Beth Johnson
February 23, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Still on the ground, Trans Global Airlines Flight 2 from Chicago to Rome is already loaded with problems: Pilot Dean Martin has just been rebuffed by his mistress, chief stewardess Jacqueline Bisset. ”You get me up to full throttle and then throw me into reverse! You could damage my engine,” grumbles Dino. And this is before she tells him she’s pregnant. Martin’s brother-in-law, airport honcho Burt Lancaster, is in hot water with his harping wife because he thinks running an airport (not to mention trysting with passenger-relations agent Jean Seberg) is more fun than attending society dinners with the missus. Meanwhile, cigar-chomping ace engineer George Kennedy (”Hold on! We’re goin’ for broke!”) is fuming because he’s been called out from a cozy night at home with his wife to haul a snowbound plane off a runway at Lincoln Airport (in real life, Minneapolis-St. Paul). Just wait until misguided demolitions expert Van Heflin and cute-old-lady stowaway Helen Hayes come aboard.

When Airport opened across the country on March 5, 1970, audiences knew they were in for an all-star production; but they didn’t know that they were witnessing the birth of a genre — the Disaster Film. It was Airport that laid the groundwork, so to speak, for Earthquake and inspired a whole wave of all-star ’70s kitschfests glorying in the wrath of God, from The Poseidon Adventure to The Towering Inferno to The Swarm.

Based on Arthur Hailey’s No. 1 best-seller of the same name, the G-rated blockbuster told the tale of two brothers-in-law, their mistresses, a big plane, a bigger blizzard, a bombing — and a white-knuckle, will-the-rear-of-the-plane-fall-off landing. ”It was a curious set because it was like two movies going on at once,” Bisset recalls 26 years later. ”One was a movie with Dean Martin, which was absolute hilarity. Then there was the other set, which was with Burt Lancaster and was the very serious set.”

Universal’s $10 million ode to the Boeing 707 brought in more than $40 million, becoming the studio’s highest-grossing film to that date. It also reaped 10 Oscar nods — with Helen Hayes winning as Best Supporting Actress — and spawned three sequels. And all that before the 1980 spoof Airplane! got in the final word on airplane-disaster flicks and generated its own sequel.

Unlike the skyrocketing body counts of later films, the only casualties in Airport were two marriages and one failed bomber, blown away in the starboard can. Oh, and a case of elder abuse. The secret to the scene in which Bisset so convincingly slaps Hayes to create a diversion so the good guys can try to grab the bomber? ”I’m afraid that was the day I disobeyed the director and had a margarita at lunch,” says Bisset. ”I must admit that my aim was not as accurate as I would have liked.” Mayday! Mayday!

Time Capsule: March 5, 1970
Simon & Garfunkel spanned the pop charts on a ”Bridge Over Troubled Water”; John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman embraced fiction’s top spot; Easy Rider revved up the big screen; and TV viewers fell for That Girl.

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