Top 12 Aviation Movies For Every Aviator

Other · 10 min read · Dec 08, 2022
aviation movies

The world of aviation holds a special place in everyone’s hearts. There is something magical about people’s ability to operate a flying machine. It is no wonder that hundreds of films are dedicated to exploring this topic.

Numerous aspects of aviation have been exhausted in the movie industry. There is an aviation movie for every single person, those who are fascinated by space exploration, adrenaline junkies, historians and even those interested in airplane crashes.

At this point it has become difficult to choose a truly spectacular aviation film from the incredibly long list of options. To help you make a decision, below is a comprehensive list of the 12 best aviation films of all time.

The movies listed here touch on all the main aspects of aviation, starting from historical portrayals of fighter pilots and ending with an over the top comedy about a pilot who is afraid of flying.

Pearl Harbor

Starting the list is Michael Bay’s epic war drama Pearl Harbor (2001). Set during World War II, the movie tells the story of two childhood friends who join the air force. Their innocent dreams of becoming fighter pilots become a harrowing reality with their preparation to fight in the world war.

The movie’s parallel plot point – the love triangle between the two pilots and a nurse complicates everything. It is the heart of the film that forms a connection with the audience.

With its three-hour run time, the epic tale is one of the most popular war and aviation films of the 2000s. However, an important note is that the film is not an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding Pearl Harbor.

Aviation movies: A destroyed warship sinking in a cloud of smoke

There has been some controversy involving certain scenes. In the film, Japanese planes are shown attacking a hospital. Not only did this never happen but the Japanese were very offended, because during the war they followed strict instructions not to target civilians.

The director’s aim to evoke an emotional response in the audience overrode the need to create a historically accurate film. Bay’s vision gives the viewers an over the top, flashy and action packed reimagining of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The true testament to its grandiose production is the nominations it received. The film won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing and was nominated for three more, including Best Visual Effects.


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) commemorates the true story of a World War II battle. British and French soldiers got cornered by enemy forces on the French coast by Dunkirk. Surrounded by German air force pilots and with the only possibility of escaping by sea, allied soldiers are in a dire situation.

The story is told through four different perspectives, that of a trapped soldier, a British naval officer, civilians trying to get soldiers home and two British pilots, fending off a German fighter pilot.

One of the most impactful incidents of the Second World War, the successful evacuation of more than 300 000 troops, led to the win of the Battle of Britain and eventually the war. The movie conveys the event in a remarkable fashion.

British soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation, inspiration for aviation movies.

The film’s unique structure makes it stand out in the war movie genre. Nolan’s signature technical genius was recognized by critics and given five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and three wins.

Although the movie’s focus is on the specific event in World War II history, its brilliant portrayal of aerial fights slots it into the best aviation films list.

Air Force One

Air Force One (1997) is the first film on the list that does not have a pilot as its protagonist. Instead, the story is about a U.S. president (played by Harrison Ford) whose personal airplane, called Air Force One, is hijacked by a group of nefarious men.

Most of the film’s action takes place on board of a plane, but this does not pose any problems for the director (Wolfgang Petersen) to create a tense and action-packed thriller.

Utilizing all of the plane’s spaces and tools President James Marshall fights back against the attackers. The president makes it his mission to save the hostages and his family.

Led by dedicated performances of some of the greatest actors in Hollywood – Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close, the film was an instant box-office success and became the fifth most popular film of 1997. Not only was it well-received by audiences, but it was even given some recognition at the Oscars, getting two nominations for Best Sound and Best Editing.

The Terminal

As the title suggests, the 2004 Steven Spielberg film The Terminal takes place in an airport. An Eastern European man Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks), travelling from his home nation of Krakozhia, gets stuck at the JFK international airport. Due to the change of regime in his country he is not allowed to enter the US, nor can he go back home.

The story follows Victor as he tries to create a home for himself in a busy airport. Being resourceful and persistent he manages to build a life at the terminal.

A busy airport terminal

Victor makes friends and enemies among the airport staff. Some workers help him get food and even a job, while others do their best to get him thrown out.

In true Spielberg fashion, the airport set where the movie was filmed was constructed solely for the purpose of filming. It was an almost full-sized replica of a German airport and even had working escalators and stores.

