The plot concerns the dramatic events aboard an airborne Boeing 747 when a small aircraft crashes into the cockpit causing the fatalities of senior crew and the blinding of the pilot with no one aboard qualified to take the controls. Airport 1975 was the seventh highest-grossing movie of 1974 at the U.S.A. and Canada box office.
Columbia Air Lines' Flight 409 is a Boeing 747-100 on a red-eye route from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport. Scott Freeman, meanwhile, is a New Mexican businessman flying his private Beechcraft Baron to an urgent sales meeting in Boise, Idaho. However, an occluded front has the entire West Coast socked in, with Los Angeles reporting zero visibility. Columbia 409 and Freeman's Beechcraft are both diverted to Salt Lake City International Airport.
Salt Lake air traffic control assigns Columbia 409 to land ahead of Freeman's Beechcraft. As Columbia 409 is about to start its descent, First Officer Urias unlocks himself from his seat to check out a vibration. Just then, Freeman suffers a heart attack and unknowingly descends into the approach of Columbia 409. The Beechcraft slams into Columbia 409 just above the co-pilot seat, blowing Urias out of the plane to his death, destroying most of the Flight Engineer's panel and fatally injuring Flight Engineer Julio. Captain Stacy is struck in the face by debris and is blinded. Nancy Pryor, the First Stewardess, rushes to the flight deck, to find Flight Engineer Julio dead, First Officer Urias gone and Captain Stacy injured. Although severely injured and blinded, he is still alive. Using the last of his strength, Captain Stacey is able to engage the autopilot and the altitude hold switch before losing consciousness.
Pryor informs the Salt Lake control tower that the crew is dead or badly injured and that there is no one to fly the plane. She gives an assessment of the damage as a large hole on the right side of the flight deck that destroyed most of the instrument gauges over the engineer station. Joe Patroni, Columbia's Vice President of Operations, is apprised of Columbia 409's situation. He seeks the advice of Captain Al Murdock, Columbia's chief flight instructor, who also happens to be Nancy Pryor's boyfriend, even though their relationship was "on the rocks" at that time.
Patroni and Murdock take the airline's executive jet to Salt Lake. En route, they communicate with Pryor, learning that the autopilot is keeping the aircraft in level flight, but it is inoperable for turns. The jet is heading into the Wasatch Mountains, so Murdock starts to guide Pryor by radio on how to perform the turn when radio communications are interrupted and the Salt Lake tower is unable to restore contact.
Unable to turn, leaking fuel and dodging the peaks of the Wasatch Mountains, an air-to-air rescue attempt is undertaken from a jet-powered HH-53 helicopter flown by the USAF Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service. While a replacement pilot is preparing to be released on a tether from the helicopter to Columbia 409, Captain Stacy is able to give a cryptic clue regarding the decrease in airspeed during a climb in altitude. Pryor realizes that she must accelerate to be able to climb over the mountain and successfully does so. After Columbia 409 has leveled off, the replacement pilot is released towards the stricken airliner. Just as Pryor is helping him in, the release cord from his harness becomes caught in the jagged metal surrounding the hole in the cockpit. As he climbs in, his harness is released from the tether and he falls from the aircraft.
The only other person on the helicopter who can land a 747 is Captain Murdock. He is tethered to the helicopter, lowered to the jet and successfully enters it through the hole in the cockpit. He then lands the plane safely at Salt Lake City Airport, where the flight attendants successfully conduct an emergency evacuation of the passengers via the inflatable slides as Pryor and Murdock reconcile.
Airport 1975 used a Boeing 747-123 Freighter (cargo variant) s/n 20390 (registration N9675), leased from American Airlines.
As Sister Ruth, Helen Reddy performs a solo acoustic version of her song "Best Friend" (originally on her 1971 debut album I Don't Know How to Love Him) to an ailing Linda Blair. The song was written by Reddy and Ray Burton, who also co-wrote her hit single "I Am Woman".
Airport 1975 was a massive commercial success, with a budget of $3 million, the film made over $47 million at the box office, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1974 and the year's third highest-grossing disaster film, behind The Towering Inferno and Earthquake.
Critical reception was mainly unfavourable with The New Yorker magazine's film critic Pauline Kael calling the picture "cut-rate swill", "produced on a TV-movie budget by mercenary businessmen". Kael also thought the audio problems gave Karen Black's voice a metallic sound that was grating and that the main character, a stewardess, was constantly being patronized by men. Roger Ebert was less condemnatory, describing it as "corny escapism", although he made a similar observation about Black's character - that she is made to seem incompetent simply because she is a woman.
Airport 1975 was included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time published in 1978. The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John J.B. Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
This is one among many of a class of disaster films that became a popular craze during the 1970s. Its plot devices and characterizations, including a singing nun (Helen Reddy), a former glamorous star (Gloria Swanson as herself), an alcoholic (Myrna Loy), a child in need of an organ transplant (Linda Blair) and a chatterbox (Sid Caesar) were parodied in 1980's Airplane! and on The Carol Burnett Show as "Disaster '75".
Helen Reddy was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer-Female.