On a Wing and a Prayer movie: deadly danger; divine drama?

By Rusty Wright

Ever faced mortal danger?  Imagine that you, your family, and a pilot have boarded a small private plane for a flight home from Florida to Louisiana.  Ten minutes after takeoff, the pilot dies, leaving you – a passenger – to fly the plane.  How would you feel?  What would you do?  MGM’s On a Wing and a Prayer depicts the dramatic dilemmas that Doug White and his family faced on Easter Sunday, 2009.

The Amazon Studios release stars Dennis Quaid (American Underdog, A Dog’s Journey), Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, The Hangover), and Jesse Metcalfe (Desperate Housewives, Dallas).

Louisiana pharmacist and good ole boy Doug White (Quaid) and his family are leaving Marco Island, Florida, after his brother’s funeral.  As Doug, his wife and two daughters board the plane with pilot Joe Cabuk, they look forward to returning home. 

Flight instruction?

Interested in the flight process, Doug sits in the co-pilot’s seat.  He asks Joe what button activates radio communication.  Soon, Joe’s head slumps over and he becomes silent, dead.  Doug is facing a complex instrument panel and bewildering circumstances, thousands of feet up, with his family on board.   He tells his wife to pray with their daughters.

Doug uses the radio button to begin an intense series of exchanges with Air Traffic Controllers in Miami and Fort Myers.  None is familiar with the specific model of King Air plane Doug is in. 

One ATC worker remembers a pilot friend in Danbury, Connecticut, with King Air experience.  Cellphones connect Kari Sorenson (Metcalfe), the Danbury pilot, with Fort Myers ATC, which relays instructions through multiple controllers to Doug. 

Sorenson’s initial assessment – not relayed to Doug – “This guy has a five percent chance of living.”

Heart pounding excitement

The film, using just a bit of artistic license, delivers the heart pounding excitement and uncertainty of the crisis.  The screenwriter had the benefit of ATC audio recordings that convey the dramatic events in real time. 

White to Miami ATC:  “I need to get this thing on the ground.  I’m flyin’ a King Air. …My pilot’s deceased. … I need help. … I need a King Air pilot to talk to.”

He knew he was climbing dangerously.  ATC instructed him to disengage the autopilot to stop the ascent.  “I’m [now] flyin’ the airplane by hand,” confirmed White in his Louisiana drawl (represented skillfully by Quaid).  “You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma’am.”

ATC, later:  “You doin’ alright there descending?”  White: “Oh, we’re havin’ a hoot.”

Miami ATC handed communications off to Fort Myers ATC, which asked White, “Are you using the autopilot, or are you flying the airplane?”  White:  “Me and the good Lord [are] hand flying this.”

Divine intervention?

Extraordinary teamwork, innovative thinking, flexibility, skill and courage under extreme pressure helped the plane land safely.  Doug, whose faith is central to his life, would add divine intervention to that list.

At an ATC award ceremony, Doug told the controllers who helped save him, “God Almighty used the talents that he gave…you to save my family and me from a certain fiery death.”

At another event, Doug reflected on how he dealt with the stress and trauma: “I’ve got the greatest counselor of all time at my disposal … the Prince of Peace … Jesus.” 

He said ATC Fort Myers staffer Doug Favio – Sorenson’s pal – later wrote to tell him that Afghan war horrors and injuries had left Favio mad at God, and an agnostic.  But the ATC rescue experience motivated Favio to ask divine forgiveness and to believe in God again.

Of course, viewers will know in advance – from extensive news coverage and studio promotion – that the real flight crisis had a happy ending, so otherwise-innate tension in the story will be missing.  But the actors and filmmakers recreate the events adeptly to help viewers feel and appreciate the confusion, risk, and relief.  A compelling drama with valuable life lessons.

Rated PG (USA) “for peril, some language, suggestive references and thematic elements.” 

https://press.amazonstudios.com/us/en/original-movies/on-a-wing-and-a-prayer   Film trailer (2:06)

Releasing worldwide April 7, 2023, on Amazon Prime Video

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

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Editors:  Note pictures below.  For access to these and more, check here, here, and here

OWAP poster.
Dennis Quaid as Doug White and Heather Graham as Terri White. Photo courtesy of Prime Video: Boris Martin © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.
Doug and Terri White (Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham) and daughters Maggie (Jessi Case) and Bailey (Abigail Rhyne) board airplane. Photo courtesy of Prime Video: Boris Martin © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.
Doug White (Dennis Quaid) flying the King Air. Photo courtesy of Prime Video: Boris Martin © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.
Kari Sorenson (Jesse Metcalfe) provided invaluable coaching from a distance. Photo courtesy of Prime Video: Boris Martin © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.
Terri (Heather Graham), Maggie (Jessi Case) and Bailey (Abigail Rhyne) White pray as Doug seeks to land the plane. Photo courtesy of Prime Video: Boris Martin © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC.