February 27, 2014

NYCA At The Movies – The 11 Best Ever Aviation and Space Films (According to Us)

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Written by: Gabe Andino
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Every year around this time, the American motion picture industry gets together to honor the best films of the year at the Academy Awards. In 2012, Denzel Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a heroic airline pilot with a serious addiction problem in Flight . This year Gravitystarring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock is nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture. This recognition of aviation and space themed movies inspired us to create a list of the best aviation and space motion pictures from an enthusiasts standpoint, as well as a list of our favorite aviation-related scenes which we will be presenting tomorrow.

Throughout the long history of film there have been hundreds of movies showcasing aviation. In order to narrow down our list, the NYCA staff listed their all-time favorites. We also surveyed our followers on Facebook and Twitter to get the aviation community’s opinion. The list of movies below is based on the consensus reached by a group of avgeeks. While some of these movies may not necessarily be critically acclaimed, or the flying action may not be 100% technically accurate, or they may have too much Tom Cruise for your liking, they all present flight in an entertaining manner and have scenes that are synonymous with aviation. Most if not all of these movies are ones that we may come across on TV and drop what we’re doing to watch again for the 147th time.


The Right Stuff

This classic, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, is at the top of most Avgeeks’ favorites list. It is a masterful telling of the creation of the US space program starting with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier through the selection of the Mercury program astronauts and culminating with the first US manned space missions. The Right Stuff featured some pretty realistic looking flight scenes using miniatures, which still holds up in today’s CGI world. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1983, including Best Picture, ultimately taking home four Oscars in technical categories like cinematography and sound.

Bonus trivia: If you have a sharp eye, you’ll notice that General Yeager himself makes a cameo appearance.


The movie that kicked off the disaster movie craze of the 1970’s, Airport still stands as a quintessential aviation drama. A star-studded cast, led by Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and George Kennedy battle a snowstorm, a disabled 707, a midair bombing, and enough personal drama to fill a spin-off soap opera. Airport was the first major motion picture to weave various storylines around a catastrophic set of events, a style that would later be spoofed heavily in our next featured film, Airplane! Though it ended up spawning some regrettable sequels, the movie did earn ten Oscar nominations, with Helen Hayes winning Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of stowaway Ada Quonset.

Bonus trivia: The airport depicted in the film, the fictional “Lincoln International Airport” is actually Minneapolis-St. Paul International. Ironically it did not snow in Minnesota during filming, so all the snow you see in the outdoor scenes is manufactured.



This comedic gem’s inclusion is a no-brainer. There are so many jokes and famous lines that it is one of the most oft-quoted films of all time, by both those in aviation and the general public.  Believe it or not, Airplane!  is the only one of the films listed here to make an AFI Top 100 list, and its cultural relevance holds up so well, it’s even referenced in airline safety videos.

Bonus trivia: Curiously, most of the actors in the movie were not comedic actors (though Leslie Nielsen made a career in spoof comedy in the following two decades). and all the lines, no matter how ridiculous, were deadpanned which added to the comedic effect. 


Apollo 13

Along with The Right StuffApollo 13 is probably the most technically accurate movie about a NASA space mission ever made (with a few minor exceptions of course). Like The Right Stuff before it, and Gravity at present, Apollo 13 made exceptional use of special effects. The film also featured stellar acting from Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise. The movie ended up being nominated for nine Oscars, taking home two.

Bonus Trivia: The famous line “Houston we have a problem” said by Jim Lovell was actually “Houston we’ve had a problem”. Director Ron Howard decided to go with the present tense for the film.


Top Gun

With regard to modern popular culture, Top Gun is one of the most memorable aviation movies of all time, and probably the most “mainstream”. It is a prototypical “80’s action movie”, with slick cinematography, a charismatic lead actor, and a plot involving a vaguely Soviet enemy (or at least one using a fictional Soviet-built “Mig-28”). While the movie is a very Hollywood take on naval aviation, the aerial cinematography is top-notch, helped by the installation of camera pods on the F-14’s used in filming.

