceiling instead of the headsets.) He explains the situation, demanding they get hold of a pilot who knows everything there is to know about a T-400, and who can talk him down; adding that he has mostly flown helicopters, and only a little in planes – and never in multi-engine models.

And down in the airport—oh, ouch, it’s Harry Burdick, a sneaking, snivelling sort. He dithers when asked what pilot could do the job, but finally, most reluctantly, admits there is have one man – a man called Marty Treleavan – who used to behave like the T-400 was his own personal property; clearly the best man for the job; only the company forced him into retirement the year before…


As a round-up squad is sent after Treleavan, up in the air Janet fills in the waiting time helping Baird, leaving George free to have a quiet little breakdown, one that ends with him staring down at his own shaking hands and laughing and crying at the same time.

Treleavan arrives at the airport and, in a nice touch, he still has his pyjamas on under his coat. He’s an older man than his alternatives, and without the post-military attitude; and we soon realise that the writers of Terror In The Sky have (as with the use of the name “George Spencer”) reverted to the Flight Into Danger scenario: Treleavan and George have no history. Treleavan immediately makes his mark by suggesting that they move at once to the tower, to save having to lose time doing it once the plane gets into radar range.

Weaselly Harry Burdick.

He also proves himself either smarter or more self-controlled than his fellows by adopting an attitude both confident and soothing towards George. It’s at least partially an act, as we soon learn, but an effective one. He starts by assuring George that he has spent what he calls a ridiculous amount of time flying T-400s, answering George’s expressed doubts by almost chortling, “Certainly it’s going to work!” Indeed, it is not long before we realise that here we have something else we haven’t seen before: a Martin Treleavan who is, on some level, enjoying the situation; certainly enjoying his former employers having to come crawling; perhaps enjoying being the centre of attention, too.

Treleavan and his pupil do a run through of the instruments, and then Treleavan announces needs a drink of water. Even this short break in contact makes George slightly panicky, but there’s nothing he can do but wait. Down below, Tom suggests that instead of trying to talk George through a standard landing, they pour foam over the runway and let him do a belly-landing instead. Treleavan negates the idea, arguing that in spite of the foam there would be a high risk of fire, and that the sick people wouldn’t be able to get out; and that in any case, a belly-landing needs a skilful pilot who won’t end up, “Smearing himself all over the airport. If Spencer’s gutty enough to try this,” Treleavan concludes, “he deserves the best shot we can give him.”

When Treleavan makes contact again, Janet is back in the co-pilot’s seat and working the radio. We get another slight refinement of the scenario here, as this reluctant hero shows no interest at all in cutting his flying lessons short, but quaveringly suggests that they go over the whole routine again…and maybe again

Finally, though, George has to switch the autopilot off. His first attempts at “steady level flying” are anything but as he struggles to coordinate the altimeter and the throttle. Losing the fight, George lets the plane drop into a dive, as the passengers scream behind him, before pulling it up again as much with willpower as with control.

As Treleavan lectures his pupil about relaxing, back in the cabin good ol’ Pain In The Neck decides it’s the perfect time to storm up front and give the pilot a piece of his mind. Baird sees his intention but is too late to catch him: by the time he gets there, Milton is staring jaw-dropped and incredulous at the scene in the cockpit. Then he starts shaking poor George by the shoulder, choking, “You’re not— You’re not—” Baird hauls him off, shoves him against the wall and gives him the facts of life before pushing him out of the cockpit.

Imminent gruesome death? Ya gotta laugh.

Back in the cabin, a chastened Milton tells the other passengers what’s going on. There are gasps, and some panic, and Baird has to intervene. He fudges the issue somewhat, calling George an “experienced flyer” who has been flying “military aircraft” in Vietnam, before explaining about the radio-coaching and concluding as they always do: if anyone has a better idea…?

