I have watched dozens of aviation movies throughout my life, so ranking the best aviation movies of all time was a difficult task. There are so many good ones that picking ten feels almost sinful, but I feel confident in my picks.
Humanity has yearned for the skies since ever, and once we finally took off at the beginning of the 20th century, we could not get enough of it. Flying became the pinnacle of technology, transport, and even war. As the cult of the aviator and the romance of flight grew stronger, cinema caught up quickly. The audiences craved the excitement associated with flying, and it is only fitting that the first Academy Award for Best Picture went to an aviation movie.
Bottom Line Up Front
My pick for the best aviation movie of all time is The Right Stuff. It tells the story of American test pilots in the 1940s and 1950s as they chased achievements once thought to be impossible. Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle is a close second due to how intimate it is. Battle of Britain remains the best wartime epic, thanks to its sheer scale.
My Top Picks
- 10. Hot Shots!
- 9. Chronicles of a Dive Bomber
- 8. Dark Blue World
- 7. Flight of the Intruder
- 6. Les Chevaliers du Ciel
- 5. Dunkirk
- 4. Top Gun: Maverick
- 3. Battle of Britain
- 2. Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle
- 1. The Right Stuff
In theory, making a good aviation movie sounds easy. All it takes is a compelling story, a few shots of planes flying about, and there you have it. Reality has shown that creating the perfect flyboy blockbuster is a lot harder, so this list does not include every aviation movie in history.
My list of the best aviation movies of all time focuses on three criteria that set these productions apart.
I feel that the best aviation movies must be unique. They need to cover an aspect of aviation in a way that is relevant to their time. Being relevant does not necessarily mean making the first movie to do something. It involves approaching an aspect of aviation from a perspective that is not stale.
Relevance does not necessarily imply accuracy. Most movies create, develop, and wrap up a story within 120 minutes. I will not punish directors for taking artistic liberties wherever needed but within reason. Certain movies push that too far, which is why they are not on my list.
The aircraft may be the stars of aviation, but the people crewing them are the heart of these machines. Any good movie hinges on the characters, but aviation stories require this even more. Without well-developed characters, you would have two hours of planes interrupted by two-dimensional people. There is nothing wrong with watching aircraft flying around for hours. However, airshow footage and documentaries are better ways to do that than bad movies.
A Compelling Storyline
After putting together legendary aircraft and skilled pilots, what are they doing? Good aviation movies mix this combination into premises that grip the spectator from beginning to end. The main question I ask a storyline is why I should care about this. Many such stories flow easily, others are intricate, but a good setting is essential to rank among the best aviation movies ever.
I am biased towards wartime movies, fictional or not. Military aviation is typically more exciting than its civilian counterpart. Wartime aviation places the aircraft and characters in more challenging and emotionally engaging situations.
Best Aviation Movies of All Time
1. Hot Shots! (1991)
Aviation movies changed in 1986 when Top Gun hit the cinemas. With extensive collaboration with the United States Navy, naval aviators became global superstars overnight. If the popular mood was to try and become elite naval pilots, director Jim Abrahams figured the right path was to make fun of them. Using a mix of stars and rising talents, Abrahams put together my favorite aviation comedy of all time.
The protagonist of Hot Shots is Sean “Topper” Harley, a talented pilot who left the profession due to psychological problems. Harley returns to active duty to fly a secret combat mission, Operation Sleepy Weasel. Aircraft manufacturers intended to sabotage the mission to sell the new Super Fighter to the Navy. Harley and his fellow pilots train under Admiral Thomas “Tug” Benson, then depart aboard the aptly named SS Essess aircraft carrier.
Without spoiling the glory that ensues, I will say that this story captures the essence of a good aviation movie. It is a hilarious spoof of aviation cliches and the many romance movies that countless directors try to draw inspiration from, often diluting the quality of the final production. As for the aircraft, I was surprised by how good the aerial photography was. Hot Shots mixed Folland Gnat and SIAI-Marchetti S.211 trainers to represent US Navy fighters. The F-5A and T-38 show up on both sides but feature primarily as the black-clad enemy fighters.
- Hilarious from beginning to end
- Surprisingly good aviation scenes for a comedy
- Better than Top Gun
- The sequel departs from the aviation niche
2. Chronicles of a Dive Bomber (1967)
This 1967 movie is relatively obscure, but it is one of my favorite aviation stories. Chronicles of a Dive Bomber focuses on the crew of a Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bomber in 1944. Sergei Arkhiptsev is the pilot and commander, and he flies with navigator Venyamin Gurevich and radio operator Yevgeniy Sobolevskiy.
