The dawn of cinema occurred just about the same time man first took flight, so it’s no wonder airplanes and aviators have been a common theme throughout film history. Some of the best aviation films recount important historical events; some celebrate the achievements of innovators in aviation. Others we can always count on to give us a good laugh.
Here are our picks for the best films ever made about aviation.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The film, based on Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book of the same name, tells the story of the United States’ first venture into manned space flight, beginning with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier in the rocket-powered X-1 Air Force test plane, and following the Mercury Project and the men selected to be the first astronauts. It’s become a classic thanks in no small part to its historical accuracy and quality filmmaking. It won four Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture in 1984.
A silent film set during World War I, Wings became the standard to which future aviation movies would be held for its innovative aerial shooting and realistic depiction of flight and dogfights. Around 300 pilots were involved in shooting the film, including some from the United States Army Air Corps, and director William A. Wellman was an experienced flyer himself.
The film, which is also a tale of romance during wartime, won two Oscars for Best Picture and Best Effects.
Top Gun (1986)
“I feel the need … the need for speed.”
Love it or hate it, Top Gun has embedded itself in American pop culture like arguably no other aviation-themed movie in cinema history. Featuring an A-list cast, loads of jet-fueled action and plenty of ’80s cheese, the film follows students at the U.S. Navy’s elite fighter pilot school as two cocky pilots, Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer), vie for the top spot in class.
The Navy actually reported its highest application rates after Top Gun was released, which must have something to do with how fun it looks to fly the F-14s featured in the film.
The High and the Mighty (1954)
Disaster strikes in a DC-4 airliner making a routine trans-Pacific flight, and a washed-up copilot, played by John Wayne, is forced to take command and save the lives of the crew and passengers in this drama-filled thriller.
The Dam Busters (1955)
Based on true accounts, The Dam Busters is the story of how a British scientist came up with an ingenious technique to bomb German dams during World War II, and the bomber crews assigned to carry out the risky attack.
One Six Right (2005)
If ever a film could fully distill the sense of community and passion surrounding general aviation, it would have to be One Six Right, a documentary about local airports told through the history of Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport.
Featuring aerial sequences, a captivating original score and stories told by pilots, air traffic controllers, historians and flight enthusiasts, the independent film makes a strong case for the importance of the “unsung hero of aviation,” the local airport.
Memphis Belle (1990)
Casualties are high at the height of bombing missions in World War II, and the American crew of the B-17 bomber Memphis Belle has one mission left in its tour of duty. The plot of the film follows the U.S. Army Air Corps bombing crew during its harrowing and historic final bombing raid over the heavily fortified city of Bremen, Germany.
Spoofing airplane disaster films like The High and the Mighty, Airplane! is perhaps best known for giving dads the world over an arsenal of one-liners guaranteed to make you laugh whether you’re a pilot or not.
Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex-fighter pilot who’s now afraid to fly. But when food poisoning puts an airliner’s crew out of commission, he’s the only one on board who can safely land the plane. Absurdity and hilarity, of course, ensue.
Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project (2014)
A World War II veteran and renowned test pilot, Bob Hoover is considered among most to have revolutionized modern aerobatic flying. Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project is a documentary that tells the story of the gregarious aviation legend from his first flying lessons before the war to combat to his careers as a test pilot and airshow performer.
The film features interviews with a who’s who of famous fliers paying tribute to the man who seemed to be able to do the impossible in an airplane.
Air Force One (1997)
In this action-packed thriller, Air Force one is hijacked by a group of terrorists, leaving it up to the president of the United States alone to save his family and culminating with an iconic midair plane-to-plane rescue scene.
It might not center directly on aviation, but it does take place in one of the most well-known airplanes in the world and stars Harrison Ford, a real-life pilot and aviation enthusiast, as commander in chief.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Recounting the events of December 7, 1941, and the days leading up to the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! tells the story from both the Japanese and American sides in historical detail.
The film won an Oscar for Best Effects.
Apollo 13 (1995)
A lunar landing mission turns into a desperate attempt to safely return three astronauts to Earth in this harrowing film based on the true story of NASA’s 13th Apollo mission.
When their spacecraft is damaged, the lives of astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) depend on the engineers working out a solution at Mission Control back on Earth.
Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Oscars, winning two for Best Sound and Best Film Editing.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
This film, named after the plane used in the first successful trans-Atlantic flight, is a biography of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, culminating in his legendary flight from New York to Paris.
Lindbergh is played by Jimmy Stewart, himself an experienced pilot.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Morale is at an all-time low for an American bomber group struck with heavy losses over the skies of Nazi Germany when a tough-as-nails general takes over the unit. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) whips the crew into shape.
Twelve O’Clock High, based on a true story and real people, is a WWII classic, known for its use of actual combat footage and realistic depiction of the psychological effects of the dangerous missions pilots and crew performed during bombing raids.
The film won two Oscars, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound, and was nominated for Best Picture. Peck was nominated for Best Actor.
The Aviator (2004)
In the 1930s and ’40s, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes helped to push the boundaries of aviation, forming the Hughes Aircraft Company, chasing speed records, buying and expanding Trans World Airlines, and building the notorious Spruce Goose. The Aviator centers on Hughes’ obsession to innovate first as a movie producer and director, and later in the aviation industry.
Martin Scorsese’s biopic is a tale both of Hughes’ amazing achievements and the personal demons he struggled with throughout his fascinating life.
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Speaking of Howard Hughes and his filmmaking career, this list wouldn’t be complete without his own classic aviation film, Hell’s Angels, the production of which plays a role in the plot of The Aviator.
In Hell’s Angels, two brothers join the British Royal Flying Corps at the start of World War I and end up volunteering for the same risky bombing mission. The drama-filled film was lauded for its complex aerial battle cinematography, which was shot in painstaking detail with oversight from director Hughes.
Due to the meticulous nature of Hughes’ directing, the film cost $4 million (roughly $57 million in today’s dollars) and took two and a half years to shoot.