“I like to think that there are no atheists in fox holes,”  says Roma Downey. Downey, an Emmy-nominated actress best known for her role as Monica on the television series Touched by an Angel, is the co-founder and president of Lightworkers Media, the production company responsible for bringing her latest project, On a Wing and a Prayer, to the big screen. As the president of Lightworkers, MGM/Amazon’s faith and family division, Downey looks to tell stories of hope and inspiration. When the script for On a Wing and a Prayer came across her desk – the incredible true story of Doug White’s struggle to save his family when suddenly forced to pilot their chartered plane mid-flight – it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Can you tell US about your new movie On a Wing and a Prayer?  ROMA DOWNEY:  It’s a story of a family that gets on a small King Air flight that quickly goes awry. Dennis Quaid plays Doug White, the father, and they have just been to Florida attending the funeral of their brother, with his wife, played by Heather Graham, and their two teenage daughters, and they’re on the plane and Heather’s character says to the pilot, “Would you let him ride up front with you? 

The pilot graciously agreed and next thing we know, the plane is hurtling through the air climbing to 33,000 feet. Dennis asks a question of the pilot, the pilot doesn’t answer, and Dennis to his shock and horror discovers that the pilot has died of a massive heart attack. So he finds himself at the controls of a plane that he doesn’t know how to fly. It’s just him, his wife, and his daughters on board. And in that moment, absolute panic sets in, but they happen to be a family of faith. However, I would suggest that there are no atheists in a foxhole. And if you yourself found yourself hurtling through the air on a plane with no pilot, chances are you might pray to someone, in their case, they prayed to the Almighty. And through a series of extraordinary coincidences, which can only be said to be the divine at work, miracles happened on that day. It’s like a thriller in the sky, while still being a family movie. It’s a terrific story of strength and courage. It’s beautifully directed by Sean McNamara. Dennis gives an extraordinary performance as Doug White and Jesse Metcalf plays the King Air expert pilot on the ground who finally gets connected to them via audio to try to talk him down. 

It’s a fascinating concept, and it’d be so even if it was fictional, but it’s not. DOWNEY:  When you see these series of coincidences play out, had it not been a true story, those are the moments that you might have turned to the audience sitting to your left and right, said, “Well, great movie, that’s a bit far fetched.” I mean, for all of those things to have lined up exactly like they needed to line up for this to happen is just so extraordinary. There’s one scene with Dennis in particular, when  he realizes that the pilot is dead, his family are all up the back, and he’s just sitting in the cockpit looking at the sea of instruments in front of him. It’s just total chaos to the layperson’s eyes. The performance at that point is extraordinary because it’s like the shock and then into the awful awareness of the Herculean task at hand. But he holds it together. And in real life, Doug White, he landed that plane and then he went on to become, in his own life, a commercial pilot of that particular craft. So I wonder if that had been your experience, either you’re never getting on a plane again or you do what he did, ensuring that he’d never be in that situation again. 

As the co-founder and president of Lightworkers, can you tell me about how the story came together and what your role as producer entailed? DOWNEY:  I formed Lightworkers, my production company with my husband Mark Burnett, gosh, I don’t know, around 15 years ago. And our first big production together was an epic miniseries on the Bible, which played on the History Channel. At the time, many of our friends and colleagues here in Hollywood thought we were nuts to attempt something as massive as the Bible and thought that not only would we lose money, we would lose our reputations. But, we found great success and a large audience for that type of story and things have progressed from there. Our mantra is it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. And that I am interested in telling stories of hope. This script showed up on my desk because it has these elements. Brian Egeston, the writer along with Autumn Bailey, producer and friend of his reached out to me to see if I would be interested in telling this story under my Lightworkers banner and I loved it. I then worked with Brian and Autumn to develop this script and then, during an unrelated meeting with Dennis Quaid regarding a completely different project, he mentioned that he was a pilot. And despite the fact that I was looking for an actor who didn’t know how to fly a plane, I gave Dennis the script and a few weeks later he told me that he’d love to be a part of it and I negotiated a deal to secure him in the role.

The very last meeting I had before COVID shut us all down was with Sean McNamara, who became the director and coincidentally had worked with Dennis before. So now I have a director, and now I have a star and I have a great script. I was in good shape, except it was COVID and nobody was doing anything, making anything. But I approached my parents’ studio because Lightworkers was the faith and family division of MGM Studios, and I brought it into MGM at the time, under the leadership of Mike DeLuca and Pam Abdi, who gave me the green light. 

What do you think will resonate most with audience members? DOWNEY:  Anytime you’re taken on an emotional journey by a film, it’s what’s the takeaway? What’s the feeling you’re going to be left with? And I think in this case, the feeling you’re going to be left with is that when we work together, we can move mountains. And then just the extraordinary supernatural element of all these things lining up so divinely that this was able to happen, that you’re just going to be left feeling there’s enough bad news in the world. Listen, on any given day, your heart could be broken a million times. Turning the news on this kind of film gives you a thrilling experience, but a satisfying, heartwarming ending. Call me corny, but I like that.