Jay Prochnow’s Harrowing Flight

Jay Prochnow’s Harrowing Flight
Jay Prochnow’s Harrowing Flight

Jay with Captain Gordon Vette


Imagine flying for more than 14 hours non-stop over the Pacific Ocean. …in a small single place – single engine aircraft. You see nothing but the blue of the ocean around you. You try to contact your landing airport… Nothing. Then you realize you are lost in the middle of nowhere… and you’re in a very small Cessna agplane. Your only hope is the determined Captain of a commercial flight nearby (or believed to be) to help you. This is what the made-for-TV movie Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771, based on a true story, is all about. It was presented in many networks worldwide. It has been introduced in Australia and New Zealand under the name The Flight from Hell.  

I worked with Captain Jay Prochnow at good ol’ America West.  He was a great guy, a really good fellow who is additionally an excellent pilot.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t remember Jay Prochnow in the best light!  

When I first wrote Jay’s story he was alive albeit suffering from Prostate Cancer.  He survived a long time.  Now, sadly, Jay has Gone West… I miss him!  I miss our occasional lunch visits.  I miss him being with our Cactus Crews (retired America West flight crews).  I’m among many who miss this extraordinary fellow…

A movie was made of his flight delivering a Cessna model 188 “AG Wagon.”  Had the producers and director availed themselves to technical advisors it could have been a really “WOW” movie.  Still, it was good albeit Jay’s harrowing flight didn’t need embellishing.

1966 Jay’s wife pinning his Navy Wings of Gold

ABOVE:  Jay’s Navy “Skyraider” ready to launch

BELOW:  Jay’s Douglas A-3 “Skywarrior”

…pilots nicknamed the A-3 “The Whale” as it was a HUGE aircraft to operate from a carrier deck!

BELOW:  Jay’s AWA A-320



Jay Prochnow, a retired US Navy pilot, was delivering a Cessna 188 from the United States to Australia. Prochnow had a colleague who was flying another Cessna 188 alongside him. The long trip would be completed in four stages. On the morning of 20 December, both pilots took off from Pago Pago. His colleague crashed on take off, but was unharmed. Prochnow landed and set out the following day to Norfolk Island.

Cessna model 188 “AG Wagon”

When Prochnow arrived at the region where he believed Norfolk Island was, he was unable to see the island. He informed Auckland Air Traffic Control (AATC), but at this point there was no immediate danger. He continued searching; after locating more homing beacons from other islands, he realized his ADF (automatic direction finder) had malfunctioned and he was now lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. He alerted AATC and declared an emergency.

There was only one aircraft in the vicinity, Air New Zealand Flight 103, a McDonald-Douglas DC-10 travelling from Fiji to Auckland. The flight had 88 passengers on board. The captain was the late-great Gordon Vette,* the first officer was Arthur Dovey, and the F/E was Gordon Brooks. Vette knew that if they did not try and help, Prochnow would almost certainly die. Vette was also a navigator, and at the time of the incident he still held his license. Furthermore, another passenger, Malcolm Forsyth, was also a navigator; when he heard about the situation he volunteered to help. As neither Prochnow nor the crew of the DC-10 had any real idea of where the Cessna was, the crew had to devise creative ways to find it. By this time, contact between both aircraft had been made on long range HF radio. Prochnow had crossed the international date line, and the date was now 22 December.

*Captain Vette had been involved in two separate aviation experiences that were made into movies!

ABOVE:  Jay as an America West Airlines Boeing 747 co-pilot

The following was pulled off the internet and is a well researched synopsis of Jay Prochnow’s Harrowing Flight:

Mayday in December
“Mayday mayday.”  This message of a pilot in distress on radio three days before Christmas 1978 is heard by Auckland ATC.  The saga of how Jay Prochnow was finally located by the innovative navigational techniques of Captain Gordon Vette aided by Malcolm Forsyth both of Air New Zealand, Auckland ATC, Norfolk Island and the crew of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Orion is made into a Brain Game.  The Penrod, a towed oil rig with running lights, served as a beacon which enabled Captain Vette to rendezvous with Jay Prochnow.

The Sun reached its highest ascension 21 December 1978 at the winter solstice (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) and the very next day Jay Prochnow (a former U.S. Navy pilot), piloting a Cessna 188 AgWagon found himself lost.  He was ferrying the Cessna from Pago Pago to Norfolk Island.  With a failed ADF and an overdue ETA, he was deeply worried.

