Movies for Pilots

Once you know how to fly, watching a movie is never the same. Almost every movie has at least one airplane in it, and while the average audience member is wondering how Bruce Willis is going to catch the bad guy, the pilot is wondering why the flap setting in the exterior shot doesn't match the setting on the flap selector. I'm a sucker for cheesy airplane movies where some unqualified individual lands the airplane because the hijackers have incapacitated the pilots. Here are some movies to consider.

Action Movies

Executive Decision

Kurt Douglas is a student pilot just taxiing out for his first solo, when he is called urgently back to the office. He works for the CIA and a big case has just broken. The rest of the movie is merely the set up for the inevitable scene where the student pilot lands a Boeing 747, but it's a great ride, featuring Halle Berry, and a brief but not-to-be-missed appearance by Steven Segal.

Air Force One

Harrison Ford as the president of the United States, while the presidential Boeing 747 is hijacked by terrorists. Lots of action, lots of unlikely aviation. A good quality action movie but nothing more.

Top Gun

All pilots are required to see this classic film, just to understand references to it. "There's a Skyhawk on your six!"  "Requesting a flyby."  "You can be my wingman anytime." Tom Cruise is a pilot undergoing advanced fighter jet training, while dealing with unresolved life issues, a gorgeous girlfriend, and a rocking soundtrack.

Die Harder

Bruce Willis is a New York police officer whose wife is inbound on one of several airplanes held hostage by a combination of extreme weather and a nefarious scheme involving recalibration of the ILS.  The hero eventually blows up the bad guys by setting fire to the end of a fuel trail. I don't actually recommend this movie unless you're in the mood for yelling at the TV screen about how "THAT WOULDN'T HAPPEN!"  The other two Die Hard movies are excellent, more tightly plotted, but have no significant aviation.

Tora Tora Tora

A Japan-eye-view of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Remarkable aviation scenes for the vintage of the movie. I like the scene where a flight instructor matter-of-factly takes over control of an airplane from her oblivious student as  the Zero air attack fleet passes by.   

Raiders of the Lost Ark

You didn't think it was an airplane movie?  Watch it again. Harrison Ford is a pilot now, but I don't think he was during this movie. See if you can identify all the aircraft in this picture.  There's a Waco on floats (the airplane containing the pilot's pet snake "Reggie"), a Shorts Sunderland (the flying boat), and the wonderful DC-3. 

Any James Bond Movie

They all have airplanes. Pussy Galore has my dream job: she does formation aerobatics, aerial spraying, flight instruction, pilots the corporate jet and looks out for her boss. Too bad he has to be an evil meglomaniac. By the way, here's a James Bond drinking game. Drink every time Bond changes transportation modes (e.g. car to airplane, airplane to parachute, armoured personnel carrier to freight train). Chug when he wrecks it. Don't fly for at least 24 hours afterwards.

Science Fiction

The Langoliers

Weird, long Stephen King story about an airliner that passes through a storm that transports it just slightly out of this world. Features a depressed airline pilot, a prescient blind girl and a psycho who had a bad childhood. Watch for the movie version of what happens when an airliner runs out of fuel on final.

The Sixth Day

Not really about airplanes at all, but features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a pilot of a futuristic airplane-helicopter. It's filmed in Vancouver, and the heliport his company operates out of is the parking lot of a company I really flew for. Lots of fun for me because of all the aerial shots of downtown Vancouver -- where I fly.



The classic parody of all airplane action movies, and de rigeur for any top ten list of comedies.  I'm sure you've seen it, but now you're a pilot, rewatch it and look for silly details like the propeller sound effects for the jet -- done deliberately to make fun of similar errors in serious movies. The sequel, Airplane II, is also worth watching.

Chicken Run

This movie is made with stop-motion animation, by the creator of Wallace & Gromit. It parodies every POW and prison break movie ever made, and features a rooster trying to teach chickens to fly. It's an absolute must for flight instructors. I was almost sick laughing.

Hot Shots

A Top Gun parody. Stupid and predictable but funny. Stay for the recipes in the closing credits. 


Catch Me If You Can

Leonardo di Caprio is a mid-twentieth century con artist who writes bad cheques while pretending to be an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, while Tom Hanks is the federal agent who spends years tracking him down. If only being an airline pilot were that decadent.

Memphis Belle

I just received a recommendation for Memphis Belle, which features a young crew flying their last bombing mission in World War II. The movie deals with a lot of non-flying issues, but the aircraft gets shot up so much that at the end of the movie you watch a massive B17 limping back to base while crew members frantically try to lower the gear manually.  D.C. says the suspense is amazing (even after seeing it many times). The cast includes Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Sean Astin, Harry Connick Jr (yes, the singer who also does some acting) and John Lithgow. 

