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The cockpit of a Boeing 747 is struck by lightning during takeoff for a flight to Europe, fatally injuring the flight crew. Laurie, the senior flight attendant, enlists the aid of passenger Brett Young. They determine that the autopilot can bring the plane in for a landing, but soon learn that the autopilot is locking onto the transponders of airfields at random, including signals from small airports with runways too short to accommodate the jumbo jet. Meanwhile, federal officials on the ground who have lost radio contact with the jet debate whether the plane should be shot down to prevent a more disastrous crash in a heavily populated area.