The 15 Best Movies About Pilots, Planes, and Aircraft, Ranked

What vehicle is cooler than a plane? From dramas to thrillers, here are the finest films that involve pilots and/or take place on aircraft.
The 15 Best Movies About Pilots, Planes, and Aircraft, Ranked

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Anytime you see a movie poster with an airplane on it, you know it's probably not going to end well. When you're stuck 40,000 feet above land with nowhere to run, so many things can go wrong.

From films that involve crash-landing in the desert to defusing a mid-flight bomb threat, here are my picks for the best movies involving pilots, their planes, and aviation as a whole.

15. The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

Directed by George Roy Hill

Starring Robert Redford, Bo Svenson, Bo Brundin

Adventure, Drama (1h 47m)

6.7 on IMDb67% on RT

"It was a time of heroes, daredevils, men who lived only to fly." The time being WWI, when men fought and flew to glory.

In The Great Waldo Pepper, the titular Waldo Pepper (played by Robert Redford) misses out on crashing to his death, yet he can't help but feel FOMO from being a flight instructor during the Great War.

By 1926—almost a decade after the war's end—pilot veterans had to settle on barnstorming and flying circuses to make a living. That, or try to break into Hollywood as stuntmen, like Waldo Pepper does.

You can tell director George Roy Hill was once a pilot himself, as The Great Waldo Pepper feels like a passion project more than an attempt to smash the box office. Still, The Great Waldo Pepper is a good, easy watch, with some informed observations on the state of post-WWI America.

14. Red Eye (2005)

Directed by Wes Craven

Starring Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox

Thriller (1h 25m)

6.5 on IMDb79% on RT

Wes Craven's psychological thriller Red Eye takes place aboard a red-eye flight—one that takes off at night and arrives by morning. Rachel McAdams plays the innocent hotel manager Lisa, who has no idea what she's about to step into on her flight.

Charmed by a handsome young man (played by Cillian Murphy) at the airport bar, she's pleased to find her seat next to his on the plane. That is, until he turns out to be a terrorist who wants to exploit her position at the Lux Atlantic Hotel for nefarious reasons.

A crowd-pleasing box office success, Red Eye has all the makings of a sturdy—if predictable—suspense thriller with grounded performances up in the clouds.

13. Into the White (2012)

Directed by Petter Næss

Starring Stig Henrik Hoff, Florian Lukas, David Kross

Action, Biography, Drama (1h 44m)

7.1 on IMDb45% on RT

Snowy vistas and a fragile atmosphere you could shatter with a needle are the main components of this slow-paced film, which probably came as a disappointment to those expecting an action-packed survival flick.

But if you have a decent amount of patience and respect for the film medium, you'll certainly enjoy Into the White!

Into the White immediately followed Rupert Grint's decade-long role in the Harry Potter franchise (punctuated only by Cherrybomb, Driving Lessons, and Wild Target, which not many people have seen).

To most people in the world, Rupert Grint is still that ginger wizard dressed in hand-me-downs—but here he finally breaks out of that mold to play a Scouse aerial gunner during WWII.

With a similar vibe to the better-known Against the Ice, Into the White witnesses the rising tension between German bomber pilots and British airmen who are stranded in the Norwegian wilderness.

12. Non-Stop (2014)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy

Action, Mystery, Thriller (1h 46m)

6.9 on IMDb62% on RT

Liam Neeson loves himself a good action movie, with him and his gun always front and center. Non-Stop slots perfectly into his adrenaline-fueled filmography, this time as a US Air Marshal named Bill Marks who goes undercover on a flight from New York to London.

After takeoff, Bill receives an anonymous text that someone will die every twenty minutes unless $150 million is transferred to their bank account.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra in his second collaboration with Neeson (previously Unknown in 2011), Non-Stop is a classic disaster flick that's sure to entertain if you can take its wobbly logic on the chin.

11. United (2011)

Directed by James Strong

Starring David Tennant, Jack O'Connell, Sam Claflin

Drama, History, Sport (1h 34m)

7.3 on IMDbN/A on RT

Although United only takes place on a plane for about ten minutes, the whole premise of the true, real-life story is based on that plane crashing.

Directed by James Strong, this British made-for-TV movie tells the heartbreaking story of the Manchester United Football Club in 1958, who were caught up in the Munich air disaster.

