Greatest aeroplane films in the history of film
From iconic transatlantic flights to war movie dogfights, aeroplane scenes create a special brand of drama on the silver screen. The skill level of the pilot and actors flying in those scenes continuously deliver 'How did they do that?' moments. Over the years, films have showcased how aviation began, taken us to the moon and shown us how humans have acclimated to being thousands of feet in the air. This chronological list rounds up 12 of the greatest aeroplane films in history.
This silent movie opened the sky for all aviation films and won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. The film was thought to have been lost until a print was found in Paris in 1992, which has since been restored and preserved for the future. The plot follows two enemies-turned-friends who are pilots in World War I, with a love triangle and a tragedy along the way. Wings showcases planes such as Thomas-Morse MB-3s, SPADs and Curtis P-1 Hawks and it’s fascinating to watch as the catalyst for future aviation movies.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957
This biographical film tells the story of pilot Charles Lindbergh (played by the great James Stewart), who completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. The film showcases how Lindbergh meticulously prepared for the monumental flight, chronicling his determination and skill during the impressive journey as he negotiates frozen engines and navigates by star. Viewers are also given a look at the planes of the day, which only serves to emphasise the daring of the pilot.
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965)
This excellent film appeals to both classic comedy fans and those interested in the origins of aviation. Centred around an aeroplane race from London to Paris, it showcases aircraft from the early 1900s including the monoplane, biplane and triplane. It's interesting to see how some of the early planes were designed and there are some brave stunts performed, too. The takeoff and flying scenes showcase the marvel of early aeroplane development, which really makes you realise how far we’ve come when compared to modern-day private jets.
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
Robert Redford stars in this classic aviation drama as Waldo Pepper, a barnstormer (pilot stuntman) and World War I veteran. Waldo was made a flight instructor during the war and feels aggrieved not to have taken part in the dogfights himself, leading him to attempt ever-more daring plane stunts and engage in rivalries with other stunt pilots. The film was lauded for its flight scenes and is a fascinating watch for those interested in aeroplane stunts – some of them seem outright impossible. At the director’s request, Redford and co-star Bo Svenson flew without parachutes or safety harnesses for an authentic flight experience; something that probably wouldn’t be allowed these days!
Capricorn One (1978)
While many debate whether the moon landings were real, this film features a faked Mars landing. On their 'return', the three astronauts experience a mechanical issue that would have killed them if the flight hadn’t been a hoax. In an attempt to stop the scandal being exposed, they’re rounded up to be killed, but escape and embark on a quest to reveal the truth. Starring James Brolin, Sam Waterston and a young O.J. Simpson, the film features some unbelievable stunt pilot work, including a chase scene involving helicopters pursuing an aircraft that will have you on the edge of your seat.
This parody comedy arguably launched the comedic acting careers of Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges. The story follows a war-traumatised pilot-turned-taxi driver. When his air hostess girlfriend ends their relationship and boards her next flight, he faces his fear and follows her onto the plane in an attempt to win her back. Hilarious chaos ensues. While the film doesn't showcase amazing stunts and dogfights, it does open our minds to the interesting dynamics at play when a crowd of people are confined on an aircraft thousands of feet in the air. With a host of cameos by celebrities and sportsmen such as basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Airplane! is appreciated by many as one of the funniest aviation movies of all time.
The Right Stuff (1983)
This film brilliantly showcases how flight enabled us to explore the outer reaches of our atmosphere and venture into space. From breaking the sound barrier with a plane to space flying missions with a solo pilot, the epic historical drama gives greater insight into this significant period in human aviation history and sheds light on the test pilots involved in aeronautical research who later became astronauts on Project Mercury. Superbly directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Sam Shepard, the film won four Academy Awards from eight nominations and has since been selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry.
Top Gun (1986)
One of the best-known military-based aeroplane films, Top Gun’s flying stunts and action sequences are still praised to this day. Tom Cruise stars in the 1986 cult classic about the dynamics at the Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School, with a plot that covers love, rivalry and a lot of bravado. While the film has been parodied and polarises critics, its excellent flying scenes showcase some powerful military aircraft in action, such as the Northrop F-5E and F-14 Tomcats.
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford stars in this American political action-thriller, which follows the U.S. president’s quest to protect his family when his official aeroplane is infiltrated and seized by terrorists mid-air. Ford carries the film with some great acting and we're exposed to some of the technological and cosmetic features of a presidential aircraft, albeit dated to the ’90s. The movie holds suspense well, especially in scenes shot onboard the aircraft.
Con Air (1997)
Released in the same year as Air Force One, this American action film also features suspense on board a hijacked aircraft – this time transferring criminals to a new prison. Featuring a classic ’90s cast including John Malkovich, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi and a young Dave Chappelle, the plot takes many twists and turns as repentant offenders fight to stop remorseless bad guys on board the hijacked airplane. An entertaining watch.
The Aviator (2004)
Featuring an all-star lineup for movie buffs, The Aviator is directed by Martin Scorsese, has a screenplay written by John Logan and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale amongst others. The epic biographical drama follows the life of aviator and filmmaker Howard Hughes, who ironically is reported to have turned down the chance to film Wings. The film outlines the growth of the aviation industry in the early- to mid-20th Century as commercial airliners took hold – many lessons learnt during this period have ensured today’s aircraft safety and engineering development. The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five.
Dunkirk showcases extremely impressive dogfights from World War II. Director Christopher Nolan used three working Spitfires, 70 years after the war ended, mounting them with IMAX cameras to give perhaps the best quality aerial footage to this day. It’s worth watching this film just for the flying scenes.
While you may never star in an aviation film, you can still experience the excitement of flight and appreciate the modern technology that allows us to soar through the air. To charter your own private jet, contact our team online or call +44 (0)20 8339 8588 for a personalised quote. We’ll then assign a dedicated account manager who can sort out all the flight arrangements for you.