You never want to hear your surgeon say, in mid-operation, “Oops!” You don’t want your accountant to admit that he’s a little fuzzy on the concept of percentages. And you certainly don’t want your pilot to have a heart attack—while flying your plane.
Which means you wouldn’t have wanted to be Doug White on Easter Sunday in 2009.
Doug was having a pretty rough day anyway. He and his family (wife, Terri; two teen daughters, Maggie and Bailey) had just buried Doug’s brother in Florida. His girls were fighting again. Oldest daughter Maggie was still spending way too much time glued to her phone. Neither seem to appreciate all the gifts their family had been given—including the wherewithal to rent a private plane to shuttle them all home to Louisiana.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Doug himself was dealing with a crisis of faith.
“I’m just tired of losing people, Terri,” he tells his wife after his brother’s funeral.
“God’s going to get us through,” Terri says.
“Is that the same God who let this happen?” Doug asks.
Well. If Doug was angry about losing a brother, he’s sure to be asking some tough questions of the Almighty when he loses his pilot at 11,000 feet.
Still, it could be worse.
Doug had been up in the cockpit when the pilot lost consciousness. And he had taken a flying lesson. One.
Thing is, though, Doug had been a horrible student—so horrible that his brother (still alive at that point) advised him to take up a new hobby. And the tiny Cessna he had flown was a toy compared to the King Air he and his family are aboard. Might as well learn how to pilot an F-15—literally on the fly.
Yep, Doug will have some hard questions for God when he and his family inevitably crash.
Or it could be that God is right there with them, ready to work in some powerful, and unexpected, ways.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
On a Wing and a Prayer is based on a true story—and one with a happy ending. The real Doug White and his family landed safely, in part to some level-headed work by Doug and some experienced, conscientious people on the ground. The movie showcases and dramatizes that real-life heroism.
In the movie, Doug might not be a great pilot, but he seems to be a pretty good person. He clearly loves his wife and kids (even if the latter can be a bit exasperating). And when he and his brother win a barbecue contest, he brings some of his winning goodies to share with the homeless.
Wife Terri is at least as conscientious as Doug is—reminding younger daughter Bailey to be “humble and respectful” during the barbecue competition. And when older daughter Maggie complains about feeding the homeless, Terri tells her that she needs to change her perspective—and that a night with the less fortunate just might provide it.
But when disaster strikes on the private plane they’re on, that’s when Doug and Terri’s character really shines.
Both are remarkably calm in what is clearly a stressful situation. Terri even cracks a joke or two. And, of course, every member of the White family has a renewed appreciation for each other: Petty squabbles are forgotten in this atmosphere of peril, and only the desire to love and help each other remains.
As the Whites struggle to survive in the clouds, several people on terra firma work to bring the family home safely. Conscientious air traffic controllers bring their expertise and calm to the situation. Cory, a pilot in Connecticut with thousands of hours of experience flying an Air King, talks Doug through the process as best as he can. That pilot’s girlfriend constructs a mockup of an Air King cockpit in minutes, helping her beau in his critical, potentially life-saving work. Doug’s hand might be on the wheel, but it takes a community to bring him and his family safely home.
And the movie suggests that lives aren’t just saved on the plane: Lives are significantly impacted on the ground, too. A man with a drinking problem sets aside liquor and instead considers a new relationship. A couple on the outs appears to patch things up. A girl gets some quality time with her dad. (In truth, that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story, but still it’s a good thing on balance.) And a handful of people get a measure of closure regarding some old emotional wounds.
The word prayer is, obviously, right in the movie’s title; and it fittingly takes a place of primacy in the movie itself.
We can see early on that the Whites are a praying family. When they’re taking food to the homeless, they pause for a minute to bless the food they’re delivering. (They encourage recipients to have a “blessed Easter,” as well.) The pilot tells Doug, “I usually say a prayer before takeoff.” And, of course, when the pilot has a heart attack while the plane’s in the air, we see a whole lotta praying going on upstairs. (It’s a reflection of the real-life story, where Doug White told his wife and daughters to “pray real hard.”)
But as mentioned, Doug’s dealing with some spiritual disillusionment during the movie’s middle frames. Rocked by loss and tragedy, Doug finds Terri’s unwavering faith a bit pollyannish. During his brother’s funeral, the pastor tells the attendees, “We never know why” tragedy happens, but “we always know the answer: God is with us.”
Doug then stalks out of the church before giving his prepared eulogy—either too grief-stricken or distinctly unmoved by the pastor’s attempted words of comfort. “This is either some kind of test, or maybe all the stuff they told me in church just doesn’t mean what I thought it did,” he tells Terri.
But in the plane, Doug tells the folks on the ground that it’s “just me and the good Lord flying the airplane.” (Later, the film hints that God took a more active role in handling the plane.) And once safely down on the ground, Doug himself prays—apologizing for his doubt and thanking God for His goodness.
We see a Bible on a nightstand beside Doug and Terri’s bed. Another house has some crosses hanging from the walls, along with a sign that says “Believe.” We hear some expressions of divine thanks. A girl says that she doesn’t believe in anything she can’t see anymore. “This includes the Easter bunny, the bogeyman and Dad.” (It’s possible that director Sean McNamara intends for that oft-absent father to have some spiritual resonance; the girl is cautioned to “always be prepared” for her father to come back.)
