Top 10 Aviation Movies

by Eric Melin on January 13, 2009

in Top 10s

Scene-Stealers sitegoer and Lawrence, KS resident Kenny Nall created a great movie list for aircraft fanatics, and covers a really wide spectrum. Enjoy! If you have your own idea for a Top 10 list, send it to Here’s Kenny with the Top 10 Best Aviation Movies:

The first airplane was invented on December 17, 1903. To commemorate that event, I’ve created a Top 10 list of films about aircraft. Aircraft and its subsequent films can convey the wide range of human emotions, achievements, and disasters. I must say this wasn’t a difficult list to produce, but it was hard to narrow down the list and include everything I thought was necessary. Aircraft films certainly come as period pieces due to the influence of technology. The first few films about aviation pertained to the achievement and the wonder of flight. Along with the flying of aircraft comes the issue of risk and possibly tragedy. I mainly chose films centered on airplanes for sake of convenience. This is a more informative list than an analytical one. These films range span across many genres and I hope you enjoy it. I start the way Eric does sometimes when he has too many films to include…with number 11.

united 93 2006 movie 11. United 93 (2006) /Enola Gay and the Atomic Bombing of Japan (1995)

Not an easy way to start out a list, but entirely relevant. The desperation, evil, and disaster of humanity can be linked to airplanes. These two events were catastrophic in their own right can be related and symbolized in the imagery of planes. In a society where most everything (especially anything dealing with technology and engineering) is taken for granted, most forget a what a world without planes would be like and the wonder and devastation that can be involved with them. The first movie is Paul Greengrass’ emotional recreation of that fateful flight on Sept. 11, 2001 where passengers fought back. The second is a documentary about the droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

james stewart spirit of st louis 195710. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

Many consider famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight to be the single biggest achievement in aviation since the invention of the airplane itself. Jimmy Stewart starred in this film biopic of the man and his career leading up to his historic flight. Believe it or not, the movie was directed by Billy Wilder (“Some like it Hot,” “The Apartment,” “Sunset Boulevard”), who was not known for biographical films. Aviation had become a trend for many big time stars of the day. John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and William Holden all did films about aircraft warfare in World War II.

airport 1070 collage9. Airport (1970) /The Hindenburg (1975) /Black Hawk Down (2001)

I chose “Airport” over Harrison Ford in “Air Force One” and coupled it along with “The Hindenburg,” which was released at around the same era. Both fit nicely into the genre of 70s disaster movies. “Airport” helped define the genre, starring virtually every actor in Hollywood, and focusing on a suicidal bomber who plots to blow up a Boeing 707 in flight. For my own purposes, I have paired “The Hindenburg” (A highly speculative thriller starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft and directed by Robert Wise about a conspiracy leading to the destruction of the German airship) with “Black Hawk Down,” so this list isn’t be prejudiced against non-airplane aircraft and because both are about tragic groundings. Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” is based on the book by Mark Bowden that depicts the Battle of Mogadishu, where RPG-armed Somali militia shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, and the resulting rescue took 15 hours.

dark blue world 20018. Dark Blue World (2001)

This film is more of a love story than anything. It tells of a love triangle between a girl, refugee Czech pilot who fought for the British Royal Air Force, and his commander, who evade the Nazis following their takeover of Czechoslovakia. “Dark Blue World” has an accurate view of airplane combat in World War II and provides an interesting human story as well. It is still the most expensive Czech movie ever produced.

airplane! bridges stack7. Airplane! (1980)

Despite most aircraft films being epic and dramatic in nature, I’ve included this comedy classic, a movie that satirizes the above-mentioned disaster films, and a film which some list as the best comedy of all time. Rather than use the A-List celebrities that disaster flicks used, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers instead utilized the bottom of the rung. B-List celebs such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar populate the cast of “Airplane!” This just proves my point that airplanes can be tragic, larger-than-life, awe-inspiring, and … downright funny.

battle of britain 1969 dogfight6. Battle of Britain (1969)

This film, with its megastar cast–including Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, and Ian McShane–shows the immensity of air warfare. This wasn’t just one battle or dogfight– this was an entire war in the sky. The battle over one nation began after Britain’s retreat from France and its preparation for the attack on its own country. The win by the hugely outnumbered British RAF pilots over the German Luftwaffe was a big moment. This film may not be entirely accurate, but it shows the sweeping scale of airplanes and their combat. “Battle of Britain” is so popular that it is still shown on British television regularly.

top gun cruise edwards maverick goose5. Top Gun (1986)

Where should I begin with this one? This movie set the bar for airplane movies who want to be cool. “Top Gun” is certainly the movie that I’ve seen the most on this list. This movie is sort of all over the place if you really think about it. It was a fairly accurate, albeit corny movie. One of the MiG planes they used wasn’t really a Russian plane at all. Actually, the so-called MiG 28 jet they used in the film doesn’t even really exist at all. It’s decent accuracy is due to the fact of how much it leaves out, but no on really cares about veracity in films do they? “Top Gun” certainly catapulted Cruise to new heights and paved his path to superstardom. I could talk about this film for hours, but no one wants to hear that.

