Aviation movies vary from excellent to extremely poor. Movie studios are notorious for referring to an aircraft as one type in the script and then putting a picture of a totally unrelated type on screen. It drives industry people mad!
I am an aviation geek from way back so I have seen a lot of movies involving planes. Below are nine of my favourite aviation movies, a little about them and the reasons why I think they’re worth watching.
Flight 90: Disaster On The Potomac (1984)
The true story of Air Florida flight 90 which crashed in Washington DC on 13 January 1982 is the subject of this television movie released in 1984. The movie features footage of actual Air Florida Boeing 737 aircraft which makes it unusual in aviation movies. Usually the airline name will be changed in some way to protect the airline’s brand.
Producers made an effort to use the original cockpit dialogue as transcribed in the NTSB report which is good to see. In another excellent step, original news footage of the passenger rescue from the Potomac River is seamlessly integrated with the studio shots which makes for a gripping and realistic experience.
It is a television movie so it can be a little cheesy at times however many little details are correct. For example, in the cockpit shots the aircraft registration N62AF is seen. In addition, the fact that one flight attendant moved from her assigned seat at the rear to sit with her friend at the front is included here too, without making a big deal about it.
While the movie does not appear to be available on DVD, you can watch the full film on YouTube. I think it is definitely worth checking out.
Neerja is the true story of the hijacking of Pan Am flight 73 in Karachi on 5 September 1986. This Bollywood production from 2016 received rave reviews and with very good reason.
The production company chose to build a full size Boeing 747 set replicating the original Pan Am aircraft. As a result, all the shots on board appear very real on screen which is excellent.
While the movie does take dramatic license with who did what and when, it is a fine tribute to flight attendant Neerja Bhanot and her heroism during the ordeal.
The performances are jaw dropping at times in their realism. The Director chose to keep the actors playing the terrorists separate from the other cast members to add to the authenticity. A powerful and moving film indeed!
Top Gun (1986)
Highway to the Danger Zone! With both great songs and a good script it is hard to go wrong with this movie. Starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis along with a host of supporting characters this movie is a classic.
Released in 1986, Tom Cruise plays Maverick, an F14 Tomcat pilot sent to the elite Top Gun school. From the very beginning the movie is action packed in a way only 80s movies know how.
The editing in this movie is spectacular with some great air to air sequences. It’s an adrenaline rush from start to finish and lots of the lines are quite quotable.
Apparently they are making a follow up movie as well, so it is one to look out for. I saw this in the cinema when I was quite young and it has always been a favourite ever since.
Featuring an all star cast including Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, George Kennedy and Helen Hayes, the movie was a box office smash when it came out in 1970.
Based on the book by Arthur Hailey, Airport is one of those aviation movies I can watch again and again. A snowstorm closes a runway at Lincoln Airport (shot at the real Minneapolis Saint-Paul International Airport) and chaos ensues from there on.
There are several sub plots throughout the movie which come straight from the book. Helen Hayes won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her scene stealing role as the little old lady stowaway in the film.
Accuracy is also important here and the decompression scene is spectacular to watch. Some reviewers deride the plot as soap opera like, but I think it is a real snapshot of aviation in the 1960s. Great movie!
The Dam Busters (1955)
During World War II, 617 squadron of the Royal Air Force in Britain is tasked with destroying dams in the Ruhr Valley in Germany with Lancaster bombers.
Designer Barnes Wallace worked for Vickers and designed the bouncing bomb used during the raid. The bomb has to bounce to get over the torpedo nets protecting the dams and the movie goes through some of the trials it took to perfect the weapon.
Shot in black and white, the movie is an excellent example of putting a war story on screen. It shows the trials and tribulations along the way and then the raid itself.
The producers don’t shy away from hiding the fact that many of the crews on the mission were lost either. It is an interesting film from start to finish and well worth including in this list.
Aviation Movies Include Space – Apollo 13 (1995)
Does a movie about a failed space mission have a place on a list of aviation movies? I certainly think so. I went to the Sydney premiere of Apollo 13 with a friend and found the film awe inspiring. The special effects in particular are brilliant.
For those that are not aware, Apollo 13 is one of the Apollo moon missions and this one did not make it to the moon. An oxygen tank exploded on the journey to the moon and it was touch and go as to whether the crew would make it home.
Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and the late great Bill Paxton, the movie makers were at pains to ensure historical accuracy. A lot of the zero G scenes were shot in an aircraft simulating zero gravity to make it more realistic.
A financial and critical success, Apollo 13 is one of those movies that successfully takes a snapshot of a historical event and brings it to a wider audience on the big screen. Superb film!
The Crash of Flight 401 (1978)
Eastern Airlines flight 401 crashed in the Florida Everglades on 29 December 1972. It is the first accident involving a widebody jet aircraft.
This television film stars William Shatner and Eddie Albert and once again is quite good with its attention to detail. The reasons for the crash and the investigation are covered here.
What sticks in my mind most form when I saw it on TV is the crash scene. I thought it was astonishing all round. It is such a shame that such a small root cause resulted in the aircraft impacting the ground.
It appears to be available on DVD so I plan on picking up a copy as I have not seen it for many years. Definitely an interesting one for the list anyway.
Airplane! is lauded as one of the funniest movies ever made. In Australia, New Zealand and some other countries it is called Flying High, perhaps because we don’t have airplanes, we have aeroplanes. It lampoons the disaster movie genre popular in the 1970s.
From an inflatable automatic pilot to sex jokes to a jet aircraft that sounds like a propeller aircraft, this movie takes no prisoners and takes the piss out of everything in sight.
Some of the jokes are of their time by which I mean that if you are an American of a certain age, you will know what they’re doing. The guy in the taxi? I don’t know what that’s all about for example.
Even so the movie features very quotable lines and is laugh out loud funny. Just about everyone knows this movie so if you haven’t seen it do yourself a favour and grab a copy.
Finally, The Turkey. The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979)
The final film in the Airport series is easily the worst. Robert Wagner is essentially trying to destroy Concorde due to his lover played by Susan Blakely being on board as she can expose him for selling arms to terrorists. It gets more hokey from there on in.
Known as Airport ’80: The Concorde in some territories, this movie was critically panned and a box office failure. It is best described as a Dramedy as it is a drama with some rather large attempts at humour thrown in too.
Special effects in the movie for the aerial sequences are really bad. That being said, the reason to watch the movie is for Concorde. A lot of the straight air to air and ground footage of the aircraft is lovingly shot and it’s fun seeing the interior circa 1979 as well.
George Kennedy reprises his role as Joe Patroni for the last time, now promoted to Captain and flying with French actor Alain Delon. This movie deserves its place on a list of aviation movies – it is one of my guilty pleasures. I actually really like it!
As you can tell, I love aviation movies. Whether true stories or fictional ones it is always great to see a movie essentially about planes and the goings on surrounding them.
All of the above are great movies for one reason or another so I suggest you check out the ones you have not seen. What do you think of this list? Are there any movies I’ve missed? Agree? Disagree? Thanks for reading and please leave any comments or questions below.
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Featured image via the Internet Movie Database and Copyright Universal Pictures. All other images via Wikimedia Commons.