Prochnow began an expanding square pattern hoping to find Norfolk Island before the fuel ran out.  Capt. Gordon Vette in command of an Air New Zealand DC-10 (equipped with three inertial navigation systems), believed to be near the Cessna, was enlisted by Auckland ATC to help locate the lost Cessna.  Vette, a qualified navigator, contacted Prochnow and asked him to head toward the Sun and to report his magnetic heading.  Prochnow pointed the Cessna to magnetic heading 274 degrees as Vette steered his DC-10 toward the Sun and read his magnetic heading as 270 degrees.  Next Vette instructed Prochnow to determine the elevation angle of the Sun above the horizon using his partially outstretched arm and fingers as a sextant.  Prochnow established the elevation of the Sun as four fingers as Vette measured the elevation of the Sun as two fingers.  Vette estimated the Cessna was about 240-250 nmi (each finger was slightly more than 2 degrees with each degree worth 60 nmi) from the DC-10.  Vette was then able to get within VHF boxing range of Prochnow in 7 or 8 minutes.  Prochnow was directed to fly east toward the DC‑10.  The Sun began to set.  Norfolk Island and Prochnow were both instructed to note the time that the upper limb of the Sun sank below the horizon.  With this information, the results of VHF radio reception (contact/loss) and the time of sunset comparison observed at Norfolk Island and the Cessna, the Cessna’s position was determined to be within 290 miles of its destination.  Rendezvous over a towed ocean rig refined the position and Prochnow was directed to a heading to intercept Norfolk Island.  We may conclude that the Cessna was:

a.     Northeast of the DC-10 initially and located by using sunset tables adjusted for altitude and VHF reception

b.     Southeast of the DC-10 initially and located by using sunset tables unadjusted for altitude and VHF reception

c.     Southwest of the DC-10 initially and located by using sunset tables adjusted for altitude and VHF reception

d.     Northwest of the DC-10 initially and located by using sunset and declination tables adjusted for altitude and VHF reception

The answer is:

In constructing this Brain Game certain liberties were taken regarding details of air-to-ground-to-air coordination.  However, the concepts of location finding portrayed are based on the valid techniques employed by the DC‑10, Norfolk Island, Aukland ATC and the Cessna.

Space limits including all the details of the crisis confronted by Prochnow and all the refinements employed in the search.  Since the heading of the Cessna to the Sun was 274 degrees it was greater than the 270‑degree heading of the DC‑10, that meant that the Cessna was south of the DC‑10 as shown in Figure 20 .  Since the elevation angle of the Sun measured by Prochnow was higher than that established by Vette, the Cessna was closer to the Sun or west of the DC‑10 as shown in Figure 21 .  Thus, the Cessna was southwest of the DC‑10.

Vette recognized that the VHF communication link could be exploited to locate the Cessna.  He requested that the Cessna orbit as he raced through the VHF range circle which had a radius of about 200 nmi as depicted in Figure 22 .  A map of the region, courses, and events is depicted in Figure 23 .

Capt. Vette reasoned that if he marked the points at which he established and lost contact with the Cessna, he could find the location of the Cessna.  He knew the diameter of the VHF range circle was 400 nmi  He flew his DC-10 along track 1-2 as depicted in Figure 24 .  He acquired VHF contact at point 1 and lost VHF contact from the Cessna at point 2 (marking the point) at which time he turned 90 degrees left and began his aural box pattern.

Figure 20.  Cessna South of the DC-10

Figure 21.  Cessna Must Be West of the DC-10

Figure 22.  VHF range

Figure 23.  Map of Mayday in December

Figure 24.  Flying the Aural Box Pattern into the VHF Range Circle

After flying on this new leg for a reasonable period, he turned 90 degrees left for a short period followed by another 90 degree turn to the left and at point 3 he regained VHF contact with the Cessna (as he marked his map).  He continued through point 4 where he lost VHF contact with the Cessna.  Using the intersection of the perpendicular bisectors to the two chords flown within the VHF range circle, Capt. Vette established the center and the location of the Cessna.  The Cessna, however, was not immediately found.  Earlier, the DC-10 had dumped fuel to leave a trail which was not seen by Prochnow.  Capt. Vette recognized that one can determine the difference of longitude between Norfolk Island and the Cessna by noting the GMT of sunset at the two locations.  Norfolk’s local time was 1900 for this event.  The Cessna’s time was reduced to sea level (as Prochnow would see sunset later owing to his altitude and his eastward displacement from Norfolk Island).  The difference between the times in GMT for sunset at the two observations was 22.5 minutes which corresponds to 5.6° longitude (a degree is equal to 4 minutes in time).  Norfolk’s coordinates were latitude 30°S, longitude 168°E.  This would place the Cessna at longitude of 173.6°E , 291 nmi east of Norfolk (5.6°x 60 nmi/deg x cos 30°). Prochnow was directed to fly northwest during this interlude as he was regarded as being southeast of Norfolk Island.  A RNZAF Orion was dispatched to help find the Cessna which had been airborne for 20.5 hours and now had minimum fuel remaining.  Continued plotting by the navigators showed that the Cessna was approximately at 30°S, 171°E.  Prochnow soon saw a light on the water’s surface.  Prochnow found an oil rig under tow whose coordinates (31°S, 170° 21’E) were relayed to the DC-10 and enabled a rendezvous with the Cessna.  The Cessna was less than 150 nmi from Norfolk and was given a steering direction by Vette of 294° magnetic heading to Norfolk Island.  The Cessna landed safely after being airborne 23 hours and 5 minutes arriving at close to midnight 8 hours beyond its 1600 ETA.  Prochnow had stretched the Cessna’s twenty-two hours of fuel by 5 percent through cruise control.

