For the argument between announcers concerning the white and red zones at the airport, the producers hired the same voice artists who had made the real-world announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. At the real airport, the white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only, and there's no stopping in the red zone (except for transit buses). They were also married to each other in real life.
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker chose actors such as Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen because of their reputation for playing no-nonsense characters. Until this film, these actors had not done comedy, so their "straight-arrow" personas and line delivery made the satire in the movie all the more poignant and funny. Bridges was initially reluctant to take his role in the movie, but his sons persuaded him to do it.
For the famous scene of the 747 crashing through the large windows inside the terminal, producer Jon Davidson mentions (in the DVD extras) that after the movie, he received numerous letters from various pilots telling him that they have come very close to re-enacting that very scene in real life, with some pilots admitting that they've come so close as to touch the glass with the noses of their airplanes.
When Captain Oveur asks the young boy if he'd ever seen the inside of a cockpit before, it's not the original line which was ultimately deemed to be too risqué. (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker originally wanted the line to be "Have you ever seen a grown man's cock?")
In the scene where the husband turns on the air for his sick wife, you see in the background a man wearing a large beard, it was supposed to fly off in the wind, but the adhesive they used wouldn't let the beard come loose. The man can be seen moving his face back and forth and scrunching his face trying to help it come off.
In a 2008 interview on the Today (1952) Show, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the story of being on a European flight and asked to sit in an empty seat in the cockpit during takeoff so the crew could say they flew with Roger Murdoch.
The man in the taxi who spends the entire film waiting, with the meter running, is Howard Jarvis. Jarvis led the 1978 push for Proposition 13 in California, which was a money-saving and tax-cutting initiative that led to massive cuts in public services in California. Jarvis must have understood the irony of the joke by making the appearance, though the reference is probably lost on many people now.
Co-writer/director David Zucker said that years after the movie's release, Woody Allen came up to him at a New York Knicks game and told Zucker how much he loved the movie. Zucker said that, since he and the movie's other writer-directors were heavily influenced by Allen's early comedies, Zucker was very touched.
In the scene with Johnny and Steve McCroskey, McCroskey says "Get me someone who won't crack under pressure." Johnny responds "How about Mister Rogers?" If you look carefully that was dubbed in after. 'Airplane!' was shot in August 1979. Stephen Stucker (Johnny) actually said "How about Mamie Eisenhower." The former First Lady died a few months later (in Nov. 1979) so the producers corrected it by dubbing in "Mister Rogers" out of respect for the Eisenhower family.
The film is mostly a parody of Zero Hour! (1957), a film that had a main character named Ted Stryker and such famous "not meant to be funny" lines like "We have to find someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."
The picture of the boy in the spinning newspaper that has the headline, "Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot", is Billy Koch, the grandson of producer Howard W. Koch. His grandfather called him up one day and asked him for a photo of himself, so Billy grabbed his second grade school photo. It was only after the film came out that he found out why his grandfather wanted the photo.
The film was specially geared to spoof the "Airport" series, but chiefly spoofs Airport 1975 (1974), where Karen Black is a stewardess forced to pilot a plane after both pilots are incapacitated, Linda Blair is a girl needing a kidney transplant, and Helen Reddy plays a singing nun.
To get inspiration for the ZAZ Kentucky Fried Theatre skits, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams would leave a videotape running all night, recording late night television with the aim of spoofing the commercials. One night they recorded the film Zero Hour! (1957), which ultimately acted as the main inspiration for Airplane! (1980).
The argument between the two P.A. voice-overs about an abortion comes from "a cheap, dime-store novel" according to the trivia track of the DVD version. That "novel" is actually Arthur Hailey's "Airport" (which inspired the movie Airport (1970)).
In the DVD commentary, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker had all expressed disappointment that some of the in-movie jokes (such as the thrown spear and the watermelon falling on the desk) did not get as much of a reaction from audiences as they were hoping for.
According to Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers on the DVD commentary, the film was originally written to be a "movie within a movie" for a sequel to The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), but when the movie was aborted, they expanded the story to this full-length feature.
