On a Wing and a Prayer: Is the Movie Based on a Real Air Incident?

‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ is a thrilling drama movie that chronicles the tragic experience of the White family. Doug White, a 56-year-old pharmacist, along with his family, boards a plane to Archibald, Louisiana. After their pilot’s death, Doug acts immediately to safeguard his loved ones. He contacts air traffic control to help him land the private charter plane, one that he has no prior experience with.

The film is helmed by Sean McNamara and features compelling performances by the talented ensemble that comprises Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, and Jesse Metcalfe. If the gripping and realistic narrative of this cinematic piece got you curious to learn whether or not it is inspired by a real event, then we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know!

On a Wing and a Prayer: Doug White’s True Emergency Landing Story

Yes, ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ is based on a true story. It is the true heroic tale of Doug White and his family, which was turned into an epic screenplay by Brian Egeston. As per reports, Doug and his family attended his brother’s funeral and were on a flight back to Louisiana in April 2009. They boarded a King Air, their private chartered plane, in Marco Island, Florida. Shortly after the take-off, Joe Cabuk, their retired jet pilot, became unconscious. All the family heard was an unusual sound after the pilot’s head tilted.

Doug took over and radioed the control tower to inform them about their situation and requested them to assist him in an emergency plane landing. The Fort Myers International Airport was ready to accept the plane, and multiple flights were re-routed. Lisa Grimm, an experienced pilot and an air traffic controller at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, asked Doug to turn off the auto-pilot and handle the plane manually. Previously, Doug had taken flight lessons for 150 hours, but he operated a single-engine Cessna 172. It was far from the aircraft that he had to land.

Reportedly, it only took Doug 20 minutes to learn the plane’s mechanics, and he was calm and composed throughout the whole incident. Joe Cabuk’s body slumped over the seat, and Doug asked his wife to help him with the situation. She was also surprised to see him keep his composure, but on the inside, he was just as stressed. He reportedly asked his family to pray hard. The daughters threw up and cried as the incident unfolded but took their prayers seriously, which explains the title, ‘On a Wing and a Prayer.’

Image Credit: Doug White/CNN

Doug previously flew the Cessna at an altitude of 7,000 feet, but then he had to maintain a height of at least 10,000 feet. He went into a “zone” while the team relayed information from a King Air pilot to Doug, so he could get a better understanding of the plane’s mechanics without being utterly confused. After several mishaps, the family reached their destination. Doug felt a connection with the air-traffic controllers and had a newfound respect for them; he also believed that the staff was not fairly compensated for their efforts.

The team who assisted Doug was awarded the highest honor in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ceremony conducted in Orlando, Florida. The family had a chance to meet their saviors, and everyone applauded their collaborative success. In an interview with the AOPA Foundation, Doug gave more details about the incident. He said, “There were buzzers, amber lights, horns: It was like a circus. The only thing I was concentrating on was keeping the airspeed up and the wings level. You know, just fly the plane.”

He also spoke about the landing. Doug revealed, “It was a greaser, to be honest. It didn’t jump or skip. It just set down and stopped at 3,500 feet or less. I asked which taxiway they wanted me to use.” Somehow, before Joe’s passing, he inquired about the radio and how to use it. Doug commented, “I was interested in listening to air traffic control and looking out the window and learning about the IFR system. And I don’t know why I did this, but I remember asking Joe what button to push to use the radio.”

The coincidence seems no short of a miracle; if Doug didn’t ask the right questions, the chances of his survival would be slim to none. Needless to say, ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ is a biographical survival film that portrays how even during a tragedy, the stars can align for someone and guide them through a near-death experience. It shows the true power of being collected, not hyperventilating, and taking the logical route in a detrimental situation while keeping a positive mindset.

Read More: Where Was On a Wing and a Prayer Filmed?