Because the birth of cinema coincided with the birth of flying, it’s no surprise that airplanes and aviators have been recurring themes throughout cinematic history. Some of the great aviation films narrate significant historical events, while others highlight the accomplishments of aviation pioneers. Others can always be counted on to make us chuckle.
Here are our recommendations for the best aviation movies ever filmed.
Table of Contents
#1 – The Right Stuff (1983)
The film, which is based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book of the same name, tells the story of the United States’ first manned space flight. The test pilots from the Navy, the Marine, and the Air Force who took part in aeronautical studies at the Edwards Air Force Base in California.
It also showcases the Seven Mercury Military Pilots, the first human spaceflight from the United States to be selected astronauts for Project Mercury. The movie stars include Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Fred Glenn, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey. Air Force pilot Jack Ridley Levon Helm narrates and plays.
#2 – Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project (2014)
Bob Hoover, a World War II veteran, and distinguished test pilot, is widely regarded as having reinvented contemporary aerobatic flying. The documentary Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project explores the biography of the gregarious aviation hero from his initial flying lessons during the war to his jobs as a test pilot and airshow performer.
The documentary includes interviews with a who’s who of notable fliers who pay respect to the guy who seemed to be able to perform the unthinkable in an airplane.
The film’s story is framed by Harrison Ford and Sean D. Tucker, as well as Hoover himself, and includes participation from aviation figures such as Burt and Dick Rutan, Carroll Shelby, Gene Cernan, Bud Day, Clay Lacy, and others, as well as archival footage of Neil Armstrong paying tribute to Hoover’s flying abilities. Hoover was really pleased with the film.
The documentary films from Hoover’s personal collection, internet, and physical archives, and a range of additional sources.
#3 – The High and the Mighty (1954)
During a normal trans-Pacific flight, disaster strikes, forcing a washed-up co-pilot, portrayed by John Wayne, to take charge and rescue the lives of the crew and passengers in this drama-filled thriller. The High and the Mighty is an American disaster film from 1954 directed by William A. Wellman and written by Ernest K. Gann, who also created the 1953 novel that inspired the screenplay.
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The film’s cast was filmed in WarnerColor and CinemaScope by John Wayne, who was also the co-producer of the movie; Wayne starred as an ex-post officer of Dan Roman, whose aeroplane was experiencing catastrophic motor failures throughout his journey across the Pacific.
#4 – The Dam Busters (1955)
The Dam Busters is based on actual events and tells the tale of how a British scientist devised a brilliant tactic for bombing German dams during WWII, as well as the bomber crews tasked to carry out the daring operation.
The Dam Busters is a British epic war movie starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave that was released in 1955. Michael Anderson directed it. The film is based on the historical event of Operation Chastise, in which the RAF’s 617 Squadron used Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb to target the dams of Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe in Nazi Germany in 1943.
#5 – One Six Right (2005)
One Six Right, a documentary on small airports recounted via the history of Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport, may be the only film that can properly capture the sense of camaraderie and eagerness around general aviation.
The independent film makes a strong argument for the importance of the “unsung hero of aviation,” the local airport, with aerial scenes, a fascinating original tune, and anecdotes given by pilots, traffic controllers, historians, and flying enthusiasts.
It is a documentary film about the general aviation industry as viewed through the eyes of a small airport. Within a short period of time, it has amassed a fervent following and presence among pilots and aviation enthusiasts all over the world, who regard the video as a means of communicating their love of flying.
Concurrently, the film has received both local and national political attention in the United States for its accurate portrayal of general aviation and its significant contributions to all aviation businesses worldwide.
#6 – Memphis Belle (1990)
Memphis Belle is a British-American military drama movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones and written by Monte Merrick that was released in 1990. Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, and Harry Connick Jr. feature in the picture (in his film debut). Memphis Belle is a fictionalization of director William Wyler’s 1944 documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, which is about the 25th and final flight of an American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, the Memphis Belle, based in England during WWII.
Since bombing sorties during WWII are dangerous, the American crew of the B-17 bomber Memphis Belle only had one mission left on their tour of duty. The premise of the film follows a bomber team from the United States Army Air Corps on their terrifying and historic last bombing operation over Bremen, Germany.
