In one word?
In more than one word? Ted Striker is a retired fighter pilot, who, ever since participating in a failed mission in an unnamed war, has developed a chronic fear of flying. It's just his luck that his ex-girlfriend Elaine, whom he vows to get back, is a flight attendant about to board a plane for Chicago. Despite his anxiety, Ted purchases a ticket in a desperate attempt to win Elaine back. However, at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, things start to go haywire.
When half the passengers and both pilots suddenly fall ill with a case of food poisoning (bad fish), Ted (the only person on board with flying experience who didn't have the fish for dinner) is forced to overcome his fears and (literally) take take the controls. With assistance of Elaine, the dour Dr. Rumack, and his old military colleague Rex Kramer on the ground, Ted's able to land the plane safely.
And needless to say, he gets the girl, too.
- Airplane! opens with a spoof of another hugely popular movie of the day: Jaws. The filmmakers use legendary composer John Williams's iconic theme music from the film to set an ominous mood.
- But instead of a pectoral fin of great white shark lurking in the ocean, we see the rudder of an airplane sticking up from under cloud cover.
- From this opening sequence we know two things. One: this is a disaster movie of sorts. Two, it's a spoof, brimming with pop culture allusions and self-referential humor.
- The plane lands in Los Angeles beneath the opening credits, to the tune of composer Elmer Bernstein's dramatic score.
- We watch as our cast of characters arrives at the airport—including our protagonists Ted Striker, a cab driver, and Elaine Dickinson, a flight attendant—while overhearing a heated conversation between two sentient automated voices about the purpose of the white and red zones.
- From the get-go we're treated to a bevy of memorable sight gags, from prosthetic arms and legs getting caught by the metal detector, to negligent workers on the tarmac, all preparing us for this style of visual jokes and puns that will permeate the film.
- After abandoning his taxi in one of the aforementioned zones (and leaving the meter running with a passenger inside), Ted manages to find Elaine inside the airport.
- We find out that the two once had a romantic relationship, but that it's since failed. It's clear that Ted wants her back, that he can change, but Elaine explains that her patience has run out. It's over.
- Elaine heads to the plane, leaving a frustrated Ted who proceeds to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, an example of the self-aware, meta-humor that characterizes Airplane!
- Captain Clarence Oveur, the pilot of the eponymous airplane, receives a call from a doctor at the famous Mayo Clinic explaining that there's an important medical patient, a sick little girl, who will be transported on Oveur's flight then taken to the clinic in Minnesota. She'll be having a heart transplant and must be monitored closely. (Note the set decoration at the Mayo Clinic.)
- After the sick girl is delivered to the plane by ambulance, we cut to Elaine and Ted who are at it again.
- We learn that Ted's a former fighter pilot who can't bring himself to fly again after trauma experienced in an unnamed war.
- Elaine insists that he must accept real responsibility, and explains that she has to move on with her life.
- Aboard the plane, Elaine performs her flight attendant duties, and Captain Oveur takes his seat in the cockpit. We meet Roger Murdoch, the co-pilot.
- Meanwhile Ted's at the ticket counter. When the agent asks if he wants smoking or non-smoking (an actual option in those days if you can believe it), he replies "Smoking."
- She hands him a ticket that's literally smoking.
- Back in Ted's cab, his passenger's still sitting and watching the meter run up.
- Ted approaches the plane, and the dramatic, dissonant score highlights his fear.
- The screen fades to grainy black and white footage of fighter planes, as Ted experiences a flashback in a daze. "The decision to proceed is yours," a voice repeats.
- On board, we meet the "jive dudes" as well as some of the other passengers, including the sick little girl who's hooked up to an I.V.
- Ted reaches his seat on the plane, and strikes up a conversation with his seatmate. "Nervous?" she asks. "Yes," he responds." "First time?" she continues, referring of course to the airplane ride. "No," Ted says. "I've been nervous lots of times."
- Better start getting used to jokes like this one, showcasing the film's trademark wordplay and overly literal humor.
- At last it's time to take off, as pilot Clarence Oveur, co-pilot Roger, and navigator Victor run into some confusion with the air traffic controllers.
- Wheels up. The plane's in the air.
- Inside, we find Ted slamming pills to handle his anxiety, while the other passengers partake in some "light reading."
- After Ted's rejected again by Elaine, he sits back down with his seatmate.
