On April 12, 2009, Doug White boarded a private plane — a twin-engine Super King Air 200 — with his wife and teenage daughters, following a family funeral in southwest Florida. On a whim, he sat in the co-pilot seat to look out the larger window and hear the radio chatter.
Following a routine takeoff, the unthinkable happened. His pilot passed out and slumped over the controls after experiencing sudden cardiac death. They had ascended to 10,000 feet, and White had never flown a twin-engine aircraft.
“It was a focused fear,” said White, today age 70, when asked what he felt at that moment. “I was so focused on listening to the controllers in my headset. The only lifeline I had was them talking to me in that headset, because I didn’t know anything.”
What transpired on that Easter Sunday flight — involving people in multiple states whom White today considers “guardian angels” — comes to the screen as a riveting, uplifting thriller in “On a Wing and a Prayer,” available to watch worldwide via Prime Video on Friday.
It stars Dennis Quaid (“Frequency”) as White, Heather Graham (“Lost in Space”) as his wife, Terri, and Jesse Metcalfe (“Dallas“) as an experienced pilot in Connecticut who ends up playing a key role.
Director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) worked from a script by writer Brian Egeston (TV’s “House of Payne”), with veteran faith-and-family producer Roma Downey (“A.D.: The Bible Continues,” “Resurrection”) coalescing the team together.
“It’s a film filled with tension and drama,” said Downey, president of LightWorkers Media, best known for her decade-long leading role on “Touched by an Angel” on prime-time TV. “The fact that it’s a true story just makes it all the more remarkable.”
Ordinary Flight Turns Terrifying
Increasingly known for all-ages films like the inspiring drama “Blue Miracle” on Netflix and the upcoming “Reagan” biopic, Quaid has been a licensed pilot for years.
He recalls hearing White’s story years ago. “I wouldn’t give this guy much of a chance of landing,” Quaid said in a statement. “A King Air is a pretty powerful twin-engine plane and a lot to handle. He has no idea how to fly this airplane. The only thing he knows is the button to push to talk to the control tower.”
On that fateful flight in April 2009, many things could have gone wrong, noted Terri White in a recent interview. “If I hadn’t been a Christian, I know we would’ve all probably been hysterical,” she said. “But none of us went screaming and hollering.”
Doug White had then flown only about 25 hours in training on a single-propeller Cessna, with a simple instrument panel compared to the King Air 200. He also knew Florida weather can change on a dime. “I’m in the good Lord’s hands flying this,” he said in the actual radio recordings, which are available on YouTube.
The remarkable events have since become a case study taught in flight schools. In fact, that’s how this film got off the ground — when screenwriter Egeston decided to get his pilot’s license.
During one of his first classes, Egeston’s flight instructor played the recordings of White. “We got to hear everything that happened in real time,” said Egeston in a statement. “I knew then that we had to tell the story [and] it had to be a movie, no matter how long it took.”
The Miami control tower scrambled to find personnel with flight experience, a search that initially landed on Lisa Grimm, a commercial-rated pilot and air-traffic controller. She led White through turning off autopilot and hand-off to air control in Fort Myers, located 150 miles northwest.
Viewers also get to know Kari Sorenson (Metcalfe), a Connecticut pilot who was friends with one of the Fort Myers air-traffic controllers. With years of experience flying twin-turboprop aircraft, Sorenson provided careful step-by-step coaching to guide the amateur pilot.
“Without that ‘village’ of people who were on standby to help Doug, he would not have landed that plane,” said producer Downey. “To make a film, it takes a village and we brought so many talented people together to work on this production.”
Amplifying the Drama
Downey notes how the movie “really speaks to teamwork, working together, and the possibility of miracles.” To bring forward those themes, the on-screen narrative embellished actual events in some small ways.
“On a Wing and a Prayer” opens with the Louisiana family traveling to a church on Marco Island in southwest Florida to honor the life of Jeff White, Doug’s brother, who suddenly died. On-screen, Doug’s faith is clearly shaken by the loss — he even gets up and storms out of the funeral service.
White acknowledges his own faith remained steady, but he contends movie producers “didn’t Hollywood it up at all.” He adds: “Everything that’s in the film is believable. It’s not like they had me being Tom Cruise and doing loops and all that sort of thing.”
Later, in the midst of cutting to tense cockpit scenes, air-traffic control, and other players in the drama, viewers also encounter a junior-high aviation enthusiast and her friend. In this invented subplot, the two spot White’s errant flight on their home computer and they follow the events from afar — offering viewers a reprieve from wall-to-wall nail-biting suspense.
Another plot point diverges more significantly from actual events. White’s two daughters, ages 16 and 18 at the time, were on the flight and fervently prayed with their mother during their dad’s mid-air flight lessons. The movie depicts one of the girls as diabetic, and the other helping her to get a medical injection despite unsteady conditions.
While it serves to heighten the drama, White noted that neither of his girls is diabetic. Downey commented that adapting events for the screen is a fluid process, saying, “When we’re making a film, all the most important parts of the story are there.”
Easter Film with Cross-Generational Appeal
The White family has fielded a few offers to adapt their story but turned them down before now. “Everybody else told him [he] had to take God out of it,” said Egeston. “I assured him that was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. This is a story about faith and courage.”
After the script was written, the writer encountered Hollywood’s skepticism of faith-driven projects. “[Brian] pitched this to eight or 10 studios and there was not a lot of interest, before LightWorkers picked it up,” White told me.
He added: “It’s entertaining, but I hope it’s also inspirational. You know, ‘Top Gun’ was entertaining, but I wouldn’t call it inspirational. I think this has both of those [things].”
On the heels of box-office hits “Jesus Revolution” and now “His Only Son,” the market for faith-based films seems to be ramping up. It’s an ideal runway for “On a Wing and a Prayer,” which premieres on Good Friday via Amazon’s Prime Video, available in more than 200 countries.
Considering that filming wrapped in October 2021, the release date for “On a Wing and a Prayer” shifted several times — and Downey said they’re thrilled with where it landed.
“At LightWorkers, we are committed to telling stories that uplift, inspire, and offer hope in some way,” she said. “This real-life story actually happened on Easter Sunday. So the fact that we’re getting to launch the movie worldwide at Easter — we can only call it God’s timing.”
Rated PG for peril and some language, “On a Wing and a Prayer” premieres Friday worldwide on Prime Video.