Two airline pilots experience a sudden loss of power in the two engines of their airliner due to a fuel pump failure and end up crashing shortly afterwards, albeit in a flight simulator. In complete disbelief that such a scenario could ever happen in real life, they protest to the examiner. He tells them that "It isn't a dream. It happened."()
A few years earlier, on July 23, 1983, at Dorval Airport in Montreal, the ground crew of Canada World Airways struggles to convert gallons into liters and pounds into kilograms, as they prepare to refuel a brand-new Boeing 767 bound for Edmonton. This is the first aircraft in the fleet to use the metric system and they are about to make a terrible conversion mistake. Meanwhile, Beth Pearson (Mariette Hartley) drives her husband, Captain Robert Pearson (William Devane), to the airport, unusually anxious about hosting her in-laws later that day. Elsewhere in Montréal, First Officer Maurice Quintal (Scott Hylands) reluctantly agrees to cover for an injured colleague, leaving behind his sick wife.
The two airmen feel uneasy about their 767 having an inoperative fuel gauge, but are somewhat reassured to see the ground crew measuring the quantity of fuel in the tanks: 20,345 kg, or so they believe, enough to take them to Vancouver. Their Flight Management Computer will constantly indicate the quantity on board. After a delay, the passengers board flight 174, including Rick Dion (Winston Rekert), the airline's chief mechanic, as well as his wife and three-year-old boy.
After takeoff, Dion visits Pearson on the flight deck. Their conversation is suddenly interrupted by a series of beeps indicating a failure with one of the fuel pumps. After activating the cross-feeding valve between the tanks, the alarm stops. Later, another fuel pump fails. Quintal revises the notepad used by the ground crew in Montréal and discovers they loaded 20,345 pounds (instead of kilograms) of fuel, less than half what they should have.
Pearson decides to divert to Winnipeg. The 767 is still far from that major airport, when suddenly, an alarm sounds, indicating they are out of fuel. It is followed by the failure of the two engines, and the complete shutdown of the instruments. Fortunately, a ram air turbine kicks in and provides limited power to the instruments. The aircraft has become a giant glider. The passengers face what they believe are their last moments alive.
Luckily, Pearson is a former glider pilot. Quintal suddenly remembers a closer airfield in Gimli and the crew decide to try to land there instead of attempting to reach Winnipeg or land in water. Unknown to them, the airfield's abandoned runway is occupied by race cars and young cyclists, which they have to dodge. The nose landing gear collapses, yet the aircraft stops within a few meters of the end of the runway. Everyone survives.
Falling from the Sky: Flight 174 was based on Freefall: From 41,000 feet to Zero - A True Story by William and Marilyn Hoffer. Although retaining the real names of three key individuals: Pilots Bob Pearson and Maurice Quintal and Air Canada Maintenance Engineer and passenger Rick Dion, along with their families, the names of the other people and the airline and the flight number were changed. The aircraft in the flying sequences is a Boeing 767 airliner, but interior scenes were shot using a Boeing 747 mock-up.
Falling from the Sky: Flight 174 received decidedly mixed reviews. Film reviewer Hal Erickson said: "Although the actual story has enough inherent drama for five TV movies, the producers felt the necessity to add a few overly melodramatic touches to heighten the suspense; also, aviation enthusiasts weren't too happy with the script's inaccuracies, nor were movie purists impressed by the surprisingly shoddy computer enhanced special effects. Nonetheless, the film boasts excellent performances, especially from William Devane as Captain Bob Pearson."
Todd Everett felt similarly in his review for Variety: "Though based on a real-life event, this air crash drama shows little suspense. Cast, heavy on unknown Canadians, lacks star value of various "Airport" and airplane-terror films; still, 'Falling From the Sky! Flight 174' shows canny instincts from network execs counterprogramming NBC's female-oriented 'A Woman of Independent Means' and, for that matter, CBS's Monday comedy bloc."