Meanwhile, George’s lessons in flying with the flaps and gear down could be going better; so, at least, we judge from the fact that the plane ends up heading nose-first towards the base of a mountain…

And down at ground control, there is silence…

…at least until the other side of the ad-break, where we find the plane in level flight, George struggling to control his shaking hands, and Janet trying to re-tune the radio. She can’t find Seattle again, though. This is Janet’s moment for an emotional scene, or as close as she ever gets, as she thinks about never seeing her children again. She doesn’t collapse, though: instead, she gets angry and teary all at once, essentially telling George that he’d better get the plane down, or else. This, in turn, sets George off, and provokes the revelation of his trauma.

It was Med-Evac choppers that he flew in ’Nam; and one day, taking off with the heaviest load of casualties he’d ever had – “They were stacked three feet deep – tied to the landing-gear!” – his chopper was clipped by a VC shell and dropped. And guess who the one survivor was? – the one person thrown clear…?

A different trauma from Ted Stryker’s, then, one without the same component of personal responsibility; but bringing with it a load of survivor’s guilt no less crippling. And the very last thing in the world that George wants or needs is to be at the controls of a flying machine, with sick and dying people depending on him for their survival…

George’s story brings Janet back to herself; and the two of them, tear-streaked but mostly calm, end up holding hands for comfort and (in a touch I find very psychologically acute) occasionally giggling involuntarily at one another. The emotional venting turns out to have been well-timed as well as beneficial, because the next minute Baird is on the internal phone reporting Mrs McCann’s perilous condition and asking how long it will be until they land?

“Thank you for flying Ellis-Northern…”

“Well, I don’t know,” replies George drily. “Right now that’s kind of a moot point.”

As Baird hangs up, George ponders aloud whether he should have told him the truth – and then laughs wearily again. Turns out there was no particular reason for him to be on the plane in the first place; no particular reason he had to leave Minneapolis, or to go to Seattle; just a feeling it was time to move on…

And then Seattle finds them again. George, by this time, is wrung out like a sponge and tells Treleavan frankly that he’s not up to any dry runs: he just wants to land. Treleavan argues, but George is adamant – “I’ve got the feel of your bus, and it feels like a wagon-load of corpses!” – and finally Treleavan gives in. They start the approach…

Well, we know how it goes from here, right? The lousiest landing in the history of this airport, as Treleavan will later tell George gleefully. And, do you know? – having watched this series of lousy landings, I really think this is the worst; which, given that of all of our reluctant heroes, George knows least about the business, is probably fitting.

There is a lovely moment when George and Janet stagger out into the cabin, and in total silence the passengers stare at them, and George stares back incredulously at this plane-load of people whose lives he’s just saved. (When he sees Baird, his first question is, “Did we lose anyone?) It isn’t until George reaches Emmett Milton that anyone moves or speaks – but with that first movement, the place erupts… Yup: those damned air-horns again.

While on one hand this is the same film all over again, what we tend to notice are the disparities between them. In updating the scenario of Zero Hour! for Terror In The Sky, I’m sure the writers intended simply that, just to bring it up to date; but what they actually did, however inadvertently, was make a film about the generation gap; or rather, about the distance between 1957 and 1971, which in sociological terms was a lot greater than a mere fourteen years. There’s a telling moment when Milton emerges from the cockpit. In letting the other passengers know what’s going on, he describes George as, “The boy in blue jeans.” The much-older Milton, his drunken antics notwithstanding, is wearing a suit and tie, of course – as Ted Stryker did, fourteen years earlier.

Our Heroes celebrate the lousiest landing in the history of the airport.

Of course, George is a lot more than just “a boy”. Vietnam veterans were everywhere in the world of movies in the early seventies; and despite George’s terrors and self-doubts, he’s treated quite kindly here, where apart from his lingering fears, his disaffection shows chiefly in his footlooseness, his inability to find somewhere he can fit in. This is as stark a contrast as it could be with his cinematic contemporaries elsewhere, who were repeatedly being depicted as psychopaths or serial killers – or even devourers of human flesh. At the same time, George’s history definitely provides a focal point for the gap between this film and its model.

