Somewhere in the mountain wilds of Colorado, a crew of aerial firefighters battle forest fires from their World War II-era planes, dropping water and flame retardant on the blazes below. The best out of all of them is Pete Sandich (Dreyfuss)... until one day when he gets a little too close and his fuel tank catches fire, causing his plane to explode in midair.
Afterwards, Pete finds himself in a burned-out forest where a woman named Hap (Hepburn) is waiting for him in a patch of new growth. Hap explains that he was killed in the explosion, and sends his spirit back to guide the next young pilot, Ted Baker (Johnson), who also is putting the moves on Pete's girlfriend, Dorinda (Hunter). And Pete finds that he is still in love with her.
Fun fact: Along with Tango and Cash, this was the last film to be released in the 1980s, with both films coming out on the same day, December 22, 1989.
This film contains examples of:
- Ace Pilot: Naturally quite a few among the tanker pilots, but Pete stands head and shoulders above the rest, with Ted eventually rising to a similar stature.
- Belly-Scraping Flight: Frequently considering how close they need to get to accurately drop retardant on the forest fires, though this is mostly Rule of Cool, as retardant dropped at too high speed and/or too low altitude is extremely dangerous to fire crews on the ground
- Big Eater: Al. Among his favorite snacks are chicken drumsticks dipped in a glass of beer and sucking the frosting out of twinkies with a straw.
- Big Fun: Al is a very large man and is typically the life of any party, as to be expected for a character played by John Goodman (though he's equally capable of being tough and serious when it comes to pilot training and safety).
- Cool Plane: Air tankers hold a special and unique degree of coolness, being converted bombers or military transports, mostly of WWII vintagenote . The film includes:
- Several A-26 Invaders, including Pete's.
- Al's PBY Catalina.
- A C-119 Flying Boxcar at Al's flight school.
- Covered in Gunge: When training Ted, Pete guides him to dump the fire slurry on Al. When he drives back to base, both him and the car are drenched in it.
- Dead Person Conversation: Pete does this several times, most notably at the end when he finally tells Dorinda he loves her, and releases her.
- Fake Static: At the beginning of the movie, Pete is flying a fire-fighting tanker plane but is almost out of fuel. He wants to keep flying to help some fire fighters in trouble, but is ordered to return to the airbase to land. He starts making static noises into his radio to pretend that he doesn't hear the orders.
- Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Al eventually does this to Dorinda, who is still heavily grieving Pete's demise, letting her know that he misses him too, but that she can't let the tragedy conduct the rest of her life.
- Heroic Fire Rescue: The flying kind.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Pete insists on saving Al when the latter has an in-flight emergency. Al insists that Pete's plan is too risky. Pete won't be deterred, and saves Al at the cost of his own life.
- I See Dead People: The crazy guy at the abandoned airstrip where Ted takes shelter seems to be able to hear Pete. Pete tries to use him to send Ted a message to stay away from Dorinda, but the guy only gets about half of it, so instead of staying away, Ted thinks he's being told to go after her.
- Improbable Piloting Skills: Diving headlong into a blazing forest, with the tips of trees brushing your belly, and coming out in one piece. And Al describes just what they're up against:Al: In a real fire, there's heat! There's heat that can suck you under, flip you over! There's currents that can tie a knot in a windsock!
- Al's warning is very much Truth in Television, as large wildfires are considered one of the most dangerous flying environments imaginable. In addition to poor visibility and rough terrain, a big enough fire can generate hurricane-force winds aloft, and superheated air around/above an active fire has extremely low density (the laws of thermodynamics are a cruel and heartless bitch), meaning that when a plane enters superheated air (known among tanker pilots as "dead air"), the wings stop generating lift, and the control surfaces won't turn the plane, either. A tanker pilot can only hope he has enough airspeed to come out the other side and regain control before he runs straight into a mountain.
- Intimate Haircut: Hap gives one to Pete after his crash and during which she is able to gently inform him that he's dead.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Pete eventually comes to terms with the fact that, being dead, he can't be with Dorinda, and that the worst thing he can do for her is to prevent her from moving on.
- Love Triangle: One in which the hypotenuse is already dead but he can't let go of his feelings, and as long as he can't, Dorinda can't either so she can move onto a new life with Ted.
- The Mourning After: Dorinda struggles for a long time to get past Pete's death. His own feelings for her also (unintentionally) delays her ability to move on.
- Oh, Crap!:
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Pete appears just as he did in life, except no one can see or hear him. He can communicate, in that people will hear what he says in the back of their minds, but mostly in a vague sense, and they don't know that he's not their own conscience, so his interactions with people are frustratingly one-sided. His purpose is to help Ted become the fire aviator he is meant to be, and put his unresolved emotional issues with Dorinda to rest.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Al gives one to his class after watching them drop too soon, or too late, or right on top of him. He tries to drive home just how hostile a forest fire is to airplanes and how they'll need to be able to hit much better than a small target fire on a clear day come fire season.
- Retirony: Pete has decided to accept the position as commander of the fire school in Flat Rock, when a call comes in about a big burn and a shortage of pilots. He goes out, but makes a risky maneuver to save Al, and winds up blowing his plane up.
- Second Love: Ted serves as this to Dorinda.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Dorinda when she wears "girl clothes".
- Spirit Advisor: Hap explains that this is how it's done, the ones who have learned the skills are sent back to help those who are learning find their place, and sends Pete to be Ted's advisor. Pete finds that, while no one can see or hear him, they do seem to pick up on the things he says and does which influences their thoughts. Initially, Pete thinks it's a game and spends as much time trolling people as helping Ted.
- Symploce: The first two lines of the Tagline:They couldn't hear him. They couldn't see him. But he was there when they needed him... Even after he was gone.
- Tempting Fate: In the beginning as Pete has lost one engine due to low fuel, he radios that his other engine is good just before it clunks out as well.
- Whispered Threat: An unintentionally threatening example occurs in the film as Pete's ghost sees Dorinda start to move on with her life with a new man. Jealous, he then whispers in her ear, "Don't forget; you'll always be my girl." Although she can't see him, the remark causes her once-jovial mood to turn sad again.