Flight of the Phoenix - was the improvised rescue plane possible?

I’ve only seen the 1965 original with Jimmy Stewart.

The setup… Passengers on a Cargo plane includes a military officer, doctor and oil field workers traveling to Libya. The cargo includes construction equipment. The plane crashes in the Sahara desert.

One of the passengers is a aeronautical engineer. I’ve quoted his design for a cobbled together rescue plane.

The cargo provides a hoist, acetylene torch, and tools. Trained men to do the work and 2 weeks of food & water. The cargo planes experienced pilot is available to fly the rescue plane.

The planes engines are undamaged and will start. The engines use a Coffman engine starter and the pilot has 7 cartridges.

Could this engineering be accomplished in a real life emergency?

Since Adam & Jamie aren’t here, I’m asking the Straight Dope. :wink:

The movie studio provided a Tallmantz Phoenix P-1 plane as the stand-in for the rescue plane. The stunt pilot, Paul Mantz died in a accident during filming.

After the first “Phoenix” crashed, they used a different model for remaining scenes:

North American O-47A, N4725V – second flying Phoenix.

If you read the book, you find a significant difference between the Phoenix of the film and the book - the book has the passengers being carried in “beds” slung along the fuselage. The film had them arrayed along the top of the wing. I would’ve thought that doing that would have messed up the airflow over the wing and made the plane harder to fly, like a modern airliner with its “spoilers” up throughout the flight. But evidently for a practical flyer they felt it made more sense to have the extra weight on the wing, rather than on the fuselage behind the wings, dragging the tail down.

I don’t know the reasons for the changes, or if either configuration would work. I’m not an aeronautical engineer.

It seems like the story provided everything needed to pull this off.

The biggest unknown is the men’s ability to perform strenuous work in that desert heat.

It didn’t help that the film killed off several men that tried walking out instead of helping with the plane.

They even threw in hostile Arab tribesman for added dramatic conflict.

The design seems plausible. The personnel and equipment to accomplish the job are present. You’re talking building an experimental plane and hoping it will work, without really any ability to test anything (like structural soundness, aerodynamic balance, effect of passengers on flight ability, etc).

The engine should have plenty of power. Using the long outer wing segments seems there’s enough surface for lift. Given the original plane design with the relatively large cargo capacity, I think it’s safe to assume both of those. I’m sure an aero could whip out some back of the envelope calculations to give it credence. Been too long since I took the class material.

I don’t know about the skids on sand - how much drag would they give and would that create too much torque pulling the nose down?

How many passengers are there? I would think it would work okay with a few near the middle of the wings, but stretching out along the full wingspan would hinder flight. Better slung along the fuselage. Looks like they also had to modify the tail to give wider spread from the single center. That should help with the passenger weight not being centered under the wings.

It did seem like it would have been easier, and safer, to just make a landspeeder. An overgrown Everglades airboat, maybe.

It’s been a while since I saw the movie. How exactly did they attach the outboard wing to the boom? That would seem to be the weak spot.

It seems…unlikely. The control surfaces for one thing would have been hellish to rewire and rework, balance and test out in only a few weeks. And going with earlier wing warping methods probably wouldn’t work with the materials. My WAG is they would have been better off with some sort of ground vehicle using the propeller for thrust and the wheels or maybe skids as a sled…or a combination. There is a lot more slack for issues with a ground vehicle than a cobbled together experimental aircraft that is completely untested and that you don’t have really good ways to control. I would say that their odds (just a WAG here again) would be less than 20% that they could get it into the air and keep it there for any length of time, plus land it safely somewhere that would be helpful.

The explanation given in both the book and the film, for not building something to skim over the sand was that the engine would overheat before they got very far – they HAD to fly.

Also why try to put everyone onboard the plane? Just have the most experienced pilot fly the experimental plane to get help.

[off-topic] The films are based on the same-named 1964 novel by Elleston Trevor. Trevor wrote under several pseudonyms, including Adam Hall. Adam Hall’s Quiller series (some of which were made into films) have a unique style — I highly recommend them for fans of spy thriller fiction looking for something special.

A slight deviation of the original question but still sticking with “Flight of the Phoenix”

(One of my favorite movies)

Details are a bit hazy now as it’s been long time since seeing the movie, but I remember a scene where they have captured an injured local tribesman from the group that was attacking them.