#7 – Airplane! (1980)
Airplane! (also known as Flying High!) is a 1980 American parody film written and directed by David and Jerry Zucker, produced by Jon Davison, and directed by Jim Abrahams. It stars Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lorna Patterson, as well as Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty.
The film is a spoof of the disaster film genre, specifically the 1957 Paramount picture Zero Hour!, from which it steals the story and primary characters, as well as numerous elements from Airport 1975 and other Airport films. Airplane! is recognized for its surreal humor and fast-paced slapstick comedy, which includes visual and vocal puns, jokes, and obscurities.
Airplane! is most known for offering fathers all over the world an arsenal of one-liners guaranteed to make you laugh whether you are a pilot or not, spoofing airplane catastrophe flicks like the High and hence the Mighty.
Robert Hays is afraid to fly. But when gastrointestinal disorder puts an airliner’s crew out of commission, he’s the sole one on board who can safely land the plane. Absurdity and hilarity, of course, ensue.
#8 – Air Force One (1997)
Air Force One is seized by a gang of terrorists in this action-packed thriller, leaving it up to the president of the United States to save his whole family, ending in a famous midair plane-to-plane rescue sequence.
Wolfgang Petersen directed and co-produced the 1997 American political action thriller film Air Force One, which starred Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, and Paul Guilfoyle. Andrew W. Marlowe was the author.
It tells the story of a group of terrorists who hijack Air Force One and the president’s attempt to save everyone on board by retaking control of the plane.
#9 – Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Tora! Tora! Tora! is a 1970 epic military film that depicts the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, So Yamamura, E.G., Marshall, James Whitmore, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takahiro Tamura, Wesley Addy, and Jason Robards featured in the picture, which was produced by Elmo Williams and directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku. It was Masuda and Fukasaku’s first non-Japanese film, as well as their first in English.
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The title’s Tora is a two-syllable Japanese codeword that indicates that full surprise has been accomplished. Because Japanese is a language with many homophones, Tora! Tora! Tora! Recounts the events of December 7, 1941, and hence the days leading up to the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, in historical detail from both the Japanese and American perspectives. Its effects earned them an Oscar.
#10 – Apollo 13 (1995)
The 1995 American space docudrama film Apollo 13 was directed by Ron Howard and starred Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise.
The script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert dramatizes the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission and is an adaptation of astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger’s 1994 book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. The film features astronauts Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise aboard Apollo 13, America’s fifth crewed mission to the Moon and the third to land.
In this horrific film-supported true narrative of NASA’s 13th Apollo mission, a lunar landing mission morphs into a desperate plot to safely return three men to Earth.
When their spaceship breaks down, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) rely on the engineers at Mission Control on Earth to understand the response.
Apollo 13 had nine Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Sound and Best Cutting.
#11 – The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
The Spirit of St. Louis is a 1957 Warner Bros. aviation biographical film in CinemaScope and Warnercolor directed by Billy Wilder and produced by Leland Hayward, starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder developed the screenplay from Lindbergh’s 1953 autobiographical account of his momentous trip, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
This film may be a biopic of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, culminating in his famed voyage from New York to Paris, and is called for the plane used in the first successful trans-Atlantic flight.
Stewart, a competent pilot himself, portrays Lindbergh.
#12 – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Twelve O’Clock High is a 1949 American war film about aircrews in the United States Army’s Eighth Air Force who flew daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany and occupied France during the early days of American involvement in World War II, including a thinly disguised version of the Black Thursday attack on Schweinfurt.
Sy Bartlett, Henry King (uncredited), and Beirne Lay Jr. adapted the picture from the 1948 novel 12 O’Clock High, also written by Bartlett and Lay. Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, and Dean Jagger star in the film, which was directed by King.
When a tough-as-nails general takes command of an American bomber force that has suffered significant casualties over the skies of the Third Reich, morale is at an all-time low.
Twelve O’Clock High, a WWII classic notable for its use of genuine action footage and realistic representation of the psychological impact of the disastrous missions pilots and crew undertook during bombing raids, was based on a true tale and real individuals.
