Movies and aviation: a Match Made in the Heavens



In 1903, the Wright Brothers built and flew the world’s first successful airplane. At the same time, a new and dazzling art form called motion pictures was just coming into its own.

These exciting new technologies proved to be perfect for each other. Right from the beginning, the movies loved airplanes.

A World War I pilot turned ‘barnstorming’ stunt flier with the not-very-Hollywood name of Ormer Locklear was cast in a film called The Great Air 

Robbery in 1919, when mass market movies were only about 10 years old. Ormer would not become a star, however. In 1920, Locklear and co-pilot Milton Elliott were making a film called The Skywayman when their plane crashed, killing both. Not wanting to waste precious film, the disaster stayed in the picture, adding a gruesome touch of reality. Both films are now considered lost. (Locklear’s story was broadly the basis for the 1975 aviation film The Great Waldo Pepper, starring Robert Redford.)

The year 1927 was pivotal for aviation and the movies. In May, Charles Lindberg became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, leading to worldwide adulation unlike anything ever seen. In the same year, Paramount released a war-themed silent film, Wings, which would win the first Academy Award for best film.

Wings was directed by WWI pilot William Wellman, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. To create the still-thrilling aerial sequences which set the standard for aviation films, Wellman attached a bulky silent camera to the airplanes (Thomas-Morse MB3s). It took nine months to film in the days when you could make a movie in a couple of weeks, cost a staggering (for its time) $2 million, and required the services of some 300 pilots. In 2010, Paramount spent $700,000 to restore the film to its original glory, with a new musical soundtrack.


Airplanes were all the rage in the late 1920s. Even Mickey Mouse got into the act, with Plane Crazy in 1928. It was Mickey’s last silent cartoon, and made little impression until it was re-released with sound. (By the way, Plane Crazy entered the public domain last year, so it’s free to use if, say, you wanted to play it on a screen at an aviation museum.)

At roughly the same time, eccentric billionaire and aviator Howard Hughes was at work producing and directing his own aviation epic, Hell’s Angels. The film was originally planned as a silent picture, but when talkies had the public clamouring for sound, Hughes started all over again. He found a new leading lady, an inexperienced 18-year-old platinum blonde named Jean Harlow, who went on to film stardom.


The perils of aviation movies were no more evident than in the making of Hell’s Angels. When a stunt pilot rejected a scene because it was too dangerous, Hughes did it himself – and promptly crashed. He suffered a concussion and required facial surgery. But Hughes got off lightly; three pilots died while making the film. It didn’t make any money, but film critic Leonard Maltin says the film is “unmatched for aerial spectacle”. (The making of the film is central to Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic of Hughes, The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)

There is no shortage of aviation-themed pictures, of mixed quality. The Dam Busters (1955) is a British film about the Royal Air Force’s ingenious 1943 plan to drop ‘bouncing bombs’ on German dams. Director Billy Wilder told the Lindbergh story in The Spirit of St. Louis (1956) starring Jimmy Stewart. The Flight of the Phoenix, also starring Stewart,  is about a plane that crashes in the Sahara desert (stunt pilot Paul Mantz died in a crash during the filming). In 1966, we got the German point of view of WWI with The Blue Max, which Maltin describes as “silly” but with “fantastic aerial photography”.

Airplanes are to this day big box office. Top Gun (1986) was a huge hit for Tom Cruise, despite mostly dismal reviews. But Top Gun: Maverick (2016) was seen as a superior film, getting an Oscar nomination for best film and taking in $1.5 billion.

Not all airplane movies are deadly serious. Airplane! (1980) is simply one of the funniest movies ever made. And if you say, “Surely you’re kidding”, I would reply, “I’m serious … and don’t call me Shirley”. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you don’t know Airplane!) And for weirdness, it’s hard to top the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson film with the self-explanatory name Snakes on a Plane.

Two recent streaming TV series show that airplanes, either flying or crashing, still have a lot of pull.

In 1972, a Uruguayan Air Force plane, carrying members of a rugby team, crashed in the Andes. Those who were not killed in the crash survived for 72 days, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. While technically not an airplane movie, the 2024 Netflix film Society of the Snow faithfully tells the true story of the crash. It’s outstanding – it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar – but the terrifying plane crash may have you thinking twice about flying.

And finally, Apple TV+ just this year released a nine-part series, Masters of the Air, based on the true stories of the Mighty Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces in England during WWII. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the series meticulously recreates the experience of flying in the planes they called the ‘Flying Fortress’.

Masters of the Air shows that more than a century since The Great Air Robbery movies are still in love with aviation.



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