The Envelope, Please

Tom Benenson lists the best aviation movies ever. Is your favorite on the list?



It seemed like a simple exercise. With a masters degree in drama with a minor in film and television and post graduate work at the New York University institute of film and television, I thought I was qualified for the assignment to make a list of the best and worst aviation movies. My first thought was that there couldn't be that many films with aviation themes from which to choose. Some sprang quickly to mind, triggering the memories of others. But then an internet search on Google indicated it wasn't going to be as easy as I'd thought. I found a list of movies with an aviation theme that was compiled by Susan Nicosia at Daniel Webster College, Nashua, New Hampshire. The list includes some 350 movies in alphabetical order from Above and Beyond to Zero Hour. There are some obvious classics and there are others that, while featuring impressive air-to-air photography and exciting aerial shots, fall apart when the characters are on the ground. War has been the mother of invention of aviation advances and war is a popular subject of movies with aviation themes--and some of the best.

Even the best films often have technical problems that mar the realism, but movies--at least for me, are best viewed from an attitude of suspended belief. And I'm good at that. I'm sure you'll have different ideas of what the best aviation movies are, but, for what it's worth, here are my choices (in no particular order) with the name of the director and the major members of the casts.

And the winners are:

Hell's Angels (1930) Directed by Howard Hughes Cast: Ben Lyon (Monte Rutledge) James Hall (Roy Rutledge) Jean Harlow (Helen as Jean Harlowe) John Darrow (Karl Armstedt)

The story follows two brothers, Roy and Monte Rutledge, who are attending Oxford University when the first World War begins and they enlist in the RAF. The two volunteer for a mission to bomb a German munitions facility.

The film, at $3.8 million, was the most expensive at the time but the air combat scenes that required more than 125 pilots were worth the cost. Some of the scenes show a sky filled with airplanes in dog fights. Reports indicated that three pilots were killed during the filming. The film was made well before computer generated graphics so what you see is what was there. In addition to the impressive air battles, the film also marked the debut of Jean Harlow.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) Directed by Robert Aldrich Cast: James Stewart (Capt. Frank Towns) Richard Attenborough (Lew Moran) Peter Finch (Capt. Harris) Hardy Krüger (Heinrich Dorfmann as Hardy Kruger) Ernest Borgnine (E. "Trucker" Cobb)

A plane crashes in the Sahara Desert after encountering a swarm of locusts. One of the passengers who claims to be an airplane designer proposes rebuilding the airplane from the wreckage.

The film provides an interesting view of "pilot in command" as Jimmy Stewart, the pilot and Hardy Kruger, the designer, shift roles during the re-building of the airplane. Paul Mantz, a famous stunt pilot, was killed during the filming. Mantz was to make a low pass, running his landing gear along the ground, so it would appear the airplane was taking off. On the second take the plane crashed and Mantz was killed. I noted the airplane in the final scene has wheels and not skis, but who cares?

The film is more about what happens after the crash and the interaction between the characters. Could they build a flying airplane from the wreckage. Would it fly, particularly with people prostrate on the top of the wing. Who cares?

The original airplane, a C-82 was replaced with an O-47 to finish the flying scenes. The plane that Mantz flew was put together from a Beech C-45 and a T-6 and, while it appeared flimsy, actually had passed an FAA inspection. Originally, Mantz' partner in Tallmantz Aviation, Frank Tallman, was slated to make the flight but a fall and shattered kneecap precluded his making the flight.

The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) Directed by Billy Wilder Cast: James Stewart (Charles Augustus 'Slim' Lindbergh) Murray Hamilton (Bud Gurney) Patricia Smith (Mirror Girl)

The film details Charles Lindbergh's early days of flying the mail and his solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927.

It's interesting that most complaints about this film mention the disparity in age between Jimmy Stewart who was about twice the age Lindbergh had been when he made the flight. Although we all know the flight was successful, it's hard not to suck in your breath as you watch the over-loaded Ryan stagger into the air on takeoff. Although the flashbacks give some relief, it's impressive that although so much of the plot takes place in the airplane's cockpit, we willingly ride along with Lucky Lindy. There's a question of whether the encounter with ice actually happened on the transatlantic flight or was encountered on the flight from San Diego to New York. The flight was a feat that defined the future of aviation and is of major historical significance.

