When man first took to the skies, the advent of cinema was just around the corner, so it’s no surprise that airplanes and aviators have appeared frequently throughout film history. Some of the best aviation films focus on historical figures or events, while others honor the contributions of pioneers in the field of flight. Other people are dependable sources of amusement.
1. The Right Stuff (1983)
Film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book tells the American history of manned space flight, beginning with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier in a rocket powered X-1 Air Force test plane and following the Mercury Project, and the men who were selected to fly in the first space missions. No little part of its popularity is due to the film’s attention to historical authenticity and high-quality production values. In 1984, it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.
2. Wings (1927)
Set in World War I, Wings became the benchmark for subsequent aviation films thanks to its unique aerial shooting and realistic depiction of flight. Director William A. Wellman was an expert pilot who flew the planes in the film, which entailed the use of more than 300 pilots.
As a wartime romance, the film won two Oscars for Best Picture and Best Special Effects.
3. Top Gun (1986)
When it comes to speed, “I feel like I’m running out of time.”
Like no other aviation-themed film in cinematic history, Top Gun has become an integral part of American pop culture. The film follows cadets in the U.S. Navy’s elite fighter pilot school as two cocky pilots, Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer), compete for the top rank in class.
It’s possible that the Navy’s application rate went up after the publication of Top Gun because of how enjoyable it appears to fly the F-14s depicted in the film.
4. The High and the Mighty (1954)
In this suspenseful drama, a disaster strikes a DC-4 airliner during a normal trans-Pacific trip, forcing John Wayne’s washed-up copilot to assume charge and save the lives of the crew and passengers.
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5. The Dam Busters (1955)
Dam-bombing attacks against German dams during World War II were made possible because to an amazing new technology invented by a British scientist and the daring bomber crews assigned to them.
6. One Six Right (2005)
General aviation’s spirit of camaraderie and enthusiasm are perfectly captured in One Six Right, a documentary about small airports centered on Van Nuys Airport in Southern California.
Independent filmmakers have used aerial sequences and a fascinating original tune to make a solid case for the relevance of the “unsung hero of aviation,” the local airport, in their film.
7. Memphis Belle (1990)
Bombing raids in WWII are at their deadliest, and a lone American crew aboard the B-17 bomber Memphis Belle has one mission left. Final Bombing Raid: Bremen, Germany follows a US Army Air Corps bombing team as they carry out a daring and historic final bombing mission over Bremen, Germany.
8. Airplane! (1980)
Spitting on classics like The High and the Mighty, Airplane! has become famous for its hilarious one-liners, which are sure to bring a smile to the face of everyone, pilot or not.
An ex-fighter pilot, Ted Striker (Robert Hays), now refuses to fly because he’s now scared of the sky. But if food poisoning leaves an airliner’s crew unable to safely land the jet, he is the only person on board who can. Of course, absurdity and laughter ensue.
9. Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project (2014)
As a World War II veteran and renowned test pilot, Bob Hoover’s pioneering work in aerobatic flying has been well recognized. Documentary Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project follows the affable aviation hero from his initial flying lessons prior to World War II through his career as a test pilot and airshow performer.
An impressive cast of prominent pilots pays respect to the man who appeared to be capable of the almost impossible in an airplane in the film.
10. Air Force One (1997)
The president of the United States is the sole survivor of a terrorist hijacking of Air Force One, which culminates in an iconic midair plane-to-plane rescue sequence.
It may not focus on aviation, but it does take place on one of the world’s most famous planes and features Harrison Ford, a real-life pilot and aviation enthusiast, as the commander in chief.
11. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Tora! Tora! Tora! recounts the events of December 7, 1941, and the days leading up to the aircraft attack on Pearl Harbor from the perspectives of both the Japanese and the Americans.
12. Apollo 13 (1995)
In this horrific drama based on the true story of NASA’s 13th Apollo mission, a lunar landing mission transforms into a frantic struggle to safely return three astronauts to Earth.
During a crisis, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) rely on Mission Control engineers to find a fix for their damaged spaceship.
With nine Oscar nominations, Best Sound and Best Film Editing went to Apollo 13, and the film took home two.
13. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
A biopic of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly from New York to Paris, this film is titled after the plane he used in his historic voyage.
Jimmy Stewart, an experienced pilot, portrays Lindbergh in the film.
14. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
After suffering significant losses over Nazi Germany, an American bomber group’s morale is at an all-time low until a no-nonsense commander takes command. With Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) as its leader, the team is motivated and ready for battle.
Using actual war footage and portraying the psychological repercussions of the risky missions pilots and crew undertook during bombing raids, the classic WWII film Twelve O’Clock High is widely regarded as a work of art.
The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Sound at the Academy Awards and took home two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound. For his work as an actor, Peck was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
15. The Aviator (2004)
Extrovert millionaire Howard Hughes pushed the envelope of aviation during his lifetime, establishing the Hughes Aircraft Company, developing the Spruce Goose, purchasing and expanding Trans World Airlines, and more. A central theme in The Aviator is Hughes’ insatiable desire to break new ground, first as a film producer and director, and then as an aviator.
In Martin Scorsese’s biopic, he tells the story of Hughes’ remarkable life and career, as well as the inner issues he battled.
16. Hell’s Angels (1930)
Howard Hughes’ famous aviation picture Hell’s Angels, which is featured in The Aviator as part of the production process, would be missing from this list if it weren’t for Hughes’ own filmmaking career.
During World War I, two brothers from the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang join the British Royal Flying Corps and volunteer for the same dangerous bombing mission. The film’s dramatic aerial battle photography was praised for its meticulous execution under Hughes’ direction.