Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land
(re-released on video as Starflight One
) is a 1983 television movie
A television film is a feature film that is a television program produced for and originally distributed by a television network, in contrast to...
starring Lee Majors
Lee Majors is an American television, film and voice actor, best known for his starring role as Colonel Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man and as Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy ....
and Hal Linden
Hal Linden is an American stage and television actor and television director, best known for his role in the television comedy series Barney Miller and as presenter on the ABC educational series Animals, Animals, Animals....
. The first hypersonic transport is leaving for its inaugural flight from Los Angeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...
to Sydney, Australia, a two-hour flight through the stratosphere
The stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere, just above the troposphere, and below the mesosphere. It is stratified in temperature, with warmer layers higher up and cooler layers farther down. This is in contrast to the troposphere near the Earth's surface, which is cooler...
Starflight is being prepared for a media-covered inaugural hypersonic flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, a two-hour flight. The passengers bring some of their problems on board—the pilot, Cody Briggs (Majors), is unfaithful to his wife Janet (Tess Harper) and having an affair with the media relations representative for Thornwall Aviation, Erica Hansen (Lauren Hutton); Hal Parisi married another passenger because she won the trip on TV, but he’s only interested in getting his stolen gold out of the country. Freddie Barrett (Terry Kiser
Terry Kiser is an American actor, best known for his portrayal of the dead title-character in the comedy Weekend at Bernie's, and its sequel, Weekend at Bernie's II....
) is trying to get his communications satellite launched from Australia to start his business carrying television signals. Starflight’s take-off is delayed a short time so that the deceased Australian ambassador and his wife, Mrs. Winfield, can be taken aboard—Del (first officer) remembers that nothing good happened the last time a corpse came aboard his plane. Finally, Josh Gilliam, the designer (Hal Linden), has misgivings, wishing the engines were under ground control.
Freddie is told by his Aussie partner Bud Culver (Redmond Gleeson) that they can’t launch because weather is closing in; they can’t launch earlier because NASA hasn’t cleared airspace due to Starflight’s passage through it. Freddie tells Bud to launch before the weather closes them in, and never mind about NASA. If they don’t launch that day, they will lose their contracts.
The plane takes off, and so does Freddie’s rocket, and climbs to some 23 miles above the ground using its scramjet
A scramjet is a variant of a ramjet airbreathing jet engine in which combustion takes place in supersonic airflow...
engines, then levels off. Meanwhile, the rocket is having trouble with the second stage, and has to be destroyed. NASA had already detected the rising rocket, causing a problem for Starflight due to an incorrect course. When it’s destroyed, it produces a million pieces of debris headed at Starflight.
Thornwall okays Cody letting NASA guide them; NASA’s Chris Lucas recommends they climb, so Starflight engages its scramjet engines again. The rocket debris starts coming at them. One chunk hits the underside of the plane. When NASA says they’re clear, Cody orders the jets shut off, but they keep firing: the collision severed the control cables. Now, they must wait until the hydrogen fuel runs out, but the timing is too close: they risk accelerating out of the atmosphere and into orbit; Gilliam was concerned that if there’s a flaw in the plane’s structure, it would break up.
The fuel runs out just as they clear the atmosphere and reach orbital velocity, and now Starflight is stuck in orbit. NASA believes their orbit is good for 48–60 hours, and they need to conserve power and other consumables. The space shuttle Columbia is sent up to try to help; it brings a supply of hydrogen to refuel Starflight, and an airlock is brought up with the intent to try and bring Josh Gilliam back to Earth to work on the problem. Pete, the flight engineer (Michael Sacks), suggests they need to test the airlock transfer, but the airlock hatch won’t close and it breaks free, sending Pete into the void. Cody is inspired by a reference in an idle, frustrated exchange with his mistress Erica, and sends Josh to Columbia inside the coffin of the ambassador. Columbia returns to Earth, landing at Thornwall’s airfield (which had been upgraded for shuttle use) to be processed at Thornwall (which spent $93 million to build it, only to lose the contract to Culver Aviation due to industrial espionage).
Josh goes to work on the problem, and discovers Thornwall’s universal docking tunnel, a flexible conduit that could be attached between Starflight and Columbia. Meanwhile, the stolen gold, busted out of its container as the plane topped the atmosphere, is forcing its way out of a damaged seal; Hal betrays his intentions to his bride, who reports it to the captain through Erica.
