Based on a true story, “Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771” details the roller-coaster emotional tale of a pilot who embarks on a four-day trip from S.F. to New Zealand in a rickety Cessna only to discover himself lost without navigational tools. It’s a well-executed, exciting telefilm, drawing the maximum emotionality from what could have been a generic piece.
With a pregnant wife (Rebecca Rigg) and in need of money, Jay Prochnow (Scott Bakula) jumps at the chance of earning much-needed Christmas money by flying a plane to a buyer Down Under.
After 14 straight hours of flying, Jay radios an SOS explaining his predicament: He’s running out of fuel and has no idea of his whereabouts.
After a storm prevents a search & rescue team from finding the lost aviator, Gordon Vette (Robert Loggia), a senior pilot on a DC-10 en route to New Zealand, becomes Jay’s sole hope. Against his crew’s objections, Gordon convinces his passengers that they must divert from their flight plan to find the lone and seemingly hopeless Jay, a proverbial needle in a haystack.
The TV film sets the stage for the rescue by developing the characters of Gordon and Jay, showing how similar they are, including their reputations for breaking the rules and having non-traditional flying methods.
The producers, director Roger Young and scripters George Rubino and Robert Benedetti had to overcome the fact that much of this story takes place within the confines a small cockpit. It is to their credit that they manage to maintain an air of excitement throughout with interesting dia-logue and by intercutting with scenes at the control tower and Jay’s wife, back in S.F. experiencing her own ordeal.
Director of photography Donald M. Morgan and editor Benjamin A. Weissman deserve mention.
Loggia is given little room for physical movement, save for the odd visit to the passengers to encourage them in favor of their seemingly hopeless search, but he performs with much vigor.
Bakula is given even less room for movement, yet he adds miles to his character by employing simple and effective verbal resonance and hand gestures. Jay spent over 23 hours in these confines, and by the end Bakula looks as if he’s actually gone through this trauma.