Perhaps the place where change makes itself most felt is the later film’s emotionalism: there’s no perceived need here for a stiff upper lip; George makes little effort to hide his terror, and has no qualms about crying in front of Janet. But however inescapable these seeming differences – the difference between suffering in silence and letting it all hang out; between landing a plane in formal dress and in a checked shirt and jeans; between World War II and Vietnam; between—well, between Dana Andrews and Doug McClure – in the end we see that they are only superficialities. The essence of the situation hasn’t changed at all – and neither has the moral. Despite the intervening years and upheaval, both Zero Hour! and Terror In The Sky say exactly the same thing: that when push comes to shove, and worst to worst, human beings will find within themselves the capacity to stand up.

It’s a remarkably comforting lesson.


tvbanner2aThis review is part of DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL!, the B-Masters’ tribute to the made-for-TV movies of the 70s and 80s.

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45 Responses to Terror In The Sky (1971)

  1. RogerBW says:

    Come to think of it, isn’t lamb a fairly unusual food in the USA? (I realise that to an Australian that must seem as strange as it does to this Englishman.) It may well be that a 1950s or 1970s audience would have been likely to think “lamb, that’s a bit weird, I’d have the normal option… oh, no“.

    You’re saying “guy who dies first” isn’t an important role for a non-Caucasian character? Why, you… you… realist!

    “Who do you think I am, Karen Black?” “No, Doris Day.”


    • lyzmadness says:


      Though of course after all the kerfuffle, Karen doesn’t even get to land the plane, which pisses me off no end…but that’s a rant for another time…

      Yes, that point came up when I first posted this: a number of people chipped in that they never ate lamb, and in fact never had done so. It does seem strange from this side of the planet. Strange too that in that case, it would be offered in both films as “the safe alternative”*, given that the choice of meals is about fifty-fifty. (I’m imagining a scenario where everyone on the plane turns their nose up at the lamb…!)

      (*Confirming my theory of the Lamb Council.)


  2. When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, lamb was sometimes around but did seem a bit exotic; it connoted old-fashioned traditionalism and Englishness. Later on it became a food associated with middle-eastern immigrants. (Nowadays, it’s the one meat I don’t dare eat in the presence of my vegetarian SO.)


    • lyzmadness says:

      As opposed to veal??

      Perhaps it’s just something that’s gone out of fashion. Do you import your wool, then, or keep sheep just for that?


      • Sheep do get raised here.

        As for veal, I don’t even want to eat that myself.


      • therevdd says:

        I never had lamb growing up; it just wasn’t something that was popular in my area, I guess. Well, it also turns out my dad’s not big on it, so that would’ve put the kibosh on it anyhow. Only when I finally got to try Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine as an adult did I experience it, and I could say I like it even without worrying the Lamb Council’s going to cat-nap one of the boys again.


    • goddessoftransitory says:

      I didn’t eat lamb regularly until I was an adult by quite a wide stretch of years–maybe the occasional lamb chop. But I do have an utterly scrumptious lamb stew that also contains spinach and feta if anyone’s interested…


    • Dawn says:

      nobody’s talked about lamb in a while, so I thought I’d throw this in.
      In the traditional Navajo culture, mutton is the favorite meat. Mutton stew is the mainstay of the diet (and fry bread). For many years, sheep were the backbone of the Navajo culture (meat and wool – you may have heard of their rugs?)


      • And chilis… the most Scoville units I’ve ever encountered in a taco was in a motel restaurant in Chinle.

        Chilis are important for traditional cuisines in desert climates as they’re the best available source of vitamin C. Same reason sauerkraut is traditionally essential in a northern European winter.


      • lyzmadness says:

        I’m afraid I’m a bit of a chilli wuss (though better than I used to be, after much Thai and Indian food practice), though with my allergies Vitamin C intake is a concern.


