Humans (well, at least some of us) have turned their gaze skyward and envied the birds since time immemorial. From the mythical attempts of Icarus to take to the skies to DaVinci’s fanciful designs, our attempts to fly and the means people have devised to pull it off have captured imaginations for millennia.
With motion pictures and powered flight emerging almost simultaneously, aviation became a vehicle for various visual storytelling, including epic war films, romances, and comedy. Here, we compile the best aviation movies.
The Bridges at Toko Ri
This 1955 film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winner James Michener’s novella of the same name, tells the story of U.S. Navy pilots in the Korean War. Drawing heavily on Michener’s work as an embedded reporter aboard two aircraft carriers during the war, the well-received film features excellent flying scenes and carrier flight-deck sequences thanks to the navy’s cooperation during production.
The Dam Busters
A 1955 British film, The Dam Busters recounts the true story of Operation Chastise, a 1943 mission to attack dams providing hydroelectric power to industry in Axis Germany’s Ruhr Valley. The film captures both the technical innovation and tactical proficiency required for an effective strike. The squadron that conducted the now-legendary raid actively serves in the Royal Air Force today, carrying the name “The Dam Busters.”
Starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover, Bat*21 dramatizes the Vietnam War's most extensive and complex combat search and rescue mission. Hackman plays Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, who served as an Air Force navigator aboard an electronic reconnaissance plane shot down behind North Vietnamese lines.
The real-life rescue mission took more than 11 days. While the film takes some dramatic license, it accurately portrays the lengths U.S. forces will go to to recover their own.
Part biopic, part war movie, Devotion recounts the true story of Korean War fighter pilot Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy basic flight training program, and his wingman Tom Hudner.
Director J.D. Dillard (the son of Bruce Dillard, the second Black man selected to fly for the Navy’s Blue Angels) emphasized practical effects and used real aircraft whenever possible, painted in appropriate markings for the period. The flying scenes and aerial combat complement the real-life story of wartime comradeship that transcended the era’s segregation and discrimination.
The Right Stuff
A 1983 film based on Tom Wolfe’s award-winning book, The Right Stuff follows the unique breed of U.S. military test pilots who participated in aeronautical research in the years following World War II and formed the nation’s initial cadre of astronauts, the Mercury Seven.
Even though it has a long running time, and while many of the individuals it portrays expressed reservations (about the film itself and, to varying degrees, the book), it stands as a compelling representation of the beginnings of the American spaceflight program, and one of the best aviation movies ever.
Flying from England to strike targets in Germany in World War II, U.S. Army Air Force bomber crews needed to survive 25 missions to complete a tour of duty. The crew of a B-17 named Memphis Belle, the first to near that milestone, drew the attention of Army publicists looking to promote war bonds back home and became the subject of a 1944 documentary.
The 1990 film shows the buildup to their dangerous final mission and captures the daily peril of the air campaign over Western Europe. Restoration work on the real-life Memphis Belle began in 2005 before becoming part of the National Museum of the United States Air Force's collection in 2018.
Battle of Britain
This 1969 film offers a reasonably accurate retelling of the fateful 1940 clash between the British Royal Air Force and Axis Germany’s Luftwaffe, in which the British held their own and possibly prevented a seaborne invasion.
The film, made in the days before computer graphics, used real aircraft, ultimately employing around 100 planes and several large-scale models. Critics at the time may not have loved the film, but the extensive aerial footage exceeded anything seen before in aviation movies.
A 1995 docudrama produced by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise, Apollo 13 retells the story of a 1970 U.S. lunar mission. Instead of becoming the third mission to land on the moon, a ruptured oxygen tank forced a frantic change in plans and desperate improvisation to bring the crew safely back to Earth.
Howard’s efforts to ensure the film’s accuracy pay off, including filming scenes in a reduced-gravity aircraft to present the astronauts’ experience of weightlessness.
In 2009, airline captain and retired fighter pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed an airliner in New York’s Hudson River after both engines failed, with all 155 people aboard surviving. 2016’s Sully adapts parts of his bestselling autobiography to retell the story.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the heroic captain, the film focuses on the emergency landing and ensuing investigation. The portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigated the incident, takes arguably reckless dramatic liberties to present a more prosecutorial process. Despite that controversial point, Sullenberger’s heroic feat and the skills and determination that made it possible deserve the big screen treatment.
