Meet Ted Striker: He's incompetent. He's oblivious. And judging from the vacant stare permanently plastered on his face, we get the sense that he's not exactly the most emotionally stable guy in the world.
When we first encounter Ted, he's frantically exiting his taxicab (he's a cab driver) in hot pursuit of his romantic interest, Elaine, an airline stewardess. We learn that he and Elaine have a long history together, but recently things have taken a turn for the worse. Ever since serving as a fighter pilot in an unnamed war, Ted's been unable to adjust back to normal life. He was in charge of a mission that got his men killed. He's moved around from job to job, city to city, and as a consequence, his relationship with Elaine has suffered.
He's developed a serious drinking problem, which involves him being unable to bring a cup to the correct part of his face, soaking himself every time.
He's a mess.
Desperate to salvage his romance, Ted swallows his pride (and a handful of anxiety meds) and follows Elaine aboard her flight to Chicago. On board the plane, of course, our protagonist gets a little more than he bargained for. After the passengers and pilots get desperately sick from food poisoning, he's forced to find his courage and land the plane, as the only healthy (i.e. conscious) person on board with any flying experience. When he's brought to the cockpit, he's terrified:
ELAINE: Ted! What are you doing here? You can't fly this plane!
TED: That's what I'm trying to tell these people!
But after a pep talk from Dr. Rumack, he feels empowered. When Rex Kramer forbids him to try to land the plane, he's a new man—cocky, even:
KRAMER: Don't be a fool, Striker, you know what a landing like this means, you more than anybody. I'm ordering you to stay up there.
TED: No dice, Chicago. I'm giving the orders and we're coming in. I guess the foot's on the other hand now, isn't it, Kramer?
Well, maybe he's not completely over his problems…
Ted's new-found confidence and take-charge attitude help our guy win back Elaine, and the two live happily ever after. At least until the sequel.
In many ways, Ted's our generic action movie lead. Actor Robert Hays hits what Nathan Rabin of the Dissolve eloquently calls "the perfect note of oblivious, purposefully white-bread heroism," playing on the cliché of the hyper-serious disaster film protagonist typical of the era. (Source)
In the context of ZAZ's barrage of gags, Ted's hilarious in his ineptitude. But at the same time, he's earnest and believable. With unassuming blandness, he accomplishes what a more blatantly laughs-oriented comedian simply couldn't, a fact that ZAZ recognized. In fact, a young David Letterman, then a stand-up comic, actually screen tested for the role.
We love ya, Dave, but we think Hays nailed it.
Zero to Hero
Though Airplane! is a comedy in every sense, there's a more serious, underlying element to Ted's character that makes him especially compelling: his PTSD. Ted suffers from what's essentially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result of the trauma he experienced during the war. Though this theme is handled rather tongue-and-cheek throughout the movie, the fact remains that Ted's wrestling with some very serious issues. He's got flashbacks and is stuck back in time when he thinks he got his men killed. He's constantly in a state of panic and has developed a drinking problem (a strange one, in his case). He life is in chaos.
These challenges make Ted a more nuanced hero than we might first realize. He's able to experience a full character arc, undergoing a significant transformation from the anxious, distracted nobody we meet in the beginning, to the confident hero who saves the day and gets the girl in the end. This storyline is one of the things that makes the film more than just a bunch of laugh-a-minute gags. It's also a story of redemption while being a total spoof of all those movie stories of redemption where a man finds his courage and, yadda yadda yadda, things work out in the end.