      • therevdd says:

        After years of being content with habaneros and similar levels of heat, I graduated up to ghost chilis and Trinidad scorpions last year. I am still alive to tell the tale.

        We have a local burger place which already has the best burgers I’ve found here, and they have one with scorpion relish. My first time eating something that required me to sign a waiver. I then got a free beer for finishing it (and a good local craft beer, not a watery domestic or something). I plan to make that my regular thing there, because delicious spicy burger + free beer = happy Rev.


      • lyzmadness says:

        There’s “spicy”, and then there’s “self-abuse”. 😀

        All over the free beer, tho’…

        Liked by 1 person

      • therevdd says:

        I wouldn’t say it was self-abuse, at least for myself; I’m old enough to know my limitations, and if that’d been too much for me, I wouldn’t have put myself through it. That did happen a couple of times when I was younger, though. Like the time I ate a ball of wasabi on a dare…


  3. goddessoftransitory says:

    No problemo!

    Heads up, you will need a 4-5 quart slow cooker for this recipe.

    Lamb and Spinach Stew

    2 pounds (sorry, don’t know gram equivalent) boneless lamb shoulder, in 1 inch cubes

    1 14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes, in juice

    1/2 cup chopped white or yellow onion

    1 Tablespoon minced garlic

    1/2 teaspoon EACH of Greek herb seasoning blend and salt, pepper

    1 19 ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed

    1 13.75 ounce can or jar artichoke hearts, chopped/cut in half

    3 cups fresh baby spinach

    2 teaspoons lemon zest

    Crumbled feta cheese to top

    Mix lamb, tomatoes in juice, onion, garlic, Greek seasoning, salt and pepper in slow cooker. Cover and cook on LOW 7 to 9 hours, or on HIGH 4-5 hours.

    Mash 1 cup of cannellini beans. stir in mashed beans ,remaining whole beans, artichoke hearts and spinach into cooker. Cover and cook on HIGH for fifteen minutes.

    Stir in lemon zest, sprinkle each serving with feta cheese. NOM NOM NOM


    • lyzmadness says:

      Thanks! – though I shall have to pass on the lemon zest, allergies.

      Hmm, not used to cooking with artichokes but always looking for new / different vegetables.

      (1 pound = 454g, easy to round it up to 500g for mental conversion.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • therevdd says:

        Oooo, that sounds gooooooood. Unfortunately stew is a winter meal to me, so I dunno if I’ll make it anytime soon. Maybe we’ll get a cold, rainy weekend before summer hits. Or maybe I’ll just crank the AC when I make it.

        A food allergy, too!? Sweet lord, hon, is there anything besides your mind that works the way it’s supposed to? 😛

        Liked by 1 person

      • lyzmadness says:

        Not a thing, no. As for my mind, hmm…

        I have a spectacular range of allergies, alas. Which is why, although I’d like to go vegetarian, I really can’t: my diet’s so restricted already that I can’t afford to cut anything else out of it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • therevdd says:

        You’re right about your mind; it actually works better than it’s supposed to, as can be seen in your writing. 😉

        My brother-in-law is like that; it’s mainly various vegetables he’s allergic to. I remember finding out how many allergies he had, then asking my sister, “Do you WANT your kids to live in plastic bubbles eating broth and celery?”


      • lyzmadness says:


        Say hi to your brother-in-law for me: I can’t eat any fruit. I try to fill the gap with EVEN MORE VEGETABLES but it often doesn’t work (particularly not for breakfast) and I end up falling back on too many carbs, which creates a different set of problems.

        Broth and celery…yes, indeed… That’s one of my stand-bys.


      • therevdd says:

        No fruit at all, huh? Is it something in the sugars? (Forgive my curiosity; I’ve known someone with citrus allergies, but not fruit in general.) If I had to, I’d take yours over his; I tend to eat more vegetables than fruit. I would very much miss pie, though.