Six months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy defeated an Imperial Japanese Navy fleet bound for Midway Atoll northwest of Hawaii. Already the subject of contemporary documentaries and a 1976 feature film, the battle receives a fresh retelling in this 2019 version produced and directed by Roland Emmerich. While arguably focused as much on one of the U.S. carrier air groups between December 1941 and June 1942 as on the battle itself, the film offers a reasonably accurate portrayal of the pivotal encounter that includes impressive visuals of World War II carrier operations and air combat.
The turning point in the war in the Pacific, described by historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” Midway represents U.S. naval aviation’s greatest victory. Of the two major films that depict it, Emmerich’s 2019 effort surpasses the 1976 version, and anyone interested in the history of carrier aviation- or who loves aviation movies- should check it out.
The Tuskegee Airmen
This 1995 television movie from HBO dramatizes the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, Black airmen, and support personnel who compiled a distinguished combat record in World War II despite systemic racism and discrimination in the still-strictly segregated U.S. Army Air Forces.
Based on a manuscript written by Tuskegee Airman Robert Williams, the film used period aircraft, including P-51 fighters painted with the unit’s red tail motif, for its flying scenes. Filmmakers also cleverly used archival gun camera footage and scenes from Memphis Belle and Battle of Britain.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
This 1970 film presents an accurate and detailed look at the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite a mixed reception from contemporary critics for its slow pace and inconsistent acting, it earned praise and an Academy Award for its visual effects, which included full-size replicas of key Japanese ships.
Filmmakers leased an aircraft carrier from the U.S. Navy to film launch sequences at sea and had several mock-up planes destroyed on the ground to capture the attack’s devastating effectiveness. Extensive use of technical advisors, many of whom had participated in the attack’s planning and execution, further reinforces the film’s realism.
A lack of surviving airworthy Japanese combat planes from the era required suitably painted using Western stand-ins, and the use of an American ship for certain scenes introduced some discrepancies in ship design features. Military aviation and history buffs seem willing to overlook these compromises, and several aviation movies and TV shows used footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! over the years since its release.
One Six Right
Aviation documentaries could fill an entirely separate list. Still, One Six Right earns a spot here for its importance in publicizing general aviation, or private/recreational flying (as opposed to military or commercial aviation).
The 2005 film captures not only the romance of general aviation — the attraction that draws people to invest the time, effort, and money to become private pilots — but also its importance to the larger aviation industry and economies worldwide. It frames this by relating the history of Van Nuys Airport and discussing the contemporary state of general aviation airfields throughout the country.
The film has since become part of educational programs and industry associations’ lobbying efforts. It has undoubtedly inspired more than a few individuals to begin their own aviation journeys.
Flight of the Intruder
This 1991 movie follows a fictional Navy A-6 Intruder attack squadron in the Vietnam War in an adaptation of the bestselling 1986 novel by Stephen Coonts, who served as an Intruder pilot during Vietnam.
The U.S. Navy supported production, including hosting two weeks of filming aboard the carrier USS Independence, complete with an active A-6 squadron (and reportedly more than a million dollars in reimbursement). Despite a bit of dramatic license in the plot, the flying scenes and portrayal of life “on cruise” make Flight of the Intruder one of the more accurate portrayals of naval aviation in the jet age (looking at you, Tom Cruise…)
Lucasfilm’s final independent project before the Disney acquisition, 2012’s Red Tails, represents the culmination of a personal project George Lucas originally envisioned almost a quarter century before.
The film’s story draws inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen, albeit with primarily made-up characters and events. The exciting aerial combat scenes, which draw heavily on Lucas’s experience with computer-generated imagery in making the Star Wars prequels, stand out as the movie’s strong point.
