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culture

Historicist: Hailey’s Comet

Arthur Hailey's 1950s teleplay Flight Into Danger, which inspired the film Airplane!, was one of the “most gripping, tension-packed” plays of its time

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Aboard the plane, the stewardess (Corinne Conley) speaks to George Spencer (James Doohan) and Dr. Frank Baird (Sandy Webster) in the CBC’s 1956 production of Flight Into Danger. CBC Still Photo Collection.

In late 1955, Arthur Hailey, an advertising executive for a tractor-trailer company, was returning home to Toronto from a business trip in Vancouver. Aboard a Canadair North Star—among the largest passenger carriers at the time—his mind began to wander. He wondered whether someone like him, who’d flown planes for the Royal Air Force but hadn’t been in a pilot’s seat since the end of the war, could fly and land this four-engine Trans-Canada Air Lines airliner if catastrophe hit. He began imagining those circumstances.

“Half waking, half dozing, more for mental exercise than anything else,” Hailey recalled of the rest of the flight, “I thought the story through from beginning to its conclusion.” When his wife, Sheila, picked him up at the Malton Airport, his first excited words were: “Darling, I have the most wonderful idea for a television play. Listen….”
Hailey hammered out a television script which was bought by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and became Flight Into Danger. The tense, suspense-laden drama—which saw George Spencer, a truck salesman who’d flown fighters during the war, take the controls of an airliner en route from Winnipeg to Vancouver when pilots and passengers are debilitated by food poisoning—was seen by two million people when it was broadcast live-to-air on April 3, 1956. Although it may seem hackneyed today, this plot was novel in its time—and with it Hailey invented the clichés of the disaster film genre that would reach its zenith in the 1970s.
One Toronto viewer quoted in the CBC Times prior to a repeat showing on August 20, 1956, called Flight Into Danger “the most gripping, tension-packed play I have ever seen on TV.” The New York Times‘ renowned television critic Jack Gould raved: “A superb thriller. One of the finest ever done on live television.”
Flight Into Danger was, in the words of one journalist, “probably the most successful TV play ever written anywhere.” In a pattern that would repeat itself with Hailey’s future best-selling novels, Flight Into Danger was adapted to numerous media. It was soon televised in several countries; developed into a Hollywood film, Zero Hour; published as a popular best-selling novelization; and adapted into a version for amateur stage productions. As Arthur Hailey quickly became a household name, Variety dubbed his first teleplay “Hailey’s comet.”
In Close-Up: On Writing for Television (Doubleday & Company, 1960), a volume which includes the full script for Flight Into Danger, Hailey reminisced: “If any single incident may be said to change the course of an individual’s life, Flight Into Danger had that effect upon my own.”

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