Their regiment is part of the Soviet offensive driving the German army out of Belarus. Despite the war going favorably, the crews are preoccupied with constant raids from German fighters. Chronicles of a Dive Bomber tells the story of the bomber pilots struggling to locate and destroy the airfield the German Fw-190s flew from.
This movie is an adaptation of a 1966 story by writer Vladimir Kunin. What I love most about Chronicles of a Dive Bomber is how personal director Naum Birman made it. The protagonist, navigator Gurevich, is a young airman with a good sense of humor. Birman seamlessly transitions from the foggy frontline airfield to the past. These short jumps tell us more about the protagonist than in many movies. The commitment to realism and the endearing characters make Chronicles of a Dive Bomber an aviation classic.
- Intimate depiction of the life of bomber crews during WW2
- Emotionally captivating
- Short runtime
- Dated production quality
- Difficult to find in English
3. Dark Blue World (2001)
This Czech film came out concurrently with Pearl Harbor in 2001, but despite some links, I feel Dark Blue World is the better movie. Director Jan Svěrák shot an aviation classic about the unsung heroes of the Royal Air Force.
Starting in 1939, many pilots from areas under German occupation made daring escapes to Great Britain. The British retrained and fielded these crews as part of their own ranks. Foreign pilots helped the RAF victory during the Battle of Britain and beyond. Once the war ended, the British government sent most of these pilots back to their homelands, where some were incarcerated during the Cold War.
Though the Second World War officially started in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland, Czechoslovakia had found German troops in its territory before that. Rather than submitting to the occupation, senior pilot Franta Sláma and his young friend Karel Vojtíšek left everything behind and moved to the United Kingdom.
Franta retells their story from a Czechoslovak prison in 1950, from their arrival until 1945. The pair endured wartime training at the hands of the RAF before the pilot shortage pushed commanders to commit the Czech pilots to the front. The friendship between Franta and Karel survives the trial of fire until their mutual interest in an English woman pushes it to a breaking point. As Franta found out later in the war, not even this love triangle stopped Karel from caring about him.
Dark Blue World used computer-generated images and footage from older movies to put together its impressive Spitfire sequences. Most real shots came from the Battle of Britain and Memphis Belle. The romance scenes between the pilots and Susan can feel unnecessary, but nothing that knocks the overall brilliance of the movie.
- The first mainstream depiction of the plight of Czechoslovak pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain
- Beautiful cinematography
- Poor box office performance
- Occasionally corny
4. Flight of the Intruder (1991)
The air war over Vietnam is a complex topic, but author Stephen Coonts has the credentials to tell this story. Before becoming an author, Coonts flew two combat cruises as an A-6 Intruder pilot in Vietnam. Director John Milius recruited Brad Johnson, Danny Glover, and Willem Dafoe to adapt Flight of the Intruder into a movie.
During a futile Intruder night bombing mission in 1972, Jake “Cool Hand” Grafton lost his bombardier/navigator and best friend to ground fire. The A-6 made it back onboard, but the incident shook Grafton to the core. Commander Frank Camparelli assigned a new B/N, the experienced but unstable Lieutenant Commander Virgil “Tiger” Cole.
Grafton initially considers Cole to be too reckless and unpredictable. Their Intruder survives a close encounter with a North Vietnamese MiG-17 during an air defense suppression mission. The next night, after bombing another unimportant target, a surface-to-air missile killed one of their close friends. Despite their differences, Grafton and Cole find common ground over their hatred of the restrictive rules of engagement and take matters into their own hands.
While Flight of the Intruder tells a fictional story, the resentment pilots felt towards the political involvement in the Vietnam war is very real. In 1966, USAF pilots of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing strafed a Soviet ship in Haiphong Harbor despite the area being off limits for the F-105s. Executive officer Jack Broughton helped cover up the attack by destroying the footage. The move ended his career but motivated Broughton to write Thud Ridge, arguably the best memoir about American fighter pilots in Vietnam.
Most critics hated Flight of the Intruder, and the movie failed to break despite adequate box office performance. Truth be told, I agree that many parts are lackluster, especially the seemingly random interactions between Jake Grafton and Callie Troy. But speaking strictly from an aviation perspective, Flight of the Intruder is a much better movie than Top Gun, despite living in its shadow.
