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TV Terror Guide: Terror in the Sky (1971)

Air Date: Sept. 17, 1971 (CBS)

Production Company: Paramount Television

Running Time: 74 min.

Available on: YouTube

Written by: Stephen Karpf & Elinor Karpf and Dick Nelson

Based on: the novel Runway Zero 8 by Arthur Hailey

Directed by: Bernard L. Kowalski

Cast: Leif Erickson, Doug McClure, Roddy McDowall, Lois Nettleton, Keenan Wynn


Had I known the pedigree of Terror in the Sky (1971), I probably wouldn’t have watched it at this point in time. Its genesis was a 1956 Canadian TV movie called, Flight Into Danger, written by Arthur Hailey (Airport.) A year later, Hollywood remade it as Zero Hour! A year later, Hailey turned it into a novel, Runway Zero-Eight. Collectively, the concept set the precedent for the disaster movie of the 70s, as well as this low-budget remake.


A large part of the disaster movie spoof, Airplane (1980), resembles the plot and, apparently, uses large chunks of actual dialogue from Zero Hour! This is ironic, because much of the dialogue in Terror in the Sky, as well as the performance of Doug McClure, is as hilarious and over the top as what you’d find in Airplane. For example, when it’s determined that those who ate the chicken pot pie have food poisoning, the captain (Kenneth Tobey) says:

You better find a cure fast because I ate the same meal he [the co-pilot, who lies unconscious beside him] did.

When doctor-on-board, Ralph Baird (Roddy McDowell) says...

Then I guess someone else is going to have to land the plane!

...the captain laughs. It’s the most realistic reaction in the movie. I write that as if it’s a criticism, but it’s not. The situation itself is heightened, so everything that comes from it is going to be extreme. It’s an expected part of the disaster movie formula and wouldn’t be the same without it. Made for TV, though, with B-list instead of A-list stars and a small screen budget instead of big, it’s even harder to take seriously.


I don't think I'd recommend this as a standalone movie; however, in historical context, it's interesting on many levels. Like a good number of 1970s TV movies, Terror in the Sky is an example of small screen versions of big screen hits. Disaster movies were big at the time, so television wanted to piggyback on their success, like it did with other genres. For strictly budgetary reasons, they're sometimes pale imitations, but they're nevertheless fun.


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