memphis belle: a story of a flying fortress 1944 documentary4. Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

This WWII non-fiction film was made as a morale-builder during the war and was also the foundation for a 1990 Hollywood movie starring Matthew Modine, David Strathairn, and Eric Stolz. The documentary, directed by William Wyler (“Ben-Hur,” “Roman Holiday,” “The Best Years of our Lives”) tells of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and its crew that flew 25 complete missions in World War II for the United States Air Force. It was the first aircraft to do so. It’s certainly not a spectacular film to marvel at, but the actual airplane itself is. It goes into detail about the crew of the plane and what it felt like to achieve such a feat and features 16 mm color film of actual battles.

tora! tora! tora! 1970 pearl harbor3. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

A joint American-Japanese film (with three directors!) recounting the events of Pearl Harbor, this film won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects. For awhile, even famed director Akira Kurosawa  filmed sequences for the movie before the studio handed that side of the production over to another director. (Imdb says that Kurosawa tried to get himself fired after learning that “Lawrence of Arabia” director David Lean was not in charge of the Ameican side of production, as the studio promised.) The thing to point out is that while the modern-day “Pearl Harbor” starring Ben Affleck may be a more exhilarating tale of friendship, betrayal and love, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is clearly the more accurate of the two. At the time, critics reviewed the film poorly and Roger Ebert called it the “deadest, dullest blockbuster ever made,” but I know that is not a valid claim as of today.

the aviator 2004 dicaprio2. Hell’s Angels (1930)/The Aviator (2004)

It was a no-brainer to stick these two films in this spot. These two are great films in general and related for obvious reasons. “The Aviator” is easily my favorite film on here. It provides us with an interesting perspective on who millionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) was and his obsessive fixation on the aircraft he built, while touching on many other details about this remarkable man. Director Martin Scorsese does a brilliant job of bringing Hughes’ passion for airplanes to the forefront and leaves the other things in his life where they should be. It’s undoubtedly one of the best biopics made in recent history. Hughes’ own masterpiece “Hell’s Angels,” set the bar for epic filmmaking and as a director and a perfectionist, delivers. Hughes focused the film on pilots who fought in WWI, and though the film has a love story and other subplots, Hughes smartly lets the airplanes take center stage with some incredible dogfight footage.

wings 1927 dogfight1. Wings (1927)

This is the only film on the list that won a Best Picture and therefore it‘s at the top of this list. However, it was the first-ever Best Picture award given, and it is the only silent film to win. There’s no better way to let the aircraft take its place in the center of the film than by having the audience in awe of just the images shown. “Wings,” like “Hell’s Angels,” centers on WWI pilots and a love story. The film had a budget of 2 million dollars, an amount unheard of at the time. I believe that “Hell’s Angels” and “Wings” are seen as attempts to achieve the impossible–filming while on an airplane, about airplanes–and they clearly set the bar for filmmaking of any genre.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kenny January 13, 2009 at 11:54 pm

I cheated to be fair!


2 Tom E. April 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm

I can see why you had to shoehorn completely unrelated films like “Airport” and “Black Hawk Down” together just to keep your top 10 list to only 15 titles. Once I started thinking about aviation-related movies I realized just how many great ones there are. The first that came to mind was “The Blue Max” with George Peppard and James Mason. Then there are all those WWII classics like “Flying Tigers,” “Fighter Squadron,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Hellcats of the Navy,” “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” and “Flying Leathernecks” (my favorite) as well as several Korean classics like “The Hunters,” “Men of the Fighting Lady,” and “The Bridges at Toko Ri.” There’s the excellent WWII retro McQueen feature, “The War Lover” as well as the cold war propaganda films like “Bombers B52” and “Strategic Air Command.” One of my favorite movies as a child was “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” Then there were the A-List dramas and melodramas like “No Highway in the Sky,” “Test Pilot,” and “A Guy Named Joe.” Recent years have contiued the tradition with films like “THe Final Countdown” and more recently “Flyboys.” And while it is not a film, the excellent British miniseries “Piece of Cake” deserves special mention. Wow, what an underappreciated genre!


3 Rosie August 17, 2010 at 11:15 am

The thing to point out is that while the modern-day “Pearl Harbor” starring Ben Affleck may be a more exhilarating tale of friendship, betrayal and love, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is clearly the more accurate of the two. At the time, critics reviewed the film poorly and Roger Ebert called it the “deadest, dullest blockbuster ever made,” but I know that is not a valid claim as of today.

I think it is. I’m sorry, but aside from the Japanese sequences, I find \TORA, TORA, TORA!\ to be incredibly boring.


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