Memphis Belle (1990) Directed by Michael Caton-Jones Cast: Matthew Modine (Capt. Dennis Dearborn) Eric Stoltz (Sgt. Danny Daly) Tate Donovan (1st Lt. Luke Sinclair) D.B. Sweeney (Lt. Phil Lowenthal) Billy Zane (Lt. Val Kozlowski) Sean Astin (Sgt. Richard Moore) Harry Connick Jr (Sgt. Clay Busby ) Reed Diamond (Sgt. Virgil Hoogesteger as Reed Edward Diamond) Courtney Gains (Sgt. Eugene McVey) Neil Giuntoli (Sgt. Jack Bocci) David Strathairn (Col. Craig Harriman) John Lithgow (Lt.Col. Bruce Derringer)

The film chronicles the May 17, 1943, 25th mission of the 10-man crew of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber in the Eighth Air Force. If they successfully complete the 25th mission, a bombing run to destroy a Nazi supply factory in Bremen, the crew will be able to rotate stateside.

According to one source, while it looked like a flotilla, there were only five real B-17s flying in the movie; two from the United States, two from France and one that was already in England. One of the French airplanes is reported to have crashed during the filming and, although it was destroyed in the post crash fire, no one was killed. Of the five only one was an F-model like the real Memphis Belle; the others were G-models that didn't show up until later in the war. The U.S. Air Force was using P-47 Thunderbolts at the time and not the P-51 that shows up before the U.S. Air Force had them in its inventory.

In spite of the minor inaccuracies, and the fact that you'll already know the outcome of the mission, the film will manage to keep your attention as the B-17s form up, fend off attacks by ME-109 Messerschmitts and thread their way through flak on the way to their target and back out. The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) Directed by George Roy Hill Cast: Robert Redford (Waldo Pepper) Bo Svenson (Axel Olsson) Bo Brundin (Ernst Kessler) Susan Sarandon (Mary Beth) Geoffrey Lewis (Newt) Edward Herrmann (Ezra Stiles)

Robert Redford plays a barnstorming pilot who missed his chance to fly in WWI and ends up trying to prove his ability while filming a dogfight in a movie about the war.

The flying makes this film. The "cast" includes live performances by replicas of the Curtiss Jenny, Sopwith Camel, Standard E-4 and Fokker Triplane among others. The stunt pilots were from Tallmantz Aviation (formed by Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz). Mantz was killed filming "Flight of the Phoenix" in 1965 and Tallman died years later in a crash in the mountains of Southern California..

Airport (1970) Directed by George Seaton Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfeld) Dean Martin (Capt. Vernon Demerest) Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston) Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen) George Kennedy (Joe Patroni) Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett) Van Heflin (D. O. Guerrero) Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero) Barry Nelson (Capt. Anson Harris) Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld) Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish) Barbara Hale (Sarah Bakersfeld Demerest)

Arthur Haley's bestselling novel about an airliner that is crippled with control problems (by a bomb) and has to land on a runway that's blocked by an airplane stuck in the snow.

The movie manages to be a pretty fair depiction of the inner workings of a busy airport. The radio calls are realistic, although they're a bit hokey with the controllers on the ground shown in insets between the pilots. The movie was shot at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and there is a Runway 29, which was the one the pilots insisted they needed to land on.

This movie is credited with spawning the genre of airplane/airport disaster movies.

The High and the Mighty (1954) Directed by William A. Wellman Cast: John Wayne (Dan Roman) Claire Trevor (May Holst) Laraine Day (Lydia Rice) Robert Stack (John Sullivan) Jan Sterling (Sally McKee)

On a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, a four-engine Douglas DC-4 suffers an engine explosion that results in a loss of fuel, bringing into doubt the flight's ability to reach its destination. John Wayne, as the copilot, insists they'll make it.

The film script was written by Ernest Gann and based on his novel. So, almost needless to say, the aviation sequences are accurate and realistic. The interaction between the pilot, Robert Stack, who comes undone in the emergency and John Wayne, the copilot who has to take over, is frequently used to point out good and bad examples of crew resource management. The movie was nominated for six Oscars, and won for the haunting theme song.