- A great depiction of the frustration among American pilots about the limitations placed on them during the Vietnam War
- Star-studded cast
- The best A-6 Intruder flying scenes besides The Final Countdown
- Shallow romance
- Overshadowed by the release of Top Gun five years before
5. Les Chevaliers du Ciel (2005)
In the 1960s, Jean-Michel Charlier and Albert Uderzo published Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure. This French-Belgian comic book series is a centerpiece of Francophone aviation culture. It is only fair that the main French aviation blockbuster draws inspiration from it. Les Chevaliers du Ciel follows a glorious comic book plot with all the eccentric twists and turns expected. The difference is that this movie filmed the adventures live using the iconic Dassault Mirage 2000.
Les Chevaliers du Ciel features fast jets, spies, and romance. A mysterious terrorist kills the pilot of the Mirage 2000-10 prototype and hijacks the jet during the Farnborough Airshow in England. When two French Air Force Mirage 2000C intercept the mystery pilot, he attacks the Mirage of Captain Sébastien “Fahrenheit” Vallois. His best friend and wingman, Captain Antoine “Walk’n” Marchelli, shoots down the attacker in the nick of time, saving his friend.
After an intervention from the French secret service, the Air Force discharges Marchelli, and Vallois resigns. The pair get a chance to have the incident removed from their ranks, but they must fly a risky covert mission to boost aircraft sales to an Asian client.
The French Air Force participated actively in the filming of Les Chevaliers du Ciel. The famous aviation videographer Eric Magnan took over the aerial sequences and captured the most incredible aerial ballet I have ever seen in a movie. The filming crew fitted a camera inside an RP541 external fuel tank carried by a Mirage 2000 and used cameras aboard a Learjet to capture the French jets.
- The best aerial cinematography ever
- An homage to the classic Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure comics
- The fantasy plot is not for everyone
- Not family-friendly
6. Dunkirk (2017)
When I watched Dunkirk at the cinema in 2017, I expected a blockbuster about the evacuation of British troops from France. I was surprised to find that it was also an all-time aviation classic.
Just looking at the poster for Dunkirk sets a very high bar. The movie is directed by Christopher Nolan, famous for modern hits like Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight series of Batman movies. The cast contains a wide array of stars, including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and the acting debut of singer Harry Styles. To top it off, Nolan brought along Hans Zimmer to create the soundscape of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk tells four different stories that intertwine throughout the movie. The protagonist is Tommy Jensen, a British Army soldier trying to make it out of the beach. A Royal Navy officer, Commander Bolton, helps coordinate the evacuation with the limited means available to him. Out at sea, retired sailor Mr. Dawson answers the call to help withdraw the soldiers using civilian ships. As chaos unfolds on the beaches of Dunkirk, a flight of Royal Air Force Spitfires attempts to provide air cover.
The movie perfectly captures the heroic but pyrrhic actions of British pilots during the final act of the Battle of France. The British government knew that Germany planned to invade the United Kingdom next, so most of the Fighter Command had orders to stay out of the fight in Dunkirk to avoid losses. The few aircraft made available to cover the evacuation flew under tight limitations because of their short endurance. The Spitfire could only stay on station for around one hour before leaving the flight due to fuel constraints.
Thanks to IMAX cameras placed on two Spitfires, a Hispano Buchon, and a Yak-52, Dunkirk features the most vivid aerial cinematography among World War 2 movies. One aircraft is an original Supermarine Spitfire Mk Ia, distinguishable by the smooth leading edge without the pair of 20mm Hispano cannons.
- Real cinematography
- One of the best scores by Hans Zimmer
- A display of heroism even in defeat
- Not entirely focused on aviation
- Questionable decision-making by the pilot at the end of the movie
7. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
I did not include Top Gun in this list for a reason. Tony Scott and his crew made a movie that cemented the naval fighter pilot as a godlike entity in popular culture. Top Gun turned the Grumman F-14 Tomcat into the most famous aircraft in the world. Top Gun was my favorite movie as a kid, and I have watched it more times than I can count throughout my life, but I cannot in good conscience call it a good movie. None of this applies to its sequel, however.
Top Gun: Maverick came out in May 2022 after a complicated production and repeated delays. The sequel takes place three decades after Top Gun, enough time for the characters to grow and become more dynamic than the almost comedic hotshots of the first movie. Top Gun: Maverick throws these characters into a more sober plot, partially inspired by Iranian and Israeli airstrikes on the Osirak research nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1980 and 1981.
