We’re reviewing both of these TV movies side-by-side as result of their basis in the December 1972 crash in the Florida Everglades near the Miami International Airport of Eastern Flight 401 scheduled from New York JFK to Miami. The flight ended with 101 fatalities: the pilots and flight engineer, two of the 10 flight attendants, and 96 of 163 passengers; 75 passengers and crew survived. The crash was documented in the national best-selling paperback Crash (1977) by Rob and Sarah Elder. The supernatural aftermath of the crash was documented in the equally popular The Ghost of Flight 401 (1976) by John G. Fuller.
Paramount and Universal Studios quickly adapted the properties into TV movies: Paramount Television produced Crash (1978), aka The Crash of Flight 401 in its video shelf life, for ABC-TV. Universal Studios optioned the supernatural tales and retained Fuller’s book title for their NBC-TV movie.
Barry Shear (Madam Sin) directs The Crash of Flight 401 with William Shatner starring as National Transportation Safety Board Investigator Carl Tobias (purely narrative; not a factual character), under pressure to exonerate Lockheed, the manufacturer of the wide-body L-1011. Eddie Albert (TV’s Green Acres, the POTUS in Dreamscape) and Lane Smith (District Attorney Jim Trotter in My Cousin Vinnie) star as the surviving Eastern Airlines’ captain and flight engineer under investigation for causing the crash. The passengers and FAA personnel read as a who’s who of ’70s television: Adrienne Barbeau (who returned to the passenger cabin in the 2020 horror-parody Exorcism at 60,000 Feet), Lorraine Gary (Jaws), Christopher Connelly (Raiders of Atlantis), Ron Glass (TV’s Barney Miller), Ed Nelson (Roger Corman’s Rock All Night and Night of the Blood Beast), and Joe Silver (Rabid).
The late Steven Hilliard Stern (This Park is Mine) directs The Ghost of Flight 401, a tale concerned with the ethereal sightings of pilots Robert Loft and Don Repo on other planes that had salvage parts from the wreckage. Ernest Borgnine stars as flight engineer Dom Cimoli alongside Russell Johnson (TV’s Gilligan’s Island) as Captain Loft; Gary Lockwood (of the TV Movie Earth II) is the FAA investigator on the case. The rest of the cast features a young Kim Basinger with a when-you-see-’em-you-know-’em TV and feature-film character actor feast of Robert F. Lyons, Allan Miller, Alan Oppehheimer (a quickly gone-and-replaced Six Million Dollar Man TV movie cast member), Eugene Roche, and Hal Holbrook’s then wife, Carol Eve Rosen.
As is the case with all TV movies of the ’70s, while they’re up against the budget, the production values are high and — according to the comments of IMBb users involved in and experienced both incidents as airline industry workers — are technically accurate. The acting, of course, is excellent across all quarters.
Barry Shears’s 80-plus credits, which began in the early ’50s, were mostly in episodic TV, Tarzan and Police Woman in particular. His dozen-plus TV Movies include Power (1980; Joe Don Baker as Jimmy Hoffa), Undercover with the KKK (1979; a true story about an FBI infiltrator), and Strike Force (1975; with an early Richard Gere in a cop vs. drug dealer drama).
Other works in Stern’s superior TV movie oeuvre (on U.S. TV and cable; in Canada, they ran as theatrical features) are the James Brolin-starring The Ambush Murders (1982), the pre-stardom Tom Hanks-starring Mazes and Monsters (1982), and the Ned Beatty-starring (Ed and His Dead Mother) Hostage Flight (1982).
You can watch The Crash of Flight 401 and The Ghost of Flight 401 courtesy of You Tube. In addition to ABC and NBC airing both of these fact-based airline movies, ABC also broadcast the adventure-drama SST Death Flight, while NBC took the subject matter into a sci-fi turn with The Disappearance of Flight 412; CBS-TV broadcast the horror-fantasy The Horror at 37.000 Feet, which also starred William Shatner. We’ve also reviewed all of the theatrical forefathers that inspired the “Big Three” TV Networks’ airline telefilms with our “Airport: Watch the Series” featurette.
And don’t forget: We’re TV movie crazy around here, so be sure to catch up with a wide-array of TV movies from the ’70s and ’80s with our tributes “Lost TV Week,” “Week of Made for TV Movies,” and “Sons of Made for TV Movies Week,” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week.” And here we are, with another “TV Week” because, well, TV Movies rock. And there will be another one: that’s bank.
We reviewed a gaggle of airline disaster TV movies this week, so be sure to check out our “Airline Disasters TV Movie Round Up” feature with links to all of the reviews.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.