Always (1989) Directed by Steven Spielberg Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Pete Sandich) Holly Hunter (Dorinda Durston) Brad Johnson (Ted Baker) John Goodman (Al Yackey) Audrey Hepburn (Hap)

Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) is killed during a water bomber mission and returns as an invisible ghost to give advice to his successor, Ted (Brad Johnson ) who has romantic designs on Dorinda (Holly Hunter), Pete's intended. John Goodman and Audrey Hepburn round out the top of the cast.

If you can get past the supernatural elements of the film--a remake of the 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, about a world War II bomber pilot--there are some well done scenes of aerial fire fighting as well as a variety of different airplanes used in firefighting. Pete and Dorinda fly an A-26 Invader, used by the Army Air Corps in WWII. Other airplanes that appear in the film include a PBY Catalina, a Navy rescue and transport plane from WWII; a Cessna 337 Skymaster, also known as the O-2 when flown by the Air Force in Vietnam; a Super Decathlon and a C-119 Flying Boxcar.

Airplane! (1980) Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Cast: Robert Hays (Ted Striker) Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson) Lloyd Bridges (Steven McCrosky) Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumac) Robert Stack (Capt. Rex Kramer) Peter Graves (Capt. Clarence Oveur) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock as Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) Otto (Himself)

Ted Striker, with a serious aversion to flying, having lost fellow pilots in the war, is on an airliner in an effort to woo back his girlfriend, a flight attendant. When the crew and many of the passengers get sick from a bad meal, Striker has to overcome his phobia and land the airplane.

Many people feel that Airplane! is the funniest movie ever made. The film, a spoof of the Airport disaster films, makes use of the entire range of comedy including parody, satire, puns and outright silliness. Don't watch it for the aviation scenes, but it will make you smile. "Roger, Roger," "Clearance Clarence" and "Otto pilot" have become part of the lexicon.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) Directed by Ken Annakin Cast: Stuart Whitman (Orvil Newton) Sarah Miles (Patricia Rawnsley) James Fox (Richard Mays) Alberto Sordi (Count Emilio Ponticelli) Robert Morley (Lord Rawnsley) Gert Fröbe (Colonel Manfred von Holstein) Jean-Pierre Cassel (Pierre Dubois) Irina Demick (Brigitte/Ingrid/Marlene/Françoise/Yvette/Betty) Eric Sykes (Courtney) Red Skelton (Neanderthal Man) Terry-Thomas (Sir Percy Ware-Armitage) Benny Hill Fire (Chief Perkins)

In the early days of aviation pilots from all over the world compete in a cross-channel air race for a prize offered by a British Newspaper.

Any aviation buff will enjoy watching the vintage airplanes that were assembled and flown for this film. The airplanes include Santos-Dumont's minuscule Demoiselle (the replica is said to have been too small to have a male pilot), the Antoinette and Samuel Franklin Cody's box-like airplane. For most of us, footage of the antique airplanes will be much more interesting than the race but it's a reasonable peg on which to hang the airplanes.

The Dawn Patrol (1938) Directed by Edmund Goulding Cast: Errol Flynn (Capt. Courtney) Basil Rathbone (Maj. Brand) David Niven (Lt. 'Scotty' Scott) Donald Crisp (Phipps) Melville Cooper (Sgt. Watkins) Barry Fitzgerald (Bott)

The film featuring takes place in France in 1915, where Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) commands the 39th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Brand chaffs under the need to send ill-prepared young airmen into battle as well as the insubordinate attitude of air ace Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn). Eventually, Courtney learns to understand Brand's position when he takes over command of the squadron.

During the first World War, as the aerial war became more intense, young men with little training and less experience were sent up to do battle. Not surprisingly, the number of casualties was high.

Much of the aerial footage in the film is said to have come from Howard Hawks' 1930 version of the film. According to one report, the filmmakers gathered a fleet of 17 World War I airplanes, most of which were Nieuports and Travel Air D-4000s that doubled in some cases as Fokker D.VIIs and even some Allied airplanes. During the course of filming all but two of the airplanes had suffered some damage in crashes.