- Much to her chagrin, Ted begins to tell the story of how he met Elaine, thus kicking off another flashback…
- On military leave in a distant country, we find Ted drinking alone at the "seediest dive on the wharf." You can tell it's a rough place by the pair of Girl Scouts duking it out in the background.
- When one of them is thrown into a jukebox, "Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees begins to play.
- The sequence totally spoofs disco classic Saturday Night Fever, as Ted, spotting Elaine from across the room, rips off his military uniform revealing a John Travolta-esque white vest. The pair then disco dances the night away.
- While there's minimal voiceover dialogue from Ted, this sequence relies heavily on visual humor. From their eclectic dance moves to background shenanigans, there's always something happening on screen.
- Ted and Elaine end their night slow-dancing together to some mellow jazz as the place closes up, while the Girl Scouts continue to brawl.
- The flashback ends, and we focus back on Ted and his seatmate. "But enough about me," he says. "I hope this hasn't been boring for you."
- We pan over to his seatmate, who's hanged herself out of boredom. Apparently Ted is not the most captivating storyteller.
- The flight attendants take meal orders: a choice of steak or fish. Remember when you used to get hot meals in coach? We didn't think so.
- Meanwhile a young boy, Joey, asks Elaine if he can visit the cockpit. Elaine says she'll talk to the captain.
- We then cut to two dapper looking children, a boy and a girl. They have a very civilized conversation, in which the boy offers the girl coffee. Upon asking quite innocently if she'd like cream, however, she offers a surprising response.
- Meanwhile, Elaine experiences a flashback of her own. She and Ted are in full romance mode, rolling around together on the beach in some exotic locale, to the accompaniment of soaring strings and totally spoofing an iconic scene from From Here to Eternity.
- They don't seem to mind the seaweed and fish that accumulate on them as the waves crash down.
- Ted explains that he's been called back to duty, and though he shares some pretty specific details about his mission, he can't reveal when he'll return because "it's classified."
- Back in the cockpit, Captain Oveur speaks to Denver, who tells the crew that they're approaching some rough weather. Meanwhile an excited Joey arrives in the cockpit.
- Despite Captain Oveur's barrage of questions, ranging from harmless ("you ever been in a cockpit before?") to quite inappropriate ("you ever seen a grown man naked?"), Joey's still enthusiastic.
- This borderline offensive humor (or depending on who you're talking to, very offensive humor) works because of the deadpan delivery, a style of comedy Airplane! uses masterfully to highlight the absurdity of the dialogue and situations presented.
- Ignoring Oveur's advances, Joey turns his attention instead to the co-pilot, Roger Murdoch, whom he identifies as basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – despite Murdoch's adamant objections. Of course the irony here is that this actually is Kareem, acting in a cameo role.
- Ted sits with Elaine, begging her to remember how things were for the two of them in the beginning. It's clear that she does remember, but she says that things can never be like that again as long as Ted insists on living in the past.
- Meanwhile Ted has another flashback; this time he's recovering in an army hospital.
- Elaine's there with a distraught Ted, where it's revealed that the mission he commanded went awry, and six of Ted's men died. "Seven," Elaine corrects him. "Lieutenant Zipp died this morning." George Zipp will go on to become an important name for Ted in Airplane!
- This scene also includes the first of many "What is it?" jokes, this time having to do with headquarters.
- The sequence ends with another meta, self-aware gag, where Broadway legend Ethel Merman plays a soldier in the hospital experiencing PTSD who thinks he's Ethel Merman.
- "War is hell," Ted responds in perfect deadpan.
- Back in the present, the other flight attendant, Randy, asks the nun for her guitar. She proceeds to sing a song, "River of Jordan," a la Peter, Paul, and Mary, to the sick little girl in the back of the plane.
- Though Randy gets the entire plane involved in an inspired rendition, things were considerably less enjoyable for the little girl, whose IV gets knocked out by Randy's guitar.
- Meanwhile, Ted's with a new unwitting victim; he continues his story in flashback form, addressing nobody in particular.
- We learn that Ted and Elaine were in the Peace Corps together, living in a tribal village in Africa. While Elaine explains to the women the merits of Tupperware, Ted "teaches" the men the sport of basketball, which the locals pick up pretty quickly, and probably not because of Ted's coaching talents.
- The two have a conversation, and Elaine tells Ted that she wants to go home. It becomes clear that Ted is still running from something: the guilt he still feels about his failed mission. The name George Zipp is mentioned again.