The detailed production process and a soulful performance by Tom Hanks led to the creation of one of the best aviation movies of all time.

Spielberg took inspiration from a true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who got stranded in a French airport. Nasseri ended up living in the airport for 18 years, much like is shown in the film.

The real-life story recently came to an end worthy of a film. This year (2022) Nasseri returned to live at the same airport and passed away there.

Top Gun

The 1986 action movie Top Gun is about a young fighter pilot Peter Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise) trying to make a name for himself in an elite fighter pilot school. As his callsign of Maverick suggests, Peter is confident and arrogant, at times even to his own detriment.

A fighter jet pilot flying above the clouds

The fighter pilots of the school have to complete assignments and compete against each other in order to get the glory of finishing top of the class. Maverick teams up with his best friend Goose in trying to win against their closest competitor Iceman.

Although the movie does focus on the fun side of being a fighter pilot it deals with some heavier themes as well. The film conveys the dangers of the profession and what responsibility pilots carry with them.

After the release of the film, the U.S. Navy applications sky-rocketed. This is one point for which the movie is criticized – that it serves as an advertisement for navy pilots. But even the criticism could not stop the movie from becoming the most popular film of 1986.

Top Gun: Maverick

The sequel to Top Gun which took more than thirty years to make also deserves to be mentioned in the list of best aviation movies. Top Gun Maverick (2022) continues the story of Peter ‘Maverick’ Mitchell with Tom Cruise returning to the titular role.

Maverick is asked to train the most elite group of pilots for a life threatening mission which requires highest precision and exceptional talent. While racing with time, Maverick has to pass all of his knowledge to the next generation of pilots and prepare them for the most demanding of tests.

A fighter jet pilot in the cockpit

Tom Cruise had famously said that he would only return to his iconic role if the script was worthy. Although it did take more than three decades to get it right, the end product is mesmerizing.

The in-flight sequences which were filmed with little to no green screen, the fact that the actors actually acted in cockpits and up in the air, add up to the realistic feel that the film exudes.

The second Top Gun film with its higher stakes and more realistic flight sequences supersedes the original in many viewer’s minds.

Catch Me if You Can

Although Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can is probably first described as a con artist film rather than an aviation movie, aviation plays a big part in it.

A young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes up his first and most notorious con by impersonating a pilot. A pilot’s profession attracted the protagonist’s attention because it seemed that an airline pilot always gets treated with respect and is easily trusted.

Frank forges checks from Pan Am and cashes them out at banks pretending to be a pilot. But, of course, the con is spotted by the FBI and soon a persistent agent (played by Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s toes.

A Pan Am airplane landing from a grey sky

The movie is said to have been inspired by a true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. but recently the autobiography on which the film is based on has been called into question. It is entirely possible that most of the cons that Frank boasts about are made up.

Even if the events depicted in the film did not actually take place, it does not take anything away from the movie’s brilliance. DiCaprio, Hanks and Christopher Walken who played Frank’s father, all give wonderful performances. Walken even got an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

The movie was also nominated for best original score. Catch Me if You Can is highly regarded both by audiences and critics.

The Aviator

Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) tells the real-life story of a billionaire entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). The movie spans two decades starting from Hughes’ childhood right after World War I and ending in the mid 1940s.

A black and white picture of Howard Hughes in 1938

The movie beautifully showcases the billionaire’s obsession with aviation, including his endeavors as a test pilot of H-1 Racer and an attempt to fly around the world. Hughes’ ownership of the TWA airline is also explored in the film.

The movie charts the billionaire’s declining mental health. DiCaprio’s portrayal of such a complex and ingenious character earned him his second Oscar nomination. The film was celebrated at the Oscars with six total nominations and five wins.

One of the wins belongs to Cate Blanchett who played Hughes’ love interest Catherine Hepburn. Blanchett’s meticulous preparation for the film involved perfecting Hepburn’s upper class New England accent and studying hours of footage to mimic her mannerisms. The hard work clearly paid off.

Martin Scorsese was nominated for Best Director, which was no surprise considering his dedication to the project. It is said that Scorsese personally contributed to the movie’s funding. The director also executed his vision of having each decade of Hughes’ life be represented by different type of film, from Cinecolor to Technicolor.