        “Hey, John, a lady scientist in Australia who writes great movie reviews online says she feels your pain regarding the multiple allergy thing. Oh, and she says hi.” 🙂


      • lyzmadness says:

        Citrus is by far the worst but almost everything makes me sick to some degree. It makes dining out a royal pain—a garnish here, a squeeze of lemon juice there…

        Hi, John! 🙂


      • aetrekkie9 says:

        I adore Lamb Chops, but they are really expensive, so usually just on my Mother’s Birthday, March 20th. Regarding those allergies – one of my ex-girlfriends was allergic to virtually every citrus fruit and most veggies. We mostly went out for burgers, once for Indian. Since she didn’t partake of alcohol either, it was actually fairly inexpensive to enjoy a nice meal out, or I’d cook TexMex for her.


      • lyzmadness says:

        Interesting to hear about all my fellow allergics, poor things! – it gets very lonely sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • aetrekkie9 says:

        I can imagine. This GF was afraid I’d make fun of her, but we did fine. I think she was on a ton of meds and supplements, but we’d go out for gourmet hamburgers or similar and have a good time.


      • therevdd says:

        Trying to remember what Megadillo was going to fight and where I’d written it, I wandered into this thread and found this recipe I’d forgotten about. We actually got some snow today, so this is prime stew season and I’m making this ASAP. (Did you ever do so, Lyz?)

        Oddly enough, I had lamb chops last week.


      • lyzmadness says:

        I haven’t yet, though every now and then I re-check the recipe (and will make it one day!).


  4. Some years ago on a message board, I had a conversation about the diminished popularity of lamb in the US (completely unrelated to any version of this film). Before and up to WWII, mutton was a cheap staple meat and people got sick of it–see, for example, the 1930s film “Stage Door” in which Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden are young actresses living in a boarding house and complain constantly about getting lamb stew for dinner every night. Nowadays, you rarely see it outside of curries. Hence the untiring efforts of the Lamb Council to put it back on American tables. 🙂


    • lyzmadness says:

      While we appreciate the Lamb Council’s point of view, poisoning alternative food sources is a bit much! 😀

      (Not to mention kidnapping people’s cats!!)

      It seems to have the opposite problem these days, where rather than a cheap, boring staple, it’s perceived as too “exotic”.


      • therevdd says:

        I’m touched that you remember that. I think the cat’s touched as well, but it’s hard to tell because, well, cat.


      • lyzmadness says:

        Of course I remembered!! And if you’re telling me you can’t ‘read’ your cat, well, tsk!


      • therevdd says:

        Lyz “tsk”ed me. 😦

        In my defense, he was dozing off when I typed that; cats are fairly inscrutable as it is (compared to, say, dogs), much more so on their back with one eye barely cracked open. Most times, he’s actually quite easy to read, since he’s basically a dog in cat’s clothing. The younger one is much more catlike, prone to classic cat-isms (cat-echisms? cat-aclysms? cat-atstrophes?) like “Thanks for petting me, time to scratch you” and “Let’s see if I can finally trip you while you’re half-awake and carrying coffee” and “My litter box isn’t spic and span, so I’m crapping on the floor right next to it.”


      • lyzmadness says:

        We’re familiar with it. 🙂

        Interesting that you say ‘younger’, though: when my girl was younger she was a textbook cat-aclysm, but these days she’s lost most of her bad habits and turned into the world’s clingiest cuddlebug. (She still trips me, but WITH LOVE.)


      • therevdd says:

        That’s the best way to differentiate them in writing; he’s by no means a kitten at this point, but he’s about three years younger than the other one and very much a traditional cat. The older one is the biggest cuddle-bug/attention-seeker I’ve seen by far in a cat.