- "And that, as much as anything else, led to my drinking problem," recalls Ted, beginning one of the film's most classic running gags.
- Bored literally to death by Ted's aimless storytelling, the WWII era Japanese soldier sitting next to him commits seppuku.
- Suddenly, passengers start getting violently sick with stomach problems.
- At the request of Captain Oveur, Elaine searches the cabin for a doctor. She finds Dr. Rumack, who was luckily easily identifiable given the stethoscope already in his ears.
- After a few brief examinations, Dr. Rumack explains that the sick passengers must get to a hospital immediately.
- Meanwhile, in the cockpit, Victor passes out, while Roger begins to sweat.
- Captain Oveur and Dr. Rumack share a fabulously deadpan conversation full of literalistic wordplay. It's two dramatic actors, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen letting the absurdity of the dialogue shine by playing it totally straight.
- After Roger Murdoch (or should we say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now wearing his basketball shorts and trademark goggles) passes out cold, Captain Oveur manages to take back the controls and save the day.
- Dr. Rumack deduces that it was the fish for dinner that made everybody sick. As he explains the unpleasant symptoms to Elaine, Captain Oveur, who also had the fish, keels over onto the controls and sends the plane into a dive.
- Fortunately, Elaine's able to engage the automatic pilot, Otto (get it?), which straightens out the plane.
- Elaine radios for help and reaches Steve McCroskey, the control tower supervisor in Chicago.
- McCroskey tells Elaine to report the plane's altitude, and realizing the gravity of the situation, laments that he picked the wrong week to quit smoking—kicking off another of the film's running gags.
- "Get me Rex Kramer," he tells his crew, while Elaine struggles to keep Otto adequately inflated. (How did this film get a G rating??)
- Dr. Rumack tells Elaine that they must get to a hospital, asking if there's anyone on board who could land the plane.
- We cut to Ted and his drinking problem. The stakes are high: they need someone who can not only fly a plane, but who also didn't have fish for dinner.
- Elaine tries to placate the passengers over the intercom. "By the way," she asks, after the cabin has mellowed, "is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?" Chaos ensues.
- We cut to Rex Kramer's house. He's gruff and rough, but he's an experienced pilot who will do whatever's necessary to get that plane on the ground. He speeds off for the airport.
- Back on the plane, Ted's new seatmate is dousing himself in gasoline, no doubt another victim of story time.
- Fortunately, Randy intervenes, asking if Ted knows anything about planes. Ted reluctantly makes his way to the cockpit.
- When he reaches the cockpit, he's shocked to discover that both pilots are conspicuously absent. Dr. Rumack asks a bewildered Ted if he can land the plane.
- "Surely you can't be serious," Ted asks. "I am serious," Dr. Rumack famously responds, in perhaps the great Leslie Nielsen's most famous movie line: "And don't call me Shirley."
- Ted explains that he only flew single-engine planes in the war, and that flying a commercial jet is "an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether."
- Dr. Rumack and Randy respond "all together" in a classic, overly literal Airplane! way: "It's an entirely different kind of flying."
- "You're the only chance we've got," Dr. Rumack asserts, as a woozy Ted looks at the many knobs and controls on the dash of the plane.
- Meanwhile, back in Ted's waiting taxi, that unfortunate passenger is racking up quite the fare.
- On the ground in Chicago, McCroskey readies the rescue units.
- Meanwhile, Rex Kramer gives instructions to McCroskey on his car phone.
- Turns out that Kramer knows Ted from the war. From this experience, Kramer understands full well that Ted has ability, but serious confidence issues.
- Back in the air, Ted dons his headset and checks the controls. He loses control instantly, but manages to level the plane.
- In the cabin, one of the passengers starts to lose it. She's promptly "calmed" by a throng of passengers who take turns slapping her back to reality with everything from open hands to wrenches to pistols.
- "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking," McCroskey laments, taking a swig from a flask.
- Meanwhile, Kramer arrives at the airport. Whereas other characters were slowed down by the various folks asking for donations in the airport lobby, Kramer starts punching them out left and right.
- Kramer and McCroskey meet and agree on a plan to help Ted get the plane down safely.
- Kramer gets on the radio with Ted. It's clear there's tension between the two characters.
- Though Kramer explains to McCroskey that they must build up Ted's confidence, that plan quickly backfires.