Sources of error

Aural boxing.  Depends on continuous transmission on VHF otherwise a silence can be construed as loss of contact.  To be accurate the acquisition and loss of Prochnow’s VHF trans-missions would have to be accurately noted.  There could
be timing errors in this procedure in noting these events (30 seconds error in the same direction on each end contributes to 10 nmi error at 600 knots ground speed).

Sunset observation.  Accurate determination of longitude by observing time of sunset requires knowledge of latitude by observing sunset and noting the time in GMT one may determine longitude by assuming a latitude of the site.

The Local Mean Time of sunset changes 13 min/5° latitude in this region of 30°latitude.  Therefore, an error of one degree latitude contributes to 2.6 minutes in time error which is 2.6 min x 1°/4 min or 0.65° of longitude uncertainty or 0.65° x 60 nmi/°
x cos 30° or 0.65 x 60 x 0.866 = 33.8 nmi error in longitude which demonstrates that determining longitude by assuming a latitude is very sensitive to the latitude assumption.


Captain Vette had dumped fuel when he thought he was within visual contact of the Cessna.  He believes that the Cessna’s opaque canopy prevented Prochnow from sighting the DC-10.  Vette concluded that his dump position was behind the Cessna as verified from his inertial navigation coordinates and an HF line of position.



Movie Plot Summary:
Jay Parkins (Prochnow) played by Scott Bakula, is something of a daredevil flyer. At the beginning of the movie, he is making, along with his flight partner Frank (Alan Fletcher) a helicopter crop duster demonstration, as he is flying too high, the farmer in charge asks him to fly lower. So he does… almost touching the ground and right after, passing under… a bridge with the helicopter. You guessed it, they got fired!

Back at home in San Francisco, Jay meets his wife Ellen (Rebecca Rigg), pregnant, and they make a lot of projects for the baby who spends his time resting or… kicking! In the meantime, Gordon Vette (Robert Loggia), Captain for Air New Zealand, does an energic complain to his superior about his friend, First Officer Ross Mann (Michael Bishop), who has not yet been promoted as a Captain. Gordon is a veteran and has been working for 33 years on Air New Zealand. He plans to either retire or BE retired, and have more time with his wife (Sarah Kemp).

Meanwhile, Jay and Frank are called by Harry Hanson (Robert Benedetti), their supervisor, for a very special flight. They will be in charge of delivering two crop dusters to Sydney by Christmas. They will have to fly the leg by making stopovers at Honolulu, Pago Pago, Norfolk Island, and finally Sydney. The trip seems dangerous, but Hansen reassures the pilots, telling them they are experienced with this kind of situation. And it sounds like a very lucrative assignment.

Jay goes back home and discusses about it with his wife, who doesn’t seem to agree to put his life in danger just for the money. After many vain reassurings, Jay finally flies the morning after with Frank, who takes off quite roughly because of the fuel quantity higher than usual in the wings. Both pilots will be guided by the ADF just installed on both planes… with masking tape!

The flights to Honolulu and Pago Pago are very smooth. On Christmas morning at Pago Pago, Jay, piloting the Cessna registered as N30771 (callsign Cessna 771), takes-off with no major problems. But Frank cannot lift the plane. He reaches the end of the runway, stalls and crashes in the sea near the airport. Frank is okay and escapes before the torn Cessna turns into a fireball. Jay doesn’t want to fly alone anymore and proposes, by radio, to stop the journey and get back to San Francisco. Frank disagrees and convinces Jay to fly lonely to earn the money for the baby. He finally does, but unaware of a “small” problem.

ABOVE:  Jay with actor Scott Bakula in the cockpit of a Cessna Agwagon

BELOW: Safely on a Pacific island

All in a day’s work!

