Jameson had become known for his work on "... movie-of-the-week phenomenon and group-jeopardy suspense and terror." His work with Lee Majors had begun with the television series The Six Million Dollar Man in 1973 with the actor starring in three of Jameson's later films.
Starflight, the first hypersonic transport is being prepared for a media-covered inaugural flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, a planned two-hour flight. The passengers bring some of their problems on board: the pilot, Cody Briggs (Lee Majors), is unfaithful to his wife Janet (Tess Harper) and having an affair with the media relations representative for Thornwell Aviation, Erica Hansen (Lauren Hutton). Hal Parisi (Phil Coccoioletti) married another passenger because she won the trip on TV, but he is only interested in getting his stolen gold out of the country. Freddie Barrett (Terry Kiser) is trying to get his communications satellite launched from Australia to start his business carrying television signals. Starflight’s takeoff is delayed a short time so that the deceased Australian ambassador and his wife, Mrs. Winfield, can be taken aboard. Del (Kirk Scott), the first officer, remembers that nothing good happened the last time a corpse came aboard his aircraft. Finally, Josh Gilliam, the designer (Hal Linden), has misgivings, wishing the engines were under ground control.
Bud Culver (Redmond Gleeson), Freddie's partner in Australia, tells Freddie he must scrub that day's launch of the satellite because weather is closing in; Freddie orders an immediate launch, without NASA approval, which won't come because of Starflight moving into the airspace. Cleared by NASA for liftoff, Starflight climbs to 23 miles using its scramjet engines, then levels off. Freddie’s rocket also launches, but runs into trouble with the second stage, and has to be destroyed. NASA reports, due to an incorrect course, when the rocket was destroyed, it produced a million pieces of debris headed at Starflight.
Thornwell okays Cody letting NASA help; engineer Chris Lucas (Stephen Keep) recommends Starflight climb out of danger. Cody engages the scramjet engines again but rocket debris starts hitting the underside of the aircraft. When NASA says they are clear, Cody orders the jets shut off, but they keep firing because debris has severed the engine controls. Waiting until the hydrogen fuel runs out is now their only option, but they risk accelerating out of the atmosphere and into orbit. Gilliam is concerned that if there is a flaw in the structure, Starflight would break up.
The fuel runs out just as Starflight reaches orbital velocity/altitude. NASA believes their orbit is good for 48–60 hours, but they need to conserve power and other consumables. The Columbia space shuttle is sent up to try to help; it brings a supply of hydrogen to refuel Starflight, and an airlock is brought to try to bring Josh Gilliam back to Earth to work on the problem. The astronaut who does the fueling looks at the engine control conduit at Cody's request, and she recommends shutting the line down. The power is cut on that line.
Pete (Michael Sacks), the flight engineer, tests the airlock transfer, but the airlock hatch will not close and it breaks free, sending Pete into the void. Cody is inspired by a reference in an idle, frustrated exchange with his mistress Erica, sending Josh to Columbia inside the ambassador's coffin. Columbia returns to Earth, landing at Thornwell’s airfield (which had been upgraded for shuttle use) to be processed at Thornwell (which spent $93 million to build it, only to lose the contract to Culver Aviation due to industrial espionage).
Josh goes to work on the problem, and discovers Thornwell’s universal docking tunnel, a flexible conduit that could be attached between Starflight and Columbia. Meanwhile, the stolen gold has begun to escape from a damaged seal. Hal betrays his intentions to his bride, who reports it to the captain through Erica.
Cody has power restored so the news media on board can still report, and that power-up also includes the sparking conduit damaged by rocket debris.
Columbia and six astronauts arrive with the tunnel, intending to rescue 20 passengers. Five passengers, including Hal, are successfully brought through. The next five people, including Freddie Barrett, are lost when the flexible tunnel swings too close to the sparking electric line on the damaged underside of the airliner and ignites.
This leaves 47 aboard, five passengers and one astronaut dead, but six rescued. When Columbia lands, Hal Parisi is arrested. Josh is frustrated, thinking he can’t bring them down. He tells his wife Nancy (Gail Strickland) he’d need a bus to bring them home. She says, "get them a bus". Josh remembers a tank built by Culver Aviation that may work. CEO Q.T. Thornwell (Ray Milland) won’t hear of it, because of how Culver cost Thornwell money, but Q.T.’s son Martin stands up to his father and insists that Culver’s container is the only way. Columbia launches a third time, with the container, and takes 38 more of the passengers, leaving only nine aboard Starflight.
Cody sends Joe Pedowski (Pat Corley), the electrical engineer for Thornwell who worked on Starflight, outside in a space suit to repair the wiring, because Cody hopes to skip the aircraft into the atmosphere. Josh is trying to come up with a solution, then hits upon the way: a shuttle could drop into the atmosphere ahead of Starflight, with Starflight riding the plough-wave; the wingtips would burn a little, but the shuttle's heat shield should take most of the brunt.
Columbia cannot make another launch in time, but another shuttle, XU-5 is in orbit on a military satellite mission, and comes into position just a minute before Starflight is to hit the atmosphere.
The two craft ride in together, and once into the atmosphere, XU-5 veers off while Cody fights to keep Starflight under control in a wild descent with damaged wings. Josh hurries outside, not wanting to listen to the communications. However, after a few minutes of silence, he hears Starflight's distinctive engines, and turns to see it on final approach for landing.
The film's visual effects were supervised by veteran effects guru John Dykstra's Apogee effects house. Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land made use of stock footage of launches by the space shuttle Columbia and an Apollo-era Saturn V on the launch pad. Columbia makes three launches in 24 hours to help Starflight (something completely impossible given turnaround times for shuttle launches). The Saturn V shown at the Kennedy Space Center was depicted as carrying the communications satellite from a fictitious launch site near Sydney. Each time Columbia lands, the touchdown footage is from the early shuttle days when they landed on the dirt runway at Edwards AFB, rather than the concrete runway that Thornwall would be expected to have. Footage of the Approach and Landing Tests with the shuttle prototype Enterprise was used. A chase plane is also visible.
There are strong similarities to the novel Orbit by Thomas Block (1982), whose "Star Streak" aircraft was jet-and-rocket powered and intended for high-atmospheric flight, only to end up in space. However, there are also important differences. In Orbit, the failure to shut down engines, requiring entry into space lest it burn up, was deliberate sabotage rather than accident; the aircraft returns without Shuttle assistance "ploughing" the way; and the Shuttle mission sent to bring the passengers oxygen fails to launch at all.
The New York Times said Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land was "... still another reworking of the escapist adventure stuff that proved so popular in the film Airport. A later review by Dave Sindelar noted that the film was a cross between Marooned (1969) and the Airport movies. It also relied heavily on stock NASA footage to its detriment. As well, Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land was "... slow-moving, mired by disaster-movie style cliches, implausible, and has plenty of dead spots."