The film was nominated for Best Picture and won two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound.
#13 – The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator is a 2004 American epic biographical drama film directed and written by Martin Scorsese. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett in the role of Katharine Hepburn, and Kate Beckinsale in the role of Ava Gardner.
In addition to Ian Holm, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Kelli Garner, Matt Ross, Willem Dafoe, Alan Alda, and Edward Herrmann, the supporting cast includes Ian Holm, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Kelli Garner, Matt Ross, Willem Dafoe, Alan Alda, and Edward Herrmann.
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Howard Hughes, an eccentric millionaire who founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, chased speed records, bought and expanded Trans World Airlines, and built the infamous Spruce Goose in the 1930s and 1940s, contributed to pushing the frontiers of aviation. Hughes’ fascination with innovation, first as a movie producer and director and then in the aviation sector, is the focus of The Aviator.
Martin Scorsese’s biography might be a story about both Hughes’ incredible accomplishments and the inner issues he battled throughout his intriguing life.
#14 – 633 Squadron (1964)
633 Squadron is loosely based on certain true missions; however, it is combined with love/hate/tragedy components to give it more of a narrative framework. Granted, the rear projection in the cockpits is terrible, but the vital flying more than makes up for it.
The de Havilland Mosquito is, without a doubt, the best WWII aircraft, and I would have sold my soul on flying one when I was a child.
It also has a distinctive theme, composed by the great Ron Goodwin, as do other military films of the era.
To all or any portions, it has the road “Blue Leader.” Enemy anti-aircraft defenses were unharmed. Keep an open mind. We’re about to dig into.” I’m curious as to how that came to be repeated so many times.
#15 – The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)
I’m referring to the original film, not the mediocre remake. I understand that it only includes flying at the beginning and hence at the very end, but the narrative of a very unusual bunch of individuals stranded in the desert and their plan to escape is beautifully conveyed.
The cast onboard is incredible, with one of the most straightforward casts of English-speaking performers, you’ll ever see. The sequence where Heinrich Dorfmann (the magnificent Hardy Krüger) reveals that he only designs model planes when he has them build a full-size plane confirms their notions about his ability with actual planes. It’s pure cinematic enchantment.
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Paul Mantz, a well-known barnstormer, was murdered while attempting to replicate a takeoff in the ‘Phoenix,’ which may be a fairly tragic epitaph to a beautifully made film with some riveting performances.
#16 – The Blue Max (1966)
I think this is George Peppard’s greatest performance, as he smoothly plays the overconfident Lt. Bruno Stachel.
It offers a fantastic insight into the ferocity of WWI air warfare, and hence the very short lives of those who flew this conflict, in an unusually German viewpoint.
I’d give it a higher rating than Aces High since the tale is more engaging, and Mason and Ursula Andress provide adequate support for the moody Mr. Peppard.
The last end of poor Stachel, arranged by his side, maybe just recompense for obtaining the Blue Max. In numerous external views, trained pilot Peppard is shown flying the plane for genuine.
#17 – Capricorn One (1978)
This is yet another space film that features incredible flying. Back when Elliott Gould had a huge career and was married to Barbra Streisand, James Brolin wasn’t, and O.J. Simpson had his freedom, they all participated in this tense sci-fi thriller, in which the US government staged a trip to Mars, and NASA is once again heroes on a shoestring budget.
However, if the returning empty capsule burns up before re-entry, they’ll require three live astronauts who have to die right away.
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Brolin’s character’s effort to avoid assassination and change up at his burial features one of the most insane flying sequences ever, in which he’s suspended from the surface of a red Stearman crop duster attempting to avoid numerous helicopter gunships. The remarkable talents of a barnstormer, Frank Tallman, pushes the Stearman beyond any conventional flight envelope in sections of this movie that I find frightening to watch.
The films in this list of best movies about flying are rated based on their box office success (awards & nominations), popularity, and cinematic quality (directing/writing). Who knows, maybe you’ll be encouraged to hold a movie night with a flying theme tonight.