Somewhere else, a little later, Air New Zealand flight 308 is on final boarding process at the Nadi International Airport in Fiji. A group of children travelling with their chaperone “invades” the jetliner, but besides that, it is very calm with only 88 passengers. Among the flight crew, there is Captain Gordon Vette, First Officer Ross Mann and Captain Warren Banks (Kit Taylor) on the two-hour ride to Auckland. Flight NZ308 finally takes-off quietly and climbs to cruising altitude.

At the same time, Cessna 771 is supposedly flying over Norfolk Island, at North of New Zealand. Jay tries to contact Norfolk Tower… but nothing. No answer. He looks at the ADF and the needle indicates the same heading he is flying into, near South West. But he pushes the glass and the needle spins to a new heading. This can only mean one thing: the ADF was not working properly and Jay has diverted from his original route. He contacts Auckland Center on his HF radio to find some help.

The rescue planes are far away at Auckland Airport and they are not able to leave at the moment. There are no ships nearby. The only plane in the air space is Air New Zealand flight 308. Auckland Center contacts 308 to ask for help, and Capt. Vette agrees to give a hand to the young lost pilot. After a few discussions with him by radio, telling him to save what’s left of fuel, he convinces his flight crew and his passengers to divert the flight and find the pilot.

The problem is that NZ308 is a commercial flight not equipped for the situation. With rudimentary methods, such as the sun orientation and the VHF radio (with a range of 200 nautical miles), the search is hard. Jay slowly loses any hope and is seriously thinking of landing on the water. But if he does, he won’t be found and he is most likely doomed. Will Jay be found by NZ308 before it’s too late? Rent the movie for more details!

ABOVE:  Jay flying his last flight with America West Airlines in the Airbus A-320 in 2002

BELOW:  Jay receiving an award from ALPA in 2002

The action in the movie is at some moments very tense and breath-holding. Loggia and Bakula nicely play their roles, along with the other secondary actors. The audiovisual quality is excellent and the air to air images are magnificent, most likely professional commercial footage. However, that compensates for the “amateur” special effects, that might remind you of the movie Airport. Also, too bad they don’t give many precisions about the real event: no date is given at any time.

I give this movie 8 out of 10.
It is an excellent movie to watch with the family, and will keep you restless at key moments.

Things to notice
Here are the goofs and trivia for Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771.

  • In real life, Gordon Vette retired from Air New Zealand in the early eighties (1981 or 1982), so even in the movie, the event should have been depicted before that time, when the Boeing 767 was not yet on commercial service… nor the 747-400s seen at San Francisco, bearing a fresher United Airlines color scheme (larger and more “squeezed” characters).
  • Prior to departure, many planes are seen from the cockpit, among them a few Ansett Australia planes bearing the “Australian Flag”, when the action occured in the early eighties (at the time Ansett used the “Star” livery).
  • I see an Australian Airlines plane in the ground cockpit scene at Fiji. Has Australian Airlines ever flown to Fiji? Did it even exist when the incident occured (early eighties)? Or was it still called TAA?
  • During the cockpit sequence, the engine needles (EPR, N1, N2) in the central video screens do not move, even though Captain Vette applies full thrust.
  • Air New Zealand Flight 308 is a Boeing 767-200 in all sequences (mostly stock footage from ANZ), except on take-off when it becomes a Boeing 737-200, and at the Auckland Airport apron, where it is a Boeing 737-300/400 of Australian Airlines. The titles are barely visible since the scene is at night. Additionally, the hangar where Vette challenges one of his supervisors, in one of the first scenes, hosts a couple of Australian Airlines aircraft, minus titles.
  • In all the daylight sequences, the clouds seen from the inside the cockpit of the 767 are perfectly still. A poster was probably used. For the night sequences however, the clouds really move. In the case of the Cessna, the clouds from the outside are moving, but the use of background film is obvious.
  • The First Officer touches too many random and irrelevant buttons during the flight operations. For example, he sets the autopilot heading or course during the very final approach!
  • The take-off cockpit sequence was done (obviously) in a flight simulator.

You may be interested to know that…

  • As shown during the taxi sequence, the aircraft was baptized “Aotearoa”, which is the Maori name of New Zealand and means “land of the long white cloud”. It is one of the first 767-200s used by Air New Zealand. This can be noticed as the plane taxies to the runway… before it becomes a 737-200.
  • The major airport in the American Samoa is in a city called Pago Pago, which is actually pronounced “Pango Pango”, as accurately depicted by the actors. The same thing can be said about Nadi, in Fiji, which is pronounced “Nandi”.
  • When the air traffic controller stands up to warn Hudson about the Cessna declaring an emergency, you can see, right above his radar scope, a bumper sticker saying: “I  AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL”.
  • Gordon Vette has a cameo role near the end of the movie, as a bystander at Auckland Airport, tapping the back of what an IMDb user believes to be the real Jay Prochnow.

