With the new “Top Gun: Maverick” movie fresh in everyone’s minds, we thought it would be fun to do a roundup of the best movies ever made about aviation.
Grab the popcorn and your remote as you settle in for your next pilot movie marathon. Did your favorite film make the cut? There’s only one way to find out.
Best Aviation Comedies & Romances
Up in the Air (2009)
Not much can stand in the way of a frequent flier who spends his days traveling the country, firing people, and racking up airline miles. Just as he’s nearing his goal of ten million miles, however, his job is threatened by a videoconferencing alternative and a woman who just may change the way he feels about the work he does.
Widely regarded as the very best aviation comedy, this parody film pokes fun at the flying disaster movie sub-genre while reveling in the relatable commercial airline passenger headaches of irritating seatmates and overly cheery flight crews.
Best Aviation Dramas
Denzel Washington stars as an airline pilot who uses creative piloting skills to save nearly everyone on board after an aircraft malfunction. Unfortunately, this seemingly heroic action is complicated by the pilot’s personal history of alcoholism which becomes the subject of a post-accident liability investigation that threatens to end his career.
Everything that can go wrong does with compounding disastrous effect in the movie version of the aviation novel featuring bombs, stowaways, snowstorms, mechanical malfunctions, scheduling faux paus, and more.
Air Force One (1997)
Hijacking is a popular theme in aviation action films, and the stakes are even higher when the commandeered plane is Air Force One. While in real life, the President would never be front and center in the dramatic quest to retake the plane, this is Hollywood. Follow Harrison Ford as the U.S. president who defies the odds to save his wife, his daughter, and himself after the aircraft takeover.
Best Based on True Story Aviation Movies
The Aviator (2004)
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the dramatic biopic following the early years of film director and pilot Howard Hughes’ career. The movie covers the late 1920s through the mid-1940s and focuses on Hughes’ role in designing and promoting new experimental aircraft plus founding Pan Am rival TWA.
The man behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” comes to the forefront as Tom Hanks portrays pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The film covers the day Captain Sully landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board. It also delves into the intense aftermath of an NTSB investigation that claimed Captain Sully could have landed the damaged Airbus A320 at an airport rather than risking the river landing.
The Terminal (2004)
Many of us feel like we live at the airport, but “The Terminal” is inspired by the real-world story of an Iranian refugee who really became a stateless person and lived in Charles De Gaulle Airport for more than eighteen years.
Catch Me if You Can (2002)
The hunt is on as we follow the true story of a young con man who posed as a Pan Am pilot, doctor, and prosecutor while flying around the world and evading the FBI agent tasked with putting him behind bars. Period 1960s flight attendant uniforms add to the visual nostalgia of this film.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The selection process was intense for the group of men who took the U.S. space program from breaking the sound barrier into space. This film charts the beginnings of that program from Chuck Yaeger to the Mercury 7 astronauts while showing what it took to become one of the first men in the space program.
Best Flying Movies for Kids
If your kids loved Disney Pixar’s “Cars,” it’s time to introduce them to “Planes.” The talking flying machines in “Planes” come “from above the world of Cars,” so they will feel familiar. Follow crop duster, Dusty, as he overcomes his fear of heights and competes in the around-the-world aerial race he’s always dreamed of.
Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014)
The 2013 “Planes” film did so well that Disney doubled down with a sequel. This time Dusty leaves racing to become an aerial firefighter. He joins a forest fire and rescue unit of smokejumpers as they battle a massive wildfire threatening the world of Cars.
Best Military Flying Movies
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
Immediately after the first World War, returned pilots with nothing to do missed flying. They found a way to get back in the air and provide entertainment through series of aerial dogfight shows known as barnstorming. This historical fiction film explores the world of barnstorming by following the fictional Waldo Pepper’s life. All the in-air scenes were filmed during flight, not on the ground or in a studio.
Twelve o’clock High (1949)
In the early days of WWII bombing raids, a team of B-17 pilots are given the impossible task of continuing to fly mission after mission while their unit sustains heavy losses. Morale suffers and a new general is brought in to push the men to continue. This film has earned its ranking thanks to the actual aerial combat footage spliced in and for its depictions of PTSD.
The Red Baron (2008)
Several films have explored the life of World War I German fighter ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. The 2008 German biopic imagines the humanity behind the legend. It follows the fighting ace’s many kills and depicts him ultimately recognizing the true cost of war.
Memphis Belle (1990)
If you’re up for a double-header movie night, pair “Twelve o’clock High” with “Memphis Belle.” Like “Twelve o’clock High,” the plot of “Memphis Belle” follows a squadron of U.S. Army Air Corps pilots flying mission after mission in dangerous enemy airspace.
The Memphis Belle movie is based on the real-world story of the heavy bomber by the same name that became the first to fly twenty-five combat missions over Europe and return to the United States. The movie follows the crew as they prepare for and fly their record-breaking twenty-fifth mission.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Set in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, this historical film follows the real-life story of young lieutenant Ted Lawson who volunteers to fly a secret bombing mission to Japan while his pregnant wife waits at home. The storyline is based on the famous Doolittle Raids designed to retaliate and attack Japan by launching sixteen fully loaded bombers from an aircraft carrier.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Part love story, part military historical fiction, this film focuses on the human impact of December 7, 1941. The action drama follows two friends and a nurse leading up to and in the aftermath of that fateful day.
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
This historical fiction film chronicles the real-life story of the group of Black U.S. Army Air Force servicemen who made up the first all-Black combat pilot unit in the U.S. military. Most of the movie characters are composites of real Tuskegee airmen, but pilot Benjamin Davis was real.
