‘On a Wing and a Prayer’: A True Story of Faith and Survival

FILM: Harrowing flight prompts petitions midair in Amazon’s latest hit.

‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ tells a prayerful true story.
‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ tells a prayerful true story. (photo: MGM/LightWorkers/Amazon Studios)

On a Wing and a Prayer, a contemporary story of faith and survival, debuted April 7 on Amazon Prime, and within a day, it garnered the No. 1 spot for Amazon’s streaming service. 

The title may be an oft-spoken idiom — but here it reveals profound truths through a true story.

The film recounts how Doug White, a pharmacist from Archibald, Louisiana, flew with his family to Florida to attend his brother’s funeral. White (played by Dennis Quaid) planned to return home from Marco Island with his wife (Heather Graham) and two daughters (Abigail Rhyne and Jessi Case) aboard a small twin-turboprop plane. But less than 10 minutes into their flight, catastrophe strikes: Their pilot dies of a heart attack, leaving passenger White to learn how to safely fly and land the plane. 

That is the “Wing” part of the story; the “Prayer” part emerges as the family in the air and controllers on the ground take stock of the serious situation, turning to God as their only hope. 

White, who had been cynical about faith, calls on his Heavenly Father to save his family. The young teen daughter, who had loudly proclaimed that she no longer believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or God, joins her mother and sister in the Lord’s Prayer. The air traffic controllers pray in the tower; and the White family holds hands and prays earnestly as Doug communicates with controllers to safely land the King Air 200. In Connecticut, Kari Sorensen (played by Jesse Metcalfe), an expert on the King Air aircraft who is haunted by a plane crash he couldn't prevent, is called in to help. And the air traffic controller who thought to make that phone call has his own awakening, turning away from alcoholism due to the miraculous story. 

Producer Roma Downey and director Sean McNamara talked with the Register, and both highlighted the importance of faith in their personal and professional lives — and the faith-filled message of their new film. 


Roma Downey: Witness to the Power of Prayer 

“I’m not in the ‘plane-crash movie’ business,” Downey told the Register. “I’m in the ‘hope movie’ business.” 

Downey explained why this script appealed to her more than others that have crossed her desk. 

“When On a Wing and a Prayer showed up on my desk,” she said, “I read it eagerly, because it has thriller elements in it! I have gone through struggles in my own life — as we all have — and I have witnessed firsthand in my life the power of prayer. And so I think the thing that most attracts me to this story is that, in the darkest of circumstances, when this family found themselves hurtling through the air with a dead pilot at the controls of the plane, they were reliant on God, handing their situation over to the good Lord. 

“Dennis Quaid [as passenger-turned-pilot White] is asked by air traffic control, ‘Are you flying by automatic pilot?’ and Quaid answers, ‘No ma’am; it’s me and the good Lord flying this plane.’”


Sean McNamara Believes in Prayer’s Power

“If you get too preachy in a faith-based or inspirational film,” McNamara told the Register, “it’s a turn-off. But prayer would be expected in this particular situation, if your plane was possibly going down.”

McNamara has been producer and director of numerous films, including the feature films Soul Surfer and The Miracle Season. He explained to the Register how his early life grounded him in the Catholic faith. Coming from a strong Catholic family, he attended 16 years of Catholic school, including Loyola High School, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara University. In his youth, he often gathered with his four sisters and brother to pray the Rosary; and still today, he reported, the siblings will sometimes gather by telephone to pray the Rosary together. 

For McNamara, air travel presents an opportunity for prayer.

“Every time we take off and every time we land,” he said, “I make the Sign of the Cross.” He prays not only during times of crisis, but also when things are going well — when the children are healthy, for example. In every movie he directs, there is always somebody praying, whether it’s at the dinner table or in the back of the airplane.

Talking about Doug White's faith frustration as portrayed in On a Wing and a Prayer, McNamara explained, “It all started when he lost his brother. All of a sudden, his faith is tested — and he is mad at God. He argues with his wife over it, asking, ‘Has God forgotten me? Why does he let bad things happen to good people?’” For McNamara, that question is a prayer: It leads to a second question, “What am I supposed to learn here?”

Viewers of this 102-minute production will have the opportunity to ask the same question as they follow the White family’s perilous, prayerful flight. And perhaps they, too, will recognize the power of prayer in their lives.



On a Wing and a Prayer is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. 

This story was updated after posting.