The tireless commitment of both cast and crew truly shines through the film and has made it one of the best aviation movies ever produced.

The Right Stuff

A best aviation movies list must always include a film about astronauts. A 1983 classic The Right Stuff is exactly about that – hot shot American astronauts in the middle of the Cold War, trying their best to beat not only their Russian competitors but also their colleagues.

The film is based on true events involving the Mercury 7 – the first seven American astronauts, who essentially created the profession. Although the film takes many creative liberties it charts real space missions.

The Mercury Seven in front of an F-106 Delta Dart, used in aviation movies.

Starting from the breaking of the sound barrier and finishing with the first-ever space flights, the film is action-packed and entertaining.

The film is a technical marvel and its extensive list of Oscar nominations and wins attest to it.


Sully (2016) recounts the real story dubbed by the press as ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’. In 2009 after a flock of birds struck a plane flying from New York to Charlotte, the pilots had to perform an emergency landing.

Since the plane had not yet climbed into a high enough altitude, no nearby airport could be reached. The pilots, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) and Jeffrey Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), decided to glide the plane into the Hudson river.

The partially submerged aircraft the day it crashed into the Hudson river, a scene from aviation movies.

The accident was largely viewed as a miracle and the pilots as heroes, because all passengers survived and none were seriously injured. However, the movie focuses on a point of contention. The film shows Sully navigating the aftermath of the event.

Both pilots have to go through an internal investigation of whether the choice to perform such an emergency landing was indeed the right one.

Strong performances from Hanks and Eckhart and Clint Eastwood’s brilliant directing does the remarkable true story justice.

The film is for those interested in airplane accidents and their ramifications, both legal and personal.


The 2012 film Flight starring Denzel Washington and directed by Robert Zemeckis presents an unusual portrayal of an airline pilot. While most movies tend to highlight the courageousness and intelligence of aviators, Flight examines the choices of a pilot struggling with addiction.

After an airplane flown by Washington’s character Whip Whittaker crashes, his actions and addictions are carefully scrutinized.

The film’s main concern – the struggling pilot shows what a heavy responsibility flight operators carry and how much can truly depend on the mental state of one person.

Denzel Washington’s heart-wrenching portrayal of such a complex character was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Even though Hollywood is known for encouraging method-acting, Denzel made a point of not partaking in any alcohol while making the film.

The movie’s accurate depiction of an addicted individual has been praised by those addicted themselves. The film normalizes the idea that addiction can affect even the most seemingly responsible and competent people.

Flight deserves a place on any aviation movies list solely for presenting such a bold portrait of a pilot. Even though it can be unsettling, it is most definitely worth a watch.


The 1980s cult classic – Airplane! follows Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays), a former fighter pilot whose traumatizing experiences have left him with a deep fear of flying. While trying to get over his deep-seated fear and simultaneously get his ex-girlfriend (played by Elaine Dickinson) back, Ted boards a plane from LA to Chicago.

Unfortunately for him, most of the passengers and the entire plane crew fall ill with food poisoning and the responsibility falls on Ted to land the plane and save everyone on board.

With the passengers in a complete state of panic and Ted in an absolute frenzy, unhinged hilarity ensues. Although the movie cannot pride itself as being the most accurate portrayal of airplane operations, it most definitely is one of the funniest.

Airplane! was an instant commercial success and quickly became one of the most popular movies of 1980. Filled with some of the most iconic movie one-liners, the film is quoted to this day.

Closing Remarks

As is evident from the list above, numerous well established directors and some of the best actors working today have chosen to tell stories about aviation. This is a testament to the importance and value that aviation brings to people’s lives.

Stories of air force pilots get our hearts racing, real life events, such as a person living in an airport or a miracle crash landing get us emotional, while watching astronauts struggle in their attempt of space exploration evokes a wonder in us.

While this list of impactful aviation films is by no means exhaustive, it presents some of the most well regarded and well known movies about aviation. All of the movies display a particular niche of the aviation world.

The list is useful for both people looking for a heart-wrenching historical drama and for those who wish to have a fun night in.

There’s nothing else left to do but to pick a film and go explore the wonderous world of aviation.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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