Nevertheless, while the characters, dialogue, and plot drew heavy criticism, Red Tails generated fresh excitement and stimulated important conversations about the historic achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Twelve O’Clock High
Veterans of the U.S. Army Air Forces bombing campaign in Europe during World War II praised this 1949 movie’s accuracy in portraying their harrowing experiences.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise: both screenwriters, Sy Bartlett and Bernie Lay, Jr., having served in bomber units during the war, and the U.S. Air Force provided extensive assistance, including 12 B-17 aircraft. The use of actual footage from the war (including some from the German side) enhances Twelve O’Clock High’s gritty realism. In 1998, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Top Gun/Top Gun: Maverick
Based (albeit loosely) on the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School program, 1986’s original installment took audiences by storm. Regardless of the story's extensive dramatic liberties, the film features groundbreaking visual effects.
Most of the carrier flight deck footage comes from normal operations. Paramount paid the manufacturer of the F-14 Tomcat manufacturer to create specialized airplane-mounted camera pods to capture airborne footage. The 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, more than lived up to the original’s flying scenes, received better critical reviews, and enjoyed greater commercial success.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Based on Elleston Trevor’s 1964 novel, The Flight of the Phoenix follows a small but diverse group of men challenged to survive in the desert after a sandstorm forces their cargo plane to make an emergency landing far off their planned course. With limited water and no radio, the men cobble a working airplane out of the wreckage and fly to safety.
The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings revolves around a romantic rivalry between World War I military pilots. While perhaps that plot device doesn’t age too well, the film nevertheless stands as a remarkable technical achievement in aviation filmmaking, setting an early standard for realism.
Written and directed by veterans of World War I combat aviation (with a third in a leading role), the film relied on the support of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which contributed aircraft and several of the 300 pilots that the elaborate aerial scenes required.
In 1989’s Always, Steven Spielberg reimagines a romantic drama set during World War II as a story set within a modern aerial firefighting operation. The film features a range of aircraft and uses a combination of aerial photography, models, and rear projection to bring the aerial scenes to life. The cast includes Audrey Hepburn in her final film role.
The Blue Max
Based on Jack D. Hunter’s 1964 debut novel of the same name, The Blue Max tells the story of a German fighter pilot on the Western Front during the First World War. Though the character’s portrayal and the film’s approach to examining modern war drew criticism, the flying scenes continue to earn praise despite some minor technical gaffes and anachronisms.
Filmmakers used several converted 1930s airplanes and a handful of specially built flying replicas. Shot in Ireland, several Irish Air Corps pilots helped stage the dogfight scenes. Director and World War I aviation enthusiast Peter Jackson chairs a trust that owns some of the replica aircraft built for the movie, which he ranks as one of his top six World War I films.
The Great Waldo Pepper
Released in 1975 and set in the 1920s, The Great Waldo Pepper stars Robert Redford and depicts the barnstorming era of American aviation. Redford’s character, a World War I veteran who missed the chance to fly in combat, represents a composite of several real-life barnstorming pilots, all of whom died in flying accidents before the U.S. government's first attempts to regulate aviation.
Dynamic flying scenes used actual aircraft and earned some of the critics’ most extensive praise for aviation movies.
One a number of Martin Scorsese’s films starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this 2004 work portrays the life of Howard Hughes from 1927 to 1947, when he established himself as a filmmaker and aviation pioneer before his increasing instability drove him into seclusion.
In addition to well-received performances from DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, the movie features flying scenes filmed primarily with flying scale models instead of computer-generated imagery to depict the several aircraft involved in the story.
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
Saddled with the unwieldy full title Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes, this 1965 comedy puts an irreverent spin on the early years of powered flight.
The movie showcases airplanes from the early years of fixed-wing aviation, including a reproduction of an absurd-looking 20-wing monstrosity. Most of the film’s flying scenes featured airworthy restored and recreated period aircraft thanks in part to the technical consulting of a senior Royal Air Force officer.
Directed and produced by Howard Hughes (and reportedly among the most expensive movies of its time), Hell’s Angels tells the story of two brothers serving in the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
The film’s complicated and expensive production forms part of the plot in The Aviator. Hughes spent lavishly and personally influenced many of the aerial stunts, with mixed results: during production, three stunt pilots and a mechanic died in accidents, and Hughes himself suffered a skull fracture in a crash while attempting a stunt other pilots had refused to try.
Nevertheless, contemporary reviews lauded the flying scenes, and the film, cited by Stanley Kubrick as an influence, became an early landmark among epic action films.