Doug and Terri seem to have a healthy love life. At the barbeque contest, Terri flings out a double entendre related to the sauce she’ll save for him “later tonight.” We see Terri in a somewhat revealing robe, and she and Doug kiss and giggle together. When they fall off the bed, one exclaims that “love hurts.”
Bill, an air-traffic controller in training, goes to a local bar and eyes a female singer entertaining the audience. She wears a top that reveals a bit of cleavage, and she comes over after her set to talk and flirt. She asks why he’s drinking so heavily (more on that later), telling him, “I try to get inside a man’s head before he tries to get me in his bed.”
“Is it working?” Bill asks. She says no and walks away. (Later, they again meet, and the two walk out holding hands.)
We don’t really see any violence on screen. But themes of death and peril are constant.
We don’t see the pilot, Joe, suffer from his apparent heart attack. He does seem to experience some pain in his arm shortly before, but the camera cuts away. It returns to find him unconscious in the pilot’s seat. And when Doug and Terri try to remove the body, the pilot falls forward and sends the plane falling, too.
From then on, obviously, the lives of those aboard the Air King are imperiled—and everyone knows it. Air traffic specialists soothingly encourage Doug one moment, then flip off the mic and lament how doomed the family is. Some of them worry that the plane will crash into a populated area. Two young teens, eavesdropping on the ground-to-air communication, follow this airborne disaster-in-the-making via their own radio. “And we’re going to hear everything?” one of the kids says to the other, worried they’ll be front-row witnesses to a disaster. “That’s messed up.”
Doug’s brother, Jeff, dies off camera, and we hear about other natural deaths as well. Someone deals with a life-imperiling peanut allergy, and we see her suffer a severe reaction. Another character slams into the back of a truck. We hear about how Doug crashed the family truck into the lake. There’s a reference to corporal punishment.
We hear more profanity here than we do in most Christian films we review, but it’s still pretty mild compared so secular movies in general. We hear four uses of “d–n,” one of “h—” and two of “crap.” We also hear a half-dozen exclamations misusing God’s name.
An air traffic controller, Dan, drinks heavily at a bar. He has the bartender pour him three shots—one each of tequila, vodka and gin. (It’s apparently not his first round of shots, either.) When a woman comes up and asks him why all the clear liquor, he tells her that it’s the closest he’s going to get to water tonight. (Later, when describing his encounter with that woman to a friend of his, Dan says that she liked a lot of bourbon—a lie, it would seem, to deflect the fact that he drank so much all by himself.)
The next morning, he comes into the airport clearly hung over. He’s cautioned that if he still has alcohol in his system, “They can fire you on the spot.” (It’s suggested that the events that take place that day lead Dan away from alcohol and down a more positive path.)
Characters drink wine.
During Doug’s lone flying lesson, his brother Jeff is in the back seat. He complains of getting air sick (joking that he’s sitting in his lunch) before actually vomiting off camera.
The two young teens eavesdropping on the airborne drama, Donna and Buggy, eventually sprint out of Donna’s house, hop on their bikes and pedal to the airport in order to see the drama come to its conclusion. They speed past security. “Don’t stop!” Donna shouts. “We’re minors! They’ll never take us to jail!”
Doug’s daughters, Maggie and Bailey, start the movie engaged in almost constant conflict, and Maggie seems far more interested in her phone than her family.
“You be in charge of praying,” Doug tells Terri after their pilot keels over. “I’m going to try to figure out how to fly this airplane.”
In context, it makes sense. I mean, what else can Doug do? If his family dares hope to get out of this mess alive, Doug will need to take some agency, right? He’ll need to learn how to fly this monster of an airplane.
But Doug’s words reveal more than just his will to live and desire to save his family. They perhaps unintentionally reveal his mindset in the moment. You pray, he tells his wife. I’ll fly.
Back in the day, I’d sometimes see bumper stickers that would say, “God is My Co-pilot.” I think that’s the way many of us, if we’re Christians, sometimes like to think of our relationship with the Almighty. He’s in the cockpit with us every step of the way. But unintentionally, it reinforces our own vanity, our own reliance on our own self-reliance. We have a hard time turning over control. We like to chart our own course, direct our own plane. We’re comforted that God is sitting beside us if something goes wrong—but we figure we don’t really need Him if everything goes right.
You’d think we’d know better. You’d think we’d remember that God is in control, not us. It’s only through relinquishment, through submission, that we give God a chance to work His majestic miracles in our lives. Too often we, like Doug, don’t turn the tiller over until we have no other choice. We are brought to our knees when there’s nowhere else to go.
In On a Wing and a Prayer, Doug and his family have literally nowhere else to go but … down. And while Doug’s unflappable courage and calm is laudable, both he and we understand that to touch this bird down safely, he’ll need more than his own strength and skill. He’ll need help. He’ll need God.
The true story of On a Wing and a Prayer is indeed a remarkable tale of courage, teamwork and perhaps supernatural help. All those elements find their way into this Prime Video film. And while the movie brings some unfortunate elements along for the ride—some references to sex and drinking and some mildly profane language—most of those elements have reason to make the trip. This is, after all, not just the story of the White family: It’s about those on the ground that were changed by the experience, too.
The film doesn’t always work. The dialog can feel a bit contrived in spots, the acting a bit soft. But the story keeps On a Wing and a Prayer flying.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.