Tom Cruise reprises his role as the talented but erratic Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now serving as a test pilot. His history of reckless exploits held him back from promotion, unlike his Top Gun classmate and now Admiral Tom Kazansky, callsign “Iceman”. As commander of the Pacific Fleet, Iceman pulls Maverick from testing duties for a special training detachment to NAS North Island. The US Navy plans a surprise strike on a nuclear facility abroad, and Maverick must train the crews slated for it.
One of the core plot points of Top Gun: Maverick is the conflict between Maverick and the young Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw. Rooster is the only son of Maverick’s best friend, Nick Bradshaw. Best known as Goose, he died after an ejection accident off the California coast, sacrificing himself to save Mitchell. Maverick mentored Rooster in his youth, but the pair grew apart once Bradshaw came of age. The movie does a great job of developing the conflict dynamics between the two. The attention to personal relationships is one of the things that makes Top Gun: Maverick so much better than the 1986 original.
The 2022 movie used an innovative method to guarantee the actors performed well in their roles as naval aviators. Honoring the Top Gun tradition of collaborating with the US Navy, the actors delivered the most cockpit shots in Top Gun: Maverick from the backseat of a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. Tom Cruise said it is impossible to act out the effect of G-forces on the body, so filming from the cockpit was the only way to make these scenes look right.
Top Gun: Maverick may not be the best movie, but it delivers what its predecessor could not. This is an exciting aviation blockbuster with a compelling plot, well-developed characters, and the best Tom Cruise performance I have seen.
- Revolutionary cockpit footage with actors flying F/A-18F aircraft
- Much better than the first movie
- The inaccurate rationale for using the Super Hornet instead of the F-35
- Maverick would have been forcibly retired decades before
8. Battle of Britain (1969)
The Battle of Britain came hot on the heels of the Allied defeat in the Battle of France. The battered Royal Air Force put a heroic resistance against the German Luftwaffe despite overwhelming odds to protect the United Kingdom from the prospect of enemy occupation. In 1969, the British movie industry honored its participants with the most massive aviation production ever.
Filming began less than three decades following the battle, so the producers had access to many participants for the expertise and plenty of real aircraft. The aerial sequences in Battle of Britain are so stunning that many movies use some of them instead of modern digital recreations.
Around 100 aircraft participated in the filming, and some are still flying today. The producers circumvented the lack of airworthy German aircraft thanks to licensed copies of the Heinkel He-111 and Messerschmitt Bf-109 built in Spain during the 1940s.
Director Guy Hamilton covers the events from the end of June 1940 until September 16th. The many plots within the Battle of Britain are not revolutionary alone. The movie was the first to offer such a comprehensive retelling of these historical events. When I first watched it in 2009, I got to experience the battle from the perspective of a simple mechanic or pilot all the way up to Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.
- The greatest concentration of real WW2 aircraft in cinema
- The movie tells the story of the many participants in the Battle of Britain
- Written with input from pilots who were in the battle
- The transition between storylines is disjointed at times
- Slow pace
9. Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle (1973)
Most people in eastern Europe have watched Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle at least once. For many years, TV stations broadcast the movie yearly to commemorate the Allied victory over the Axis countries in World War 2. This movie is very dear to me, but it earned its place on this list without appealing to nostalgia.
The movie takes place in the summer of 1943, during the opening stages of the battle of the Dnieper. A Soviet fighter regiment makes its first forays into the sky of Ukraine, the homeland of eccentric squadron commander Titarenko, whom his friends call “Maestro.” Titarenko is a talented fighter pilot and leader, but he turns from aviator to musician in the evening. All subordinates must participate in his orchestra to join his squadron.
As the quote and title suggest, the experienced aviators wish to spare the fresh flight school graduates constantly arriving at the front to replace losses. Only “Old Men” Are Going Into Battle tells the circle of life that ruled air operations. The green pilots become “old men” and mentor the other new pilots that eventually replace them.
One of the unique aspects of this movie is the depiction of women in combat aviation. An all-female night bomber regiment joins Titarenko and his men at their base, and a U-2 biplane crew intertwined with the singing squadron. The movie explores the exploits and struggles of women on the frontlines of World War 2.
Leonid Bykov is the centerpiece of Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle. The Ukrainian actor wrote and directed the movie and then played the role of Titarenko. His main inspiration was the career of Vitaliy Popkov, a fighter pilot who served with the 5th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment.