And on the Cutting Room Floor:

The Aviator (2004) Directed by Martin Scorsese Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes) Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn) Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner) John C. Reilly (Noah Dietrich) Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe) Alan Alda (Senator Ralph Owen Brewster) Ian Holm (Professor Fitz)

The film traces the portion of Howard Hughes' life from the time he produces his 1930 production of Hell's Angels to the 1947 test flight of the Spruce Goose, when he was 42. Hughes' involvement with TWA and the Senate hearings investigating whether he profited from the war are detailed.

There are some pretty good flying scenes, particularly during the filming of Hell's Angels, but the film is long and doesn't do much to explain Hughes' physical and mental deterioration. A scene at the beginning of the film seems to imply that sexual abuse while being bathed as a child led to his compulsive behavior. Others have suggested that drug addiction resulting from his medical treatment following an airplane accident was the cause. The film does nothing to offer a real answer. The accident in which Hughes is nearly killed is impressive, though a bit gratuitous since it seems to take forever for the airplane to come to rest as people in the neighborhood watch it pass. A continuity error during Hughes' flight in his racer depicted a partial canopy in some shots and a full canopy in others.

The most interesting section of the film doesn't really involve aviation, but Hughes' defense of his actions during Senate hearings. In 1946, Owen Brewster, chairman of the Senate War Investigating Committee, held hearings into Hughes' failure to fulfill a $40 million contract to develop and deliver two airplanes--the F-11, a reconnaissance airplane and the HK-1, Hercules also known as the Spruce Goose. The maneuvering by Pan Am's Juan Trippe to have his airline named the exclusive international American airline is also a highlight of the film.

Unlike the film, the actual flight of the Spruce Goose was little more than a small hop off the water as it flew in a straight line. Another discrepancy involved the right seat occupant during the flight. In the film, the seat is occupied by a meteorologist, but the actual copilot was non-pilot David Grant, a 26-year-old hydraulics expert.

Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Directed by John Moore Cast: Dennis Quaid (Frank Towns) Tyrese Gibson (A.J.) Giovanni Ribisi (Elliott) Miranda Otto (Kelly) Tony Curran (Rodney) Sticky Fingaz (Jeremy (as Kirk Jones)) Jacob Vargas (Sammi) Hugh Laurie (Ian) Scott Michael Campbell (Liddle)

In this remake of the 1965 film, the group of crash survivors are stranded in the Mongolian desert. Again, they have to rebuild the wrecked airplane from pieces under the guidance of an "aeronautical engineer" whose expertise is in designing model airplanes.

If nothing else, the film is an object lesson for having an out--and using it. Dennis Quaid flies the over-weight C-119 Flying Boxcar into a too obviously computer-generated sand storm after refusing to turn back because of the inconvenience of refueling. Talk about risk assessment. After pieces come off the airplane, including a propeller that sticks into the side of the fuselage, the crash is inevitable--but unrealistic as the airplane crashes along the desert floor skipping across the dunes. Despite itself, the final scenes as the rebuilt Phoenix struggles to lift off from the desert floor will have pilots in the audience holding their breath and unconsciously trying to help it rise. Given the choice, you're better off watching the original. Six Days Seven Nights (1998) Directed by Ivan Reitman Cast: Harrison Ford (Quinn Harris) Anne Heche (Robin Monroe) David Schwimmer (Frank Martin) Jacqueline Obradors (Angelica) Temuera Morrison (Jager)

A New York journalist(Anne Heche) and a derelict charter pilot (Harrison Ford) are stranded on a tropical island after they're forced to make an emergency landing during a storm. The de Havilland Beaver is damaged in the landing and while avoiding "pirates" and working to rebuild the airplane, romance inevitably blossoms.

This really isn't an aviation film, except for the Beaver, that Harrison Ford actually acquired as one of his stable of flying machines. The interaction between the two leads has some magic, despite their obvious age difference. There's a refreshing interchange between them about their ages as they retrieve a float from a wrecked Japanese airplane to use to repair the Beaver. For us older guys, it was a nice moment. After they get the Beaver back in the air it's up to Heche to land it. The subsequent splash/crash will have pilots puckering.