Also, if you have an interest in seeing the greatest soundtrack of our time played live, check out the Top Gun cover band, Viper.

Bonus trivia: The real Top Gun school fines staff $5 for each time they quote the movie.


The Final Countdown

What would happen if a modern-day nuclear aircraft carrier time-warped back to the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii, on December 6th, 1941? That’s the premise behind The Final Countdown, which is probably one of the most overlooked films of its type. Despite not being as flashy as the aforementioned Top Gun, this movie was mentioned as a favorite by many of the NYCAviation staff. If you haven’t seen it, check it out on Netflix streaming (in HD no less!).

Bonus trivia: Though the premise of the movie takes place in the Pacific, the carrier scenes on the USS Nimitz were actually filmed in the Atlantic, as the Nimitz was in the Atlantic fleet at the time.


Air Force One

Despite some action sequences involving the Presidential VC-25 that stretch credulity, Air Force One was mentioned as a favorite among many of those we surveyed. Credit strong acting on the part of Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Also it doesn’t hurt to have a 747 star in the movie.

Bonus trivia: The 747 used in the film was a -146 model originally belonging to Japan Air Lines and being flown by American International Airways at the time of production.


The Aviator

Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate on this biopic of Howard Hughes. The Aviator focuses on Hughes’ early life as a Hollywood director, producer, aircraft manufacturer, test pilot and owner of TWA. DiCaprio turns in a typically solid performance as the obsessive-compulsive Hughes and there is plenty of airplane porn to keep the avgeeks happy. This movie came up big at Oscar time, earning eleven nominations and winning five statutes, including Cate Blanchett for Best Supporting Actress.


Battle of Britain

The most famous of aerial battles has a quality film dedicated to it in Battle of Britain. The movie is a recounting of the pivotal World War II battle, in which an outnumbered Royal Air Force fends off the intense Luftwaffe bombing campaign. Battle features a stellar cast, including Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, and Robert Shaw, as well as the sweet, sweet sound of Merlin-powered Spitfires.

Bonus trivia: Many of the flying scenes were shot using real aircraft, a collection of restored Spitfires and Hurricanes as well as Spanish-built versions of the Messerschmitt 109 and Heinkel 111.


The Spirit of St. Louis

The definitive biopic of Charles Lindbergh, played by Jimmy Stewart. The movie recounts Lindbergh’s younger years flying the mail, chronicling Lindbergh’s struggles to finance and design an aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic non-stop and culminating in his famous voyage. Despite the fact that a 47-year-old Stewart was portraying Lindbergh at 25, The Spirit of St. Louis a well-made and thoroughly entertaining account of one aviation’s greatest feats.


Die Hard 2

OK before the purists reading this click away from this site in anger, hear me out. Die Hard 2 was mentioned a number of times in our surveys despite the fact that the aviation scenes in it are far from realistic. And that’s probably the reason why avgeeks enjoy this film so much: it’s a guilty pleasure. Sure, you may question why aircraft are instructed to enter an interminable holding pattern rather than fly to the alternate airport. You might scoff at an airliner with “fuel tanks dry as a martini” exploding into a raging fireball when it crashes. You may howl in disbelief when John Amos is sucked into an aircraft engine and it keeps running. How about that ejection seat scene? But in the end you throw all that out the window because it’s John McClane kicking ass all over Dulles, so half the fun is laughing in how ridiculous the aviation scenes are. Yippe-kay-yay [Mr. Falcon]!

Bonus trivia: Though the movie takes place at Dulles International Airport, most of the outdoor filming, including the church where the terrorists were hiding out, was in Denver. Interior terminal scenes were shot at the Tom Bradley International Terminal in LAX.

Honorable Mentions:

Memphis Belle, Hot Shots!, Pushing Tin, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Terminal, Space Cowboys, Executive Decision

Gabe Andino is an Associate Editor for NYCAviation.com, aviation enthusiast and airport management professional residing in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @OGAndino

About the Author

Gabe Andino



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