Columbia and six astronauts arrive with the tunnel, intending to rescue 20 passengers (26 people landing in the shuttle!), and five passengers, including Hal, are successfully brought through; the next five (including Freddie Barrett) of a total of twenty, however, are lost when the tunnel burns up in space; the rippling tunnel swung close to a sparking electric line on Starflight’s damaged underside.
This leaves 47 aboard, five dead (plus one astronaut), and six rescued. When Columbia lands, Hal Parisi is arrested. Josh is frustrated, thinking he can’t bring them down. He tells his wife Nancy (Gail Strickland) he’d need a bus to bring them home; she says, get them a bus. He remembers a tank built by Culver Aviation, and hurries to propose using it. Q.T. Thornwall (Ray Milland) won’t hear of it, because of how Culver cost Thornwall money, but Q.T.’s son Martin stands up to his father and insists that Culver’s container is the only way. Columbia launches a third time, with the container, and takes 38 more of the passengers, leaving only nine aboard Starflight.
Cody sends Joe Pedowski (Pat Corley), the electrical engineer for Thornwall who worked on Starflight, outside in a space suit to repair the wiring, because Cody hopes to skip the plane into the atmosphere. Josh is trying to come up with a solution, then hits upon the way: a shuttle could drop into the atmosphere ahead of Starflight, with Starflight riding the plough-wave; the wingtips would burn a little.
Columbia can’t make another jump in time, but another shuttle, XU-5 (afterward, in communications, referred to alternately as Columbia and "Columbia’s XU-5") is in orbit on a military satellite mission, and comes into position just a minute before Starflight is to hit the atmosphere.
The two craft ride in together, and once into the atmosphere, XU-5 veers off while Cody fights to keep Starflight under control in a wild descent with damaged wings. Josh hurries outside, not wanting to listen to the communications. However, after a few minutes of silence, he hears Starflights distinctive engines, and turns to see it on final approach for landing.
Production notes and comments
The movie made use of stock footage of launches by the space shuttle Columbia
Space Shuttle Columbia was the first spaceworthy Space Shuttle in NASA's orbital fleet. First launched on the STS-1 mission, the first of the Space Shuttle program, it completed 27 missions before being destroyed during re-entry on February 1, 2003 near the end of its 28th, STS-107. All seven crew...
and an Apollo
The Apollo program was the spaceflight effort carried out by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration , that landed the first humans on Earth's Moon. Conceived during the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Apollo began in earnest after President John F...
-era Saturn V
The Saturn V was an American human-rated expendable rocket used by NASA's Apollo and Skylab programs from 1967 until 1973. A multistage liquid-fueled launch vehicle, NASA launched 13 Saturn Vs from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida with no loss of crew or payload...
on the launch pad. Columbia makes three launches in twenty-four hours to help Starflight (something completely impossible given turnaround times for shuttle launches). The Saturn V shown at the Kennedy Space Center
The John F. Kennedy Space Center is the NASA installation that has been the launch site for every United States human space flight since 1968. Although such flights are currently on hiatus, KSC continues to manage and operate unmanned rocket launch facilities for America's civilian space program...
was depicted as carrying the communications satellite from a fictitious launch site near Sydney.
Each time Columbia lands, the touchdown footage is from the early shuttle days when they landed on the dirt runway at Edwards AFB (footage of the Approach and Landing Tests
-Crew 2:This crew later flew on STS-2.-Shuttle Carrier Aircraft:In addition to the two assigned shuttle crews, who would alternate crewing the orbiter, a single flight crew was attached to the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for the entire program:...
with the shuttle prototype Enterprise was used), rather than the concrete runway that Thornwall would be expected to have. A chase plane is also visible. Also, each time it takes off, it has a white-painted external fuel tank, which was only used on the first two shuttle launches. Beginning with the third flight, STS-3
STS-3 was NASA's third Space Shuttle mission, and was the third mission for the Space Shuttle Columbia. It was the first shuttle launch with an unpainted external tank, and the only mission to land at the White Sands Space Harbor near Las Cruces, New Mexico.-Crew:-Backup crew:-Mission...
, the external tank would be orange, which is the natural color of the foam on the tank.
One would presume that the hydrogen fuel brought up by Columbia was stowed in the payload bay, but when an astronaut emerges from the crew compartment, she is already pulling the fuel line, implying that the storage tank was linked to the crew compartment. This is probably a budget-saving shot to avoid showing the astronaut fetching the hose from the payload bay, a shot which would be more complex to create rather than the mockup of the crew compartment outer hatch.
The New York Times said the movie was "still another reworking of the escapist adventure stuff that proved so popular in the film "Airport."