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Flying High with Maverick and Goose: The Top 10 Aviation Movies of All Time

August 21, 2019 | by Jessie Dibb

Top Gun 2 is coming and we couldn't be more excited. Featuring the F-18 Super Hornet—powered by GE Aviation F414 engines—this movie promises to be as fast-paced and riveting as the first one. To celebrate the film’s release, we've created a list of the top 10 aviation movies, selected by GE Aviation employees.

Frankly, Aviation movies don’t get the attention they deserve. Spread across multiple genres—from war to romance to comedy—they radiate a uniqueness that separates them from other pictures. Whether it’s the lure of seeing a GE T700 spooling up on-screen, geeking out about meticulous recreations of historic events, or experiencing aerial fight scenes that will blow your mind, each aviation movie on this list brings something special.

GE Aviation employees rated a list of 20 movies on a five-star scale. The picks were then ranked based on how much people liked the movie and how many participants had actually seen it. Sure, it’s a subjective list, but a fairly good barometer of cinematic quality when it comes to #AvGeek flicks. If your favorite movie isn’t mentioned here, we want to hear about it! Leave a comment and we’ll be sure to check it out.

1. Top Gun (1986)

When someone says the words “aviation” and “movie” in the same sentence, this appears to be the film that leaps first to mind. Starring a cocky young pilot nicknamed Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, the film follows him through training at the elite Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School. Chockablock with airborne acrobatics, shirtless volleyball scenes, flashy aviator sunglasses, credulous nicknames (see also Iceman, Mother Goose), and a dogfight with a (fictional) Russian MiG fighter, it is a cavalcade of jet-fueled testosterone on overdrive. Oddly enough, the movie won an Oscar not for the exhilarating chase scenes, thrilling maneuvers and powerful scenes of male bonding but for Giorgio Moroder’s synth-tastic original song “Take My Breath Away.” No one dare call him or herself an #AvGeek until they’ve seen Top Gun.

2. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Based on a disastrous incident recounted in Mark Bowden’s best-selling book, Black Hawk Down focuses on the camaraderie and teamwork it took to survive the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters during what later became known as the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. In the film, a small group of elite U.S. soldiers endure an 18-hour firefight with Somali militia men before escaping. Perhaps the most notable thing about the movie is its realistic depiction of close-contact urban warfare, along with a brilliant soundtrack. (It also won an Oscar for best sound.) Duly noted: the engines on the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters are GE T700 turbines.

3. The Right Stuff (1983)

Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s bravura nonfiction novel, The Right Stuff chronicles the lives of the astronauts in the Mercury 7 program and their experiences in the early years of America’s space program. What really stands out about this movie (besides its three-hour run time) is the connection you feel with the characters; critics described it as a romantic take on the innovative American spirit of these space pioneers. The movie went on to be nominated in eight Academy Award categories—and won four. In the end, charisma, guts, and dry humor are what it means to have “the right stuff.”

4. Airplane! (1980)

Some movies on this list inject a joke here or there. Airplane! is one of those special movies that will have you gasping for air by the time the credits hit the screen. Generally considered one of the funniest movies of all time (according to Bravo, Empire Magazine, and even the Library of Congress), Airplane! is a dependably wacky satire of the disaster film genre. The movie centers around a former pilot who is too afraid to fly, his loopy stewardess girlfriend, a glue-sniffing air traffic controller, a jetliner full of nutty passengers and the perilous plane’s autopilot—a friendly blow-up-doll named Otto.

5. Sully (2016)

On January 15, 2009, every newscast in America was showing the same surreal image: an Airbus A320 floating smack dab in the middle of the Hudson River. Sully is a Hollywood version of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s astounding (and successful) emergency landing, but what makes it so compelling is its focus on the aftermath—the unforeseen ramifications of Sully’s heroic actions. Tom Hanks plays Capt. Sullenberger, delivering a performance one critic called “excellent… You watch Hanks’s face as Sully figures the options—looking left over Manhattan and right over the Palisades—and his demeanor comes across as a state of grace.”

6. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

An Oscar-winning retelling of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that precipitated America’s entry into World War II, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a dual-perspective film revered for its rigorous attention to historical detail. Told from both the Japanese and American points of view, it lays out the precise chain of events on December 7, 1941. The movie is fantastic for history buffs of all kinds, with numerous scenes of vintage WWII aircrafts engaged in dogfights, bombing runs, and carrier landings and takeoffs.

7. Air Force One (1997)

“Russian interference” takes on a whole new meaning in this over-the-top action-thriller when Russian terrorists hijack Air Force One (powered by the GE CF6-80C2B) with the President and his family on board. Harrison Ford plays the gung-ho president trying to protect his family from a trigger-happy Soviet true believer (played by Gary Oldman) holding the most powerful man in the free world hostage in midair! The tension is palpable, the flying scenes somewhat predictable, and the plot barely believable. Still, you’ll come away with a new favorite catchphrase: “Get. Off. My. Plane.”

8. Memphis Belle (1990)

Memphis Belle is an aviation buff’s aviation movie. Harkening back to the black-and-white movies that extolled the heroic efforts of the 8th Air Force over Europe in World War II, this movie tells the tale (based on a true story) of a B-17 crew that threaded the needle, surviving 25 successful bombing missions. The cast—a veritable who’s who of young male actors at the time, including Matthew Modine, Tate Donovan, D.B. Sweeney and even Harry Connick Jr.—gives the movie its charm. But the real treat is getting to see a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress in action. Five painstakingly rebuilt B-17s were used in Memphis Belle, one of which crashed during filming (the crew survived).

9. Pearl Harbor (2001)

Directed by Michael Bay, the auteur of big budget Hollywood action flicks—think slo-mo crashes, intense close-ups, lots of stuff exploding—this film was not a critical darling but it did win an Oscar for best sound editing and has a heart-wrenching original score composed by Hans Zimmer. The cast includes big names like Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin, both of whom had to undergo basic flight training for their scenes depicting the Doolittle Raid (America’s daring answer to Japan’s infamous sneak attack). Interesting factoid: In their quest for authenticity, the crew collected vintage WWII aircraft from various museums, including two Curtiss P-40 Warhawks.

10. The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, the man who started making movies in Hollywood then pivoted to aviation and built TWA into a major airline. The movie tracks Hughes—who is portrayed as a dreamer and innovator—and his internal struggle with crippling mental illness and fierce ambition. Dramatic, intense, and fast-paced, The Aviator moves at a steady clip—which is important, considering its three-hour runtime. For many of the action scenes, the crew ended up using miniature airplanes to create the special effects. These airplanes are displayed in the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon—along with Hughes’s all-wood HK-1 “Spruce Goose.”

Hidden Gems:                 

These three films didn't make the top spots but they deserve an honorable mention.

The Spirit of St Louis (1957)

The Spirit of St. Louis is a solid retelling of an aviation feat that captured the world’s attention—the first-ever solo non-stop transatlantic flight piloted by Charles Lindbergh. The highlight of this film is the fantastic acting of James Stewart, who had to wear heavy makeup to play a character half his age (Lindbergh was 25 when he made the flight; Stewart was 47 when the movie was made). A lot of the movie takes place in the cockpit, so the trick for Stewart was making the scenes come to life. Nonetheless, Lindbergh was reportedly unsatisfied with Stewart’s performance.

Battle of Britain (1969)

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Winston Churchill in his well-known “Finest Hour” speech, delivered in 1940 after the harrowing Battle of Britain. This episodic war epic paints the infamous battle on the big screen. The draw here is the absolutely wonderful midair footage, considered to be some of the best aerial fight scenes ever filmed with the technology at the time. With a fantastic story to retell, this movie is a must-see for any fan of underdog success on a fate-of-the-world scale.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

A nuclear war-based comedy (read: oxymoron), Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a fantastic satire of Cold War tensions run amuck. What’s brilliant about this movie is its carefully constructed yet absolutely killer humor—from the precise depiction of a B-52 crew (skippered by Slim Pickens) in Defcon lockdown to President Merkin Muffley’s famous line “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” When creating a story about a subject as dark as the complete and utter destruction of humankind, your first instinct likely isn’t to laugh. But in detailing these bone-chilling events, director Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern intertwined absurdity and shock value to present one of the most tense periods in history in an absolutely ludicrous light.


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