To get the film green-lighted by Paramount, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker pitched it as "Animal House (1978) on a plane" - which, of course, was far from the truth, but the only way they could get the studio execs to understand it was a zany comedy.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's role was originally to be played by Pete Rose, but he was playing baseball at the time of the filming, so the part went to Kareem. He was offered $30,000 to appear in the film, but he asked for $35,000 to buy an oriental rug.
The shots of the planes taking off were taken by directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. As this was their first big budget film, they didn't realize that the 2nd unit should have been taking shots like this.
A disco station in the film is called WZAZ, a reference to filmmakers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. The same initials appear on one of the microphones in the scene with the reporters in the control tower.
According to the soundtrack album cover (Regency Records, 1980), Johnny's last name is Hinshaw. This can actually be heard clearly in the movie, when McCroskey is speaking to the reporters and tells "Hinshaw" to take over. Johnny then steps in and describes the "pretty white airplane" to the press.
While recovering at the VA Hospital, Ted Striker learns of the death of George Zipp, who was under Striker's command (and who previously told Dr. Rumack that his captain, Striker, had made the right decision in making the attack run). Just before this is revealed, you can hear Dr. Rumack being paged on the VA Hospital's PA system.
The singing nun is Maureen McGovern who sings the theme song to the sitcom Angie (1979) which Robert Hays was co-starring in at the time of filming. (McGovern's appearance in the film is a poke at her having sung the Oscar-winning theme songs for two classic disaster movies: "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from The Towering Inferno (1974).)
The screens and computers in the control tower are components of an IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, built in 1954 to protect the US from Soviet bomber attack. It was the largest and heaviest computer system ever built, the full system weighing 6000 tons and taking up an entire floor of a bomb-proof blockhouse. Components of decommissioned systems were sold for scrap and bought by film and television production companies who wanted futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. The components used in this film were previously used in 'The Time Tunnel (1966)' and 'The Towering Inferno (1974)' amongst many others.
Universal threatened to sue when they found out that the directors were trying to get Helen Reddy to repeat her role as the singing nun from Airport 1975 (1974). George Kennedy from the original Airport movies was also being courted for the film but thought better of running afoul of Universal. However, Kennedy would later work with the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, appearing in all three "Naked Gun" movies.
According to Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers in the DVD commentary, when pitching the movie to Robert Stack, they told him to do "Eliot Ness" in reference to Stack's signature character on The Untouchables (1959). Capt. Kramer's speeches were specifically written with the intention of hiring Stack and mocking Ness' "big speeches". Rather than being offended, Stack understood the joke and took the role. Coincidentally, Barbara Stuart, who plays Kramer's wife, had a guest role in an "Untouchables" episode, The Untouchables: The George 'Bugs' Moran Story (1959).
William Tregoe, who plays Jack Kirkpatrick, the TV anchorman ("I say, let 'em crash"), plays an almost identical character in the "Count/Pointercount" segment of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). His character name is the similar-sounding John Fitzsimmons, and he is arguing for "count." Both roles parody James J. Kilpatrick on 60 Minutes (1968).
While Captain Oveur's suggestive (and therefore inappropriate) questions to Joey are a direct parody of similar scenes in Zero Hour! (1957), the fact that Peter Graves' portrayed a "father figure" to a troubled young boy also named Joey, in the '50s TV series Fury (1955), adds yet another level of satire.
The character George Zip, and the line "win one for the Zipper", is a parody of Ronald Reagan's character George Gipp from the film "Knute Rockne All American" (1940), where he utters the line "Win one for the Gipper".
In Norway, the title of this movie is "Help! We're flying" ("Hjelp, vi flyr"). One of many unrelated comedy movies around that period of time that, for some reason, got the prefix "Help!" and a basic description within.
In an interview, Kitten Natividad revealed that her uncredited cameo was for the shot showing gelatin dessert wiggling on a tray below her jiggling breasts. She was not the nude that jumped into camera range.