Here are the main differences between the real event and the movie depiction. This information comes from Stanley Stewart’s excellent book Emergency! Crisis on the Flight Deck .

  • Jay departed Pago Pago for Norfolk Island in the night of December 21, 1978, and landed one day later (due to the International Date Change line crossing). The movie depicts his departure (and Frank’s balked departure) as occuring after Christmas Day.
  • The only character names that were kept in the movie were Gordon Vette (probably as a token of gratitude from the film crew – his name is mentioned in the credits) and Jay, whose last name in real life was Prochnow.
  • Aboard what was really flight 103 (and not 308), there were also First Officer Arthur Dovey and Second Officer Gordon Brooks (later killed in the Mount Erebus, Antarctica crash on November 28, 1979). An Air New Zealand DC-8 First Officer, Malcolm Forsyth, flying off-duty as a passenger, later joined the three airmen.
  • The aircraft was a DC-10-30, registered ZK-NZS, and not a Boeing 767-200 as depicted in the movie. There are two accurate details, however: the flight’s route was indeed a Nadi-Auckland run, and there were really 88 passengers.
  • Jay did make the trip all the way to Pago Pago with a fellow pilot, flying a separate Cessna 188 crop duster. The departure from Pago Pago is relatively accurate. The fellow’s plane did experience difficulties on take-off, and its pilot was forced to ditch. It is interesting to note that, in real life, Jay landed back in Pago Pago after his colleague’s ditching. In the movie, Jay is compelled to resume his departure to Norfolk Island immediately after witnessing Frank’s ditching from the air.
  • It is believed that, on the second half of the movie, there are several scenes created for dramatic purposes, since the book makes no mention of them at all.

The planes
Flight 308 is a Boeing 767-200 operated by Air New Zealand, flying a Nadi – Auckland route. (NAN-AKL). Cessna 771 is a Cessna crop duster privately owned and operated, flying a San Francisco – Honolulu – Pago Pago – Norfolk Island – Sydney route (SFO-HNL-PPG-NLK-SYD) for a delivery flight.

Movie links
If you have other URLs to add to this list, or to report a dead link, please contact us.

U.S.A./New Zealand 1995. Produced by Anasazi Productions. Directed by Roger Young. Starring Robert Loggia, Scott Bakula, Rebecca Rigg, Alan Fletcher. Rated G.

Among the many comments made to this story, one (from Allen) stood out with it’s suggestion: “As a double-check, Why didn’t Gordon Vette and New Zealand’s Air Traffic Control ask several Amateur radio Operators in New Zealand and on Australia’s east coast who had directional (rotatable) antenna beams to get A compass ‘fix’ on Jay prochnow’s HF transmissions to deduce his approximate position? I’m astounded that New Zealand wasn’t prepared to immediately launch at least several rescue aircraft that all had a radio direction finder?!!”

Too bad Jay and Gordon are no longer with us to reply to this astute observation…


  1. As a double-check, Why didn’t Gordon Vette and New Zealand’s Air Traffic Control ask several Amateur radio Operators in New Zealand and on Australia’s east coast who had directional (rotatable) antenna beams to get A compass ‘fix’ on Jay prochnow’s HF transmissions to deduce his approximate position? I’m astounded that New Zealand wasn’t prepared to immediately launch at least several rescue aircraft that all had a radio direction finder?!!

  2. Jay Was my copilot on a world Airways DC-10-30 during a two month contract in the 80s with Malaysian air. A great guy, good pilot. He never spoke of his harrowing adventure to me.

    1. Yup Jay was a doer and it usually took a few bent elbows to drag personal anecdotes outta him! I was blessed to have him as a good friend. I sure do miss him!

  3. Muy Interesante toda la información, pero al final es una película que gusta mucho y la siguen buscando hasta ahora en estos tiempos para verla.

  4. Billy, it is Garry mcAlpine here.. i am a journalist based in New Zealand currently doing a podcast on Jay’s harrowing flight from the point of Capt Gordon Vette who was the pilot of the Air NZ DC10 that helped in jay’s rescue.

    Gordon vette has sadly passed away as well but i am wondering if you have been in contact, or now of contact details with Jay’s family and as such, if i could possibly get hold of them ?

    My contact Details are

    garry.mcalpine@gmail.com (all lower case) +64 21 950 944

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