They barely have enough water for themselves to finish building the Phoenix and the captive tribesman is obviously going to die from his injuries in a few days, so should they share their remaining water with a dying man and not have enough water to finish the Phoenix so non of them will survive, or not share the water with the dying man and just let him die so they can at least finish the Phoenix and save themselves.

As I recall while the group is arguing over this moral dilemma, the ever practical aeronautical engineer shoots the guy and the problem is solved.

Question is how would this “act of murder” be seen viewed in law. Would killing the one man who was using up their limited water and of no use to them in the reconstruction work be justified in the saving of the whole group.

Your memory is really hazy – I’ve seen the movie countless times, and there’s no such scene in the movie. When the traveling Arabs leave, they leave behind the bodies of the doctor and one other guy who went to them to seek aid (presenting themselves originally as two isolated men, no mention of the plane or the others), who they have killed. They also leave behind a live but lame camel, which the captain (Jimmy Stewart) shoots. But no captured “tribesman”, and no moral dilemma.

Check out the synopsis here:



It didn’t occur to me until just now, but I realized such a scene about arguing the morality of shooting an outsider might be in the remake (which I’ve avoided seeing). we’ve been talking about the 1965 film so far.

so I checked the Wikipedia synopsis, and such a scene is indeed in the 2004 film – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_of_the_Phoenix_(2004_film)

But it has no counterpart in the 1965 film or the original novel.

I think the idea of leaving some behind to be rescued later had problems. First, there was no GPS. It would have been difficult to find them again. Secondly, the locals might return in the meantime (esp. if they see the plane flying away) and prey on them. I think having them all go is a fine strategy.

A lot of my concerns have already been addressed except for one: reassembly.

How are they getting the pieces to fit together? I don’t recall what methods were used.

Bolts/screws? Can they get enough out intact to reuse? Do holes line up? Can they safely drill new holes in enough places to hold it together?

Welding? That’s going to take a lot of material and the metal of the plane isn’t going to be like the material the cargo welding supplies are intended to work on.

It was complex, but the book/film presented them as possible. They had welding supplies, but as I recall it they didn’t have to do much welding. Most of the parts were bolted together, and they used the existing assembly as much as possible. . The fittings on the opposite side weren’t really intended for the wrong-way-facing partial wing from the other side of the plane, but it was close enough to fit. They did, indeed, use salvaged bolts and nuts.

I don’t know if it would have worked out in reality as relatively easily as it did in the film. The biggest problem, it seems to me, was hauling away the half-wing with attached engine and nacelle from the main body of the aircraft far enough to allow the Phoenix to be built, then hauling the other half-wing over the top of the plane to attach to that structure. This would all have to be done with sheer manpower and winches, and that’s no small weight.

as I say, I don’t know how much of that would really work out, and how much they were benevolently allowing for the sake of the story.

OK, so we have Adam, now all we need is Jamie!

I can’t find a definitive discussion or evaluation of whether the Phoenix would work, in either film. Here’s an interesting discussion:


One thing that doesn’t bolster my courage. In the original film Dorfmann talks about a “rubber band-powered model airplane built by Henson and Stringfellow” that flew some distance without a pilot. That’s simply wrong, as I’ve noted before. In the first place, the collaboration of Henson and Stringfellow produced nothing except some far-faetched ideas for a passenger airplane, before anyone had actually built a flying airplane. Henson dropped out, and Stringfellow did his experimental work on his own. He did succeed in building heavier-than-air model planes that actually flew for considerable distances. They were monoplanes, and used paired, counter-rotating propellors. That’s pretty advanced and impressive. He did it decades before the Wright Brothers. But his model wasn’t driven by a rubber band – it was powered by a miniature aluminum steam engine that Stringfellow built.

Vaguely on point case. Generally speaking, in common law countries the shooter would be subject to prosecution for murder. Moreover, international law is fairly clear on prohibitions against even mercy killings on the battlefield. However, there is a likely distinction between saving water for healthy people and shooting a dying person.

That’s all very well, but it misses the point. The point being made in the film was that a properly-designed airplane can fly itself. The historical inaccuracy of one instance does not negate the fact.

The presence of that big a historical blunder, though, makes me question their accuracy on everything. I appreciate the point being made, but they didn’t merely get a name wrong, they got multiple historical facts badly mangled.