Popkov served in a singing unit during his time in the front. Bykov injected aspects of his life into Titarenko and Lieutenant Aleksandrov. When I first watched Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle, I recognized dozens of anecdotes and wartime stories from different pilots. Leonid Bykov brought many veterans as advisors during the production. The first screening of Only Old Men Are Going Into Battle was reserved for veterans and cinematographers. The movie drove veterans to tears, including Aleksandr Pokryshkin. Every time I finish watching, I feel the same.
- Based on a collection of real stories
- The most personal depiction of Soviet fighter pilots in WW2
- A unique representation of female combat pilots
- Lackluster aerial photography
- The studio re-released an unauthorized color version of the movie
10. The Right Stuff (1983)
As the Cold War heated up, the best minds in the American and Soviet aerospace sectors dashed to achieve what was once considered impossible. The Right Stuff covers the path of the best American aviators and their exploits as pioneers of modern aviation.
Hotshot pilots in the era had two paths: they could become test pilots or join the fledgling space program hoping to put humanity in space. Given the importance of this mission, the traditional division between Air Force, Navy, and Marine arms dissolved.
Test pilots initially enjoyed the glamor and glory as they defied supersonic speeds and growing altitude records. Chuck Yeager, a decorated war hero, led the line at the Edwards test center in California. As the space race picked up the pace, most of the attention and funding shifted towards putting a man into orbit. In 1959, NASA announced the list of astronauts selected for the Mercury Project. Four came from the USAF, three from the US Navy, and one from the US Marine Corps.
While all the Mercury Seven were talented pilots and passed grueling tests, there was resentment among the test pilot community about some political considerations during the selection. For example, despite being the most famous test pilot in the United States, Chuck Yeager was not selected as he lacked a university degree.
The Right Stuff shines in its attention to detail. The movie is over three hours long, but it justifies the runtime with a thoroughness that is hard to find outside of documentaries. Philip Kaufman captured technical accuracy with a deeply personal portrait of people risking their lives for the sake of science.
- The most comprehensive retelling of the American test pilot and space pioneers
- Excellent aerial footage using the appropriate aircraft
- Long runtime
- Skewed towards the astronaut perspective over the test pilot one
This list contains my ten best aviation movies of all time, and while I feel confident in my choices, it would be wrong to not mention some names that narrowly missed out.
It is impossible to speak of classics without mentioning Wings, a 1927 silent movie about aviators in the Great War. Wings used real aircraft during its epic dogfight scenes and set the bar for aerial cinematography. The movie won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture. The Fighters, from 1939, is a comfort watch among the classics. It also contains an excellent performance by singer Mark Bernes.
History often forgets the Korean War, but The Bridges at Toko-Ri does a splendid job honoring the naval aviators who participated in the conflict. The movie came out only a year after the Korean war ended and has excellent footage of F9F Panther fighters around the USS Oriskany and Kearsage carriers. In 1970, a joint American and Japanese effort gave us Tora! Tora! Tora!. The movie retells the attack on Pearl Harbor and uses realistic modifications to depict Japanese aircraft.
To understand the life and work of inventor Howard Hughes, The Aviator is a good dramatization covering his rise and descent into madness. If you crave a lighter watch, I recommend Airplane! for a good laugh and Iron Eagle for a silly action movie with plenty of great F-16 footage.
There are many excellent entries in this list. I believe none of them are as well-rounded as The Right Stuff, which is why it wins the title of best aviation movie ever. Only “Old Men” Are Going Into Battle has a tight grip on my heart. However, its production quality falls short of the 1983 American epic. The Right Stuff delivers documentary thoroughness in an entertaining movie package, helped by an all-star cast that performed their roles to perfection.
I hope the success of recent movies like Top Gun: Maverick and Dunkirk will help propel us into a new era of high-end aviation cinema. These productions resisted the allure of exclusively using CGI aerial scenes and showed that using real aircraft remains the gold standard!
Question: What is the best aviation movie of all time?
Answer: The best aviation movie of all time is The Right Stuff, a deep dive into the world of test pilots and astronauts in the 1950s.
Question: When did they shoot Top Gun: Maverick?
Answer: Most of the shooting ended in 2018, but Top Gun: Maverick only came out in 2022 after multiple postponements.
Question: How accurate is the Battle of Britain?
Answer: Most historians regard Battle of Britain as the most historically accurate movie about the struggle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe.
Question: What is the movie Hot Shots parodying?
Answer: Hot Shots makes fun of Top Gun, but there are references to multiple classical movies throughout.
Question: What planes did they use in the Dunkirk movie?
Answer: The producers of Dunkirk used Spitfires, a Buchon, and a Yak-52 for the flying sequences.
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