Battle of Britain (1969)
The historical Battle of Britain was a turning point in World War II. During this air battle, the British Royal Air Force kept the German Luftwaffe from establishing air superiority over the English Channel. This film follows both sides as they prepare for and engage in battle.
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Long before the motorcycle club, Hell’s Angels was a classic aviator film about two brothers who left Oxford college life to join the British Royal Flying Corps. Together they volunteer to carry out a dangerous two man bombing mission of a strategic German munitions facility, then attempt to make it home alive. This film is one of the first color and sound action films ever produced.
Top Gun (1986)
There’s really no introduction needed for the most well-known and distinctive of all aviation movies. If you somehow haven’t seen it, put this one at the very top of your list. And make sure your kids watch it as soon as they’re old enough to “feel the need for speed.”
Make a night of it by playing the Top Gun Strategy game and building one of the Cobi Blocks Top Gun airplane models. Your young aviator can choose the Mustang P-51D, F/A-18E Super Hornet Limited Edition, F-14A Tomcat, or F/A-18E Super Hornet Standard Edition set.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
The highly anticipated “Top Gun” reboot does not disappoint. Tom Cruise returns, this time as an instructor training a young class of pilots that includes the son of his best friend “Goose” who [spoiler alert for anyone who has managed to never see the original film] was killed in action thirty years earlier.
It’s your turn
Our votes are in, now what about yours? Which of your favorite movies made the cut and which didn’t? In the comments below, let us know what top aviation movies you’re going to add to the list for your next movie night.
Still looking for more viewing suggestions? Check out our top 12 aircraft documentaries roundup for ideas.
American Made, great story
Hard to believe The High And The Mighty is not on the list. It got me into aviation and a wonderful career not having to go to work.
Fate is the Hunter should have made the list
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
Air Force. B17 action in the Pacific. Great round engine sound.
I would like add Capricorn One to the list as it probably has some of the best flying scenes I have seen in a movie.
Final Countdown – US Aircraft carrier Nimitz gets sent back in time to the day before the Pearl Harbor attack. Do they intervene?
633 Squadron, Dam Busters….
I think you left out a few, and may not entirely agree with some you chose. I would include:
The Flight of the Phoenix (original with James Stewart),
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,
Captains of the Clouds,
The Flying Leathernecks,
Flying Tigers and,
Midway (the original).
THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. the first film about transoceanic flying in the pre jet age.
No Ernie Gann movies? Island In The Sky? The High and The Mighty? Some great movies about aviation written by an aviator. Oh well…
The Blue Max with George Peppard. Good flying scenes with the Fokker triplane.
“Wings.” Winner of the very first academy award for Best Picture. It’s a silent movie but the flying scenes are remarkably good.
Island in the Sky
The High and the Mighty
You missed a very good movie “303 Squadron” about Polish team of GB defenders during the WW2.
Always (Richard Dreyfuss)
Air America (Mel Gibson / Robert Downey, Jr.)
Rescue Dawn (Christian Bale / Steve Zahn)
American Made (Tom Cruise)
American made (2017) with Tom Cruise playing Barry Seal a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to fly recon on the cartels
I guess most here are too young to remember “Dawn Patrol” Errol Flynn & David Niven
Above and Beyond
The Crowded Sky
Flight of the Phoenix (older version)
Spirit of Saint Louis
Fate is the Hunter
Bridges at Toko Ri. Not a lot of Korean war movies. Devotion will move up lists like this with age. The aircraft and flying scenes are great. I like the old John Wayne flying movies, like The High and the Mighty too.
Great listing, although it must be a typo to call Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo “infamous”?
Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Carey Grant
Amelia (2009): Hilary Swank plays a credible role
The War Lover (1962): Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner – Pilot and Copilot tensions
The High and the Mighty (1954): John Wayne, need we say more?
Dr Strangelove (1964): The B-52 crew procedures appeared authentic but were not real
Tora Tora Tora (1970): Joint American and Japanese production made this one special
Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Carey Grant manages the pilots and crew of an air freight company in the jungles of South America.
One of the best comedies ever is the British “Those Magnificent men in their flying machines” with Robert Morley and Sarah Mills. Don’t forget “The Spirit of St. Louis” with James Steward in the lead role.
Old school TopGun.
Victor Vogel, MD
Spirit of St. Louis, Flight of the Phoenix, The High and the Mighty, Island in the Sky, The Blue Max
How about The High and the Mighty with John Wayne Robert Stack and others.
‘High Road to China’ 1983 PG 1h45m
IMO, one of the most underrated and under seen films ever made. Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong, Jack Weston, Wilford Brimley, Brian Blessed and Robert Morley in an action/adventure/mystery/thriller/romance/comedy movie that is spectacularly filmed, and has a mesmerizing soundtrack. Some nice little nods to Hitchcock, as well.
“The oxen are slow, but the Earth is patient.”
Spirit of St. Louis
The first “Behind Enemy Lines” was overlooked and has some great flight scenes and lots of G-1 jackets.
“Fortress”- If Memphis Belle wasn’t enough. It’s more of a B movie but tells a historic story.
“Strategic Air Command”- (1955) with Jimmy Stewart (himself a World War II bomber pilot), has some serious aviation “porn” type extended flight scenes that are gorgeous even today.
If include the polarizing Pearl Harbor, must include the Emmerich “Midway”
“Fail Safe” – both 1964 and the 2000 George Clooney version.
“Flight of the Intruder”- may not be the best movie but it has some great flying.
Check these out too!
The Kid (2000) although the movie is not solely about airplanes, flying is a common theme and ultimately the end goal of the main character as he grows up. This movie inspired me to fly as a kid.