- "Striker," he asks, "have you ever flown a multi-engine plane before?" "No, never," Ted responds. "There's no way he can land this plane!" Kramer grumbles to McCroskey, while Ted overhears.
- Ted disengages the automatic pilot, and the plane immediately starts shaking. Elaine sits copilot.
- Dr. Rumack does his best to reassure the passengers in the cabin, but from the Pinocchio effect this speech has on his nose, they're not convinced.
- Meanwhile, a vulture lands behind Ted. This image doesn't seem to bode well for our hero.
- Ted reports to Elaine who reports to Kramer how the plane is handling, trying to get a feel for the aircraft.
- In the cabin, a Good Samaritan is able to help "translate" for one of the jive dudes who's fallen extremely ill. This "jive lady" is played in a very earnest cameo by actress Barbara Billingsley, best known for her role as the mother on the 50's sitcom Leave it to Beaver. Not exactly the most jive environment. A genius casting move.
- Back on the ground, McCroskey holds down the fort with Air Traffic Controller Johnny.
- Captain Oveur's wife receives a call in bed from the airport, and leaves her equine lover for the airport.
- Meanwhile, Ted tries to get himself to concentrate. He's an easily distracted kind of guy and starts paying attention to voices in his head.
- Ted, understanding that he needs to take control, consults Kramer and McCroskey on the ground, who fear that the airplane is off course. This would be impossible, though, Kramer asserts, because they're "on instruments"
- In typical Airplane! style, this comment is played as a literal pun—cut to a shot of the crew playing Dixieland jazz.
- He asks a traffic control to check the radar range. The controller opens a microwave oven and tells him the chicken won't be done for another 2 minutes. (A company back in the Pleistocene Era manufactured the first microwave called a Radar Range.)
- McCroskey's bad habits escalate ("looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines").
- The press shows up to "take some pictures." They start taking pictures off the walls.
- As rain pours down outside the plane, the passengers start losing hope. Some turn to certain substances to build up courage.
- Even the crew's losing faith; Dr. Rumack attempts to console a distraught Randy, who doesn't want to die single.
- Ted begins to crumble under the pressure, having flashbacks once again to his botched mission. Other airplane disasters flash before his eyes.
- As the s*** hits the fan, (literally of course), Ted can't handle the pressure. He bails, re-engaging the autopilot.
- After Ted's drinking problem continues, Dr. Rumack gives him a pep talk.
- Rumack reveals that he knew George Zipp, who never regretted being sent in on that ill-fated mission with Ted.
- It's time to "win just one," Rumack says, "for the Zipper," as the Notre Dame fight song plays, an allusion to Ronald Reagan's classic line from the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American "Win just one for the Gipper."
- Ted, with newfound inspiration and courage, dramatically tosses Otto aside and takes his place in the pilot's seat.
- While the passengers watch some not so encouraging in-flight entertainment (a film about the aftermath of a plane crash), the ground team assembles in the control tower to prepare for the emergency landing.
- Elaine reveals to Ted that she's very proud. "The gear is down and we're ready to land," a beaming Elaine tells the ground control at Ted's request.
- Just then, Dr. Rumack enters the cabin, offering a few words of encouragement with one of his most famous taglines: "Good luck. We're all counting on you."
- Kramer begins to talk Ted down, explaining the landing procedure.
- While McCroskey's substance habits escalate further, the airplane begins to descend through the fog, hurtling towards the ground. Kramer tells him he's coming in too fast; Ted knows.
- "Straighten your nose," "watch your speed," "ease up on the throttle"—the commands are overwhelming. Ted, although drowning in sweat, is still able to get the plane on the ground. Sort of.
- As the plane skids down the runway, past gate eight, nine, ten, eleven, etc., Dr. Rumack enters, reiterating his classic line. "Good luck. We're all counting on you."
- Though the landing gear's completely trashed, the plane grinds to a stop. Ted has done it.
- Safely on the ground, everyone celebrates.
- Kramer congratulates Ted, and begins to wax poetic over the intercom about his personal life, continuing long after Ted's already left the cockpit.
- The sick girl gets into an ambulance, (which crashes off camera shortly thereafter), while the rest of the passengers deplane.
- Ted and Elaine kiss and embrace on the tarmac, to soaring strings and angelic choir music. Otto winks at the pair as he takes off in the plane.
- They wave as Otto's new female copilot inflates.
- "The End"