      • lyzmadness says:

        My girl morphed from Behaviour 1 to Behaviour 2 over the past couple of years. Some days she’s so clingy-affectionate that she drives me crazy. 🙂


  5. Grokenstein says:

    Sorry to break the lamb discussion, but…big fan of Bernard Kowalski myself (though THIS is the one I haven’t seen yet) and a fan of Flight to Holocaust, as ding-dong-daffy as it may be.

    Short version: Malfunctioning twin-engine puddle-jumper carrying Desi Arnez Jr., Sid Caesar, and Paul Williams plows into a skyscraper in L.A.’s night fog. Desi’s buddies who served with him as chopper medics in ‘Nam–Patrick Wayne and Chris Mitchum–have teamed up with an ex-circus acrobat as risk-junkie rescuers-for-hire, and are called in to extract the survivors from the fuselage lodged in the building’s face, twenty stories up.

    Greg Morris from Mission: Impossible plays the family doc who guides Desi through a remote tracheotomy. Paul Williams also provides the score and theme song for the failed TV series pilot. I’ve actually got the thing on turned-beet-red 16mm that I’d like to see if I can get a lab to restore or salvage, seeing as the prospects of DVD or Blu-Ray are…slim. Also have a meh rip of the UK VHS if you’d like to see it, Lyz.


    • lyzmadness says:

      Never apologise for getting thing back on track; conversations here do tend to go a bit wonky. 😀

      Thanks for the information – it has me salivating! (The plot sounds like a set-up for a joke – Desi Arnez Jr., Sid Caesar, and Paul Williams walk into a bar – but I guess the plots of most disaster movies have an aspect of that!) Thanks also for the offer, which I will keep in mind. I still have a lot of these films to accumulate.


  6. White Rabbit says:

    According to legend, lamb was once served to the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets in their mess hall. Every single portion came back untouched.


    • lyzmadness says:

      “Don’t bring lamb to a cow college”??


      • Dawn says:

        In the Old West, the rivalry between sheep men and cattle men was of long standing. Was there anything like that in the olden days in Australia? (Not that I’m implying you’d have first-hand knowledge)


      • lyzmadness says:


        Yes, I know about that (we watch a lot of westerns!), although I wasn’t aware it extended to rejecting your dinner as a consequence! We were always more a sheep nation (hence the expression, “Riding on the sheep’s back), but I’m not aware of any particular rivalry with our cattle ranchers. I think we had more of a geographical divide, though, with the sheep in the southern states and the cattle (or at least beef cattle) in the north.


  7. Ed the librarian says:

    Hello! The actress that played Ellen, the deaf girl using sign language next to Loretta Leversee, is the late actress Patricia Mattick. In that same year she appeared in several tv shows- Columbo, Mannix, Longstreet, Ironside and she had a small part in the film The Beguiled, as Janie. She did a fine job- so different without glasses. Gone too soon, RIP.


    • Anthony Ochoa says:

      This message coming to me just now is so ironic! I am one of the only, last poor souls, that is offering “TERROR IN THE SKY” on standard DVD on eBay. I figured, since it’s probably pretty much in the public domain by now, making as best of a one-to-one DVD transfer, from a fairly good VHS original recording off of “The Mystery Channel”, and offereing it up on eBay for a down-dirt-cheap-price, ya can’t go wrong. I had it up on eBay for the last four years or so; I’m taking a break from offering it right now…will more than likely start it up again in 2023. The oddest thing, just recently I sold a DVD transfer to a man on eBay, who literally asked me in an eBay message box, “Hi! Just bought a copy of the 1971 TV movie “Terror in the Sky” it features the late actress Pattye Mattick in a minor role- if you have any other items (DVDs, books, etc) that feature her- I’ll buy it.” [END] Then, about three months later, I get a notification about this thread! Well, I guess this little gem of a made-for-television film, lives on in the hearts of many…as does the late actress Patricia Mattick…to whom of which, I did not know, that she had passed on…seemingly, at a young age. – Anthony O.


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