Man in the Sky

P.H. reviews this 1957 British film. "It basically involves some very crusty Brit flying a Bristol 170 freighter around and around and around an airfield 'cos he can't land it because of an engine the end I thought, 'What the heck was that all about ?' No real story but still kinda fun for a wet afternoon." Sounds like a Flying Start kind of movie.

Pushing Tin  

This is a 1999 Hollywood movie about the stress experienced by air traffic controllers. The unlikely aviation includes the controllers deliberately exposing themselves to jet blast (they call it wake turbulence, but that spreads out from the wingtips of an airborne aircraft). In my favourite scene, a controller who can keep track of seventeen aircraft in his head orders coffee for everyone, completely overwhelming a hapless coffee shop employee. All the air traffic controllers I know are pretty stable individuals, but perhaps it's different in New York.

Crash Scenes

When movie scriptwriters want the ultimate horror, it's usually an airplane crash.  Not a reason to watch a movie, but sometimes fun to nitpick. As movies, some of these are not worth watching, but this is what DVD scene selection is for. Some memorable crash scenes:

Six Days, Seven Nights

Harrison Ford and Anne Heche are stranded on a deserted island and must work together despite the fact that they hate each other and fall in love. This movie features two separate on-screen airplane crashes and the discovery of an old airplane wreck. Ironically, I first saw this as the inflight movie on Air Canada.

Final Destination

Seven people get off a doomed flight because of one teenager's panic attack. The rest of the movie is classic teen horror, unrelated to aircraft.

Star Trek: Generations

There's the one scene: the Enterprise crash landing on a planet.  And it's so great that the people who made the movie incorporated a time loop in the plot, just so they could have an excuse to play the crash again. Well maybe that wasn't their rationale for the time loop, but you've got to see the crash.  It's Star Trek, so no one is killed or permanently injured. In the rest of the movie, the crew of both Enterprises (NCC-1701A and NCC-1701D) save the galaxy or the universe, I forget which, and Captain James T. Kirk finally dies.

Cast Away

A time-obsessed Fed Ex manager is the only survivor of a dramatic cargo plane crash in the ocean. He spends years on a desert island before returning to civilization.

Jurassic Park III

I haven't seen this one, but I'm told that a King Air gets eaten by a Tyranosaurus Rex.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Okay, it's not really an airplane, it's a flying car hitting a tree, and no one gets hurt, but the resemblance to a small airplane crash made that scene the tension peak of the whole movie, for me.  The rest of the movie: boy wizard again saves his school from the forces of evil through magical talent, luck, and constant disobedience of authority.

Really Bad Airplane Movies

Air Panic

Not recommended for normal people, this film is a must-have for the collector of airplane cheese. This direct-to-video aviation horror movie had the misfortune to plan a late 2001 release -- its opening scene features a terrorist-controlled passenger airliner deliberately flown into an office tower. Bad taste aside, the continuity is terrible, the plot standard, and the aviation painful. I like the part where the airplane is going too fast, they can't get the flaps down, and they have run out of fuel. Every movie cliche is here, including the tragically deformed evil genius seeking vengeance on the world, and the lovely flight attendant (played by Kristanna Loken, the T3 Terminatrix) who helps the hero to save the day.

Passenger 57

Same plot as all runaway airplane movies. Wesley Snipes is the hero. I haven't seen it. Pilot and air traffic controller Doug Barry says, "Bloody horrible." Anyone have more details on exactly how horrible it is?

Rapid Exchange

This is a really bad movie about an air-to-air heist from a B747. Dialogue, costumes, sets, editing, acting, plot and effects are all below movie MEA. Watch for the context-sensitive alerts in the cockpit (e.g. "Warning! Landing Gear Deployed!"), pilots wearing air filters instead of oxygen masks, and timeless lines like,
"We don't have a choice."
"That's not what we planned."
"That's the way it's got to be."

Every once in a while the juxtaposition of closeups with stock airplane footage makes you almost believe that the action really does take place on an airplane. Don't worry if you have trouble following the plot: they recap it for you at the end.

Other Sites

Yellow Airplane lists movies that are actually about specific airplanes, sorted by the type of airplane:

FastPasses features a library of downloadble video clips of military aircraft.

Sletten Aviation has a more extensive and less eclectic list of airplane movies, complete with links to Amazon, to buy them.

Geoff Fox shares my passion for wildly inaccurate airplane disaster movies, and has lots of oldies on his list.

If you're my student, you're welcome to borrow my movies, provided you've passed the PSTAR.

Robyn's Flying Start Home | Send me your movie suggestions

This page written 19 July 2003 by Robyn Stewart. Last updated 12 January 2004.
Copyright 2003-2004 Flying Start Initiatives