Top Gun (1986) Directed by Tony Scott Cast: Tom Cruise (Lt. Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell) Kelly McGillis (Charlotte 'Charlie' Blackwood) Val Kilmer (Lt. Tom 'Iceman' Kazanski) Anthony Edwards (Lt. (j.g.) Nick 'Goose' Bradshaw) Tom Skerritt (Cmdr. Mike 'Viper' Metcalf) Michael Ironside (Lt. Cmdr. Rick 'Jester' Heatherly) John Stockwell (Cougar) Barry Tubb (Wolfman) Rick Rossovich (Lt. (j.g.) Ron 'Slider' Kerner) Tim Robbins (Lt. (j.g.) Sam 'Merlin' Wells)

Maverick (Tom Cruise) goes through the Top Gun school at Miramar Naval Air Station in California and falls for Charlie (Kelly McGillis), one of his instructors. A bit of a rebel and cowboy, Maverick doesn't make many friends. He eventually gets his chance to show that he's not such a bad guy and a pretty good stick on a real mission in the Middle East.

While the Air Force got the three Iron Eagle films, that really aren't very good, the Navy got Top Gun, which, while not perfect, is much better and the recruitment of naval aviators after the film came out shows the difference. The Top Gun school, to which selected aviators are sent, was established by the Navy to hone its pilots' dog-fighting skills. Much of the flying during the training at Miramar is exciting to watch and scenes on the carrier USS Enterprise (actually two carriers, the Enterprise and the Carl Vinson, were used) provide a "you are there" feel. For purists, the Russian MiG's were odd numbered so even the MiG 28, designation of the bad guys in the film was inaccurate, as was the airplanes, which were actually Northrop F-5s.

Art Scholl, a renowned aerobatic pilot, was lost at sea during the filming when he performed a flat spin off the California coast.

Airport 1975 (1974) Directed by Jack Smight Cast: Charlton Heston (Alan Murdock) Karen Black (Nancy Pryor) George Kennedy (Joe Patroni) Gloria Swanson (Gloria Swanson) Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Captain Stacy) Susan Clark (Helen Patroni) Helen Reddy (Sister Ruth) Linda Blair (Janice Abbott) Dana Andrews (Scott Freeman) Roy Thinnes (Urias) Sid Caesar (Barney) Myrna Loy (Mrs. Devaney) Ed Nelson (Major John Alexander) Nancy Olson (Mrs. Abbott) Larry Storch (Glenn Purcell)

A Boeing 747 en route from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, California, is involved in a mid-air collision when the pilot of a small airplane suffers a heart attack and crashes into the cockpit of the airliner. The collision kills the flight engineer and the copilot and renders the pilot blind. The head flight attendant, Nancy Pryor (Karen Black), takes the controls and attempts to fly the airplane. Meanwhile, a rescue mission is mounted to insert a pilot into the stricken airliner.

The real tragedy of this film is that the mid-air collision is essentially blamed on the pilot of a Beech Baron (Dana Andrews). Both the 747 and the Baron are diverted to Salt Lake City because of weather and collide after the Baron pilot has a heart attack. The Baron, with the tail number N9750Y, is incorrectly referred to as "232 Zulu" during radio calls. Ironically, the actual Baron used in the film was involved in a fatal mid-air collision with a Cessna 180 in 1989 in Tracy, California.

The effort to lower a pilot into the 747 seems a much riskier maneuver--but obviously cinematically more interesting--than talking the flight attendant through an emergency landing. Of course that's been done before. But Karen Black is apparently no Doris Day, who successfully takes over the control of an airliner in the 1965 movie Julie.

Other films that are worth watching but didn't make the cut, include:

Wings (1927) Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) Twelve O'clock High (1949) No Highway in the Sky (1951) Flying Leathernecks (1951) Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952) The Dam Busters (1954) Fate is the Hunter (1964) Blue Max (1966) Battle of Britain (1969) The Right Stuff (1983) Flight of the Intruder (1990) Apollo 13 (1995) The Tuskegee Airmen 1995) Fly Away Home (1996) Pushing Tin (1999) Black Hawk Down (2001) Pearl Harbor (2001)