After two failed attempts, British European Airways took off from the slushy grounds of Germany, where only 21 passengers made it to the other side alive.

Jack O'Connell leads as the famous surviving player Bobby Charlton, along with his teammate Duncan Edwards (played by Sam Claflin) and coach Jimmy Murphy (played by David Tennant).

10. Sully (2016)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney

Biography, Drama (1h 36m)

7.4 on IMDb85% on RT

Sully (or Sully: Miracle on the Hudson) is a fantastic biographical drama about a pilot, starring Tom Hanks as Captain "Sully" Sullenberger.

The title tells you all you need to know about this movie in which a brave American pilot has to pull an emergency landing over the Hudson River in order to save the 155 souls on board.

But, of course, the media is voracious and needs a scapegoat to blame for the incident... and Sully is the most obvious choice.

Clint Eastwood directs this adaptation of Sully's 2009 memoirs Highest Duty, with critics praising Hanks for his strong and confident performance. Aaron Eckhart and Laura Linney also star.

9. Alive (1993)

Directed by Frank Marshall

Starring Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano, Josh Hamilton

Adventure, Biography, Drama (2h 8m)

7.1 on IMDb61% on RT

The title of Frank Marshall's survival drama might sound like good news—they're alive!—but what's the good in surviving a crash when you're stuck in the Andes Mountains with no food? When all you have is a one-way radio that declares your search party has been called off?

A true story about a sports team caught in the aftermath of a devastating plane crash in the middle of nowhere, Alive is taken from Piers Paul Read's tragic 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.

The unfortunate Uruguayan rugby team plummets into the largest mountain range in the world, with only one inhumane option if they want to avoid starving to death...

8. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch

Adventure, Drama (2h 22m)

7.5 on IMDb87% on RT

Where would you rather end up crash-landing: in the freezing and snowy mountains, or in the dry and arid desert?

In The Flight of the Phoenix, a cargo plane ends up stranded in the latter environment while on its way to Libya. The surviving crew are surrounded by nothing but sandstorms and unforgiving sunlight as they attempt to rebuild their plane—like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Robert Aldrich directed the original version from 1965, starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough, with John Moore directing the 2004 remake. Both are worth watching, but I prefer the original!

7. Top Gun (1986)

Directed by Tony Scott

Starring Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins, Kelly McGillis

Action, Drama (1h 49m)

6.9 on IMDb58% on RT

A classic Hollywood action film starring Hollywood's most classic action star, Tom Cruise. Everyone knows Top Gun, right?

This film was directed by Tony Scott in the 1980s, who was inspired by an article titled "Top Guns" in California magazine three years prior. In it, Cruise plays a suave, leather-jacket-wearing naval aviator who's training at the US Navy's Fighter Weapons School in San Diego.

A huge commercial hit, Top Gun featured amazing special effects, stunts, and aerial shots—especially for its time! The 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, is also great if you like dogfighting planes.

6. Flightplan (2005)

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean

Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 38m)

6.3 on IMDb37% on RT

A psychological thriller squeezed into the claustrophobic confines of a fuselage, Flightplan is wound tight with suspense.

Robert Schwentke directs the brilliant Jodie Foster, who plays a widowed aircraft engineer who loses her 6-year-old daughter during a flight back to New York.

But when she asks for help, the flight attendants are adamant that her little girl was never on board, and they wonder if the mother's grieving state has made her hallucinate.

Although criticized for being somewhat far-fetched, viewers—including myself—loved the plot twists and keen performances of Flightplan!

5. Flight (2012)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez, Don Cheadle

Drama, Thriller (2h 18m)

7.3 on IMDb77% on RT

Here's another captivating based-on-a-true-story film about a pilot who performs a life-saving maneuver, only to be blamed for the incident.

Flight stars Denzel Washington as the talented but messy Captain "Whip" Whitaker. When a steep dive puts the plane out of the pilot's control, Whip takes a calculated risk and turns the whole thing upside down so he can reach an open field landing and save the souls on board.

However, Whip is an alcoholic, which means his elevated blood alcohol level shows up in the incident's toxicity report. This prompts the NTSB to investigate him as to whether he caused the only six deaths.

Director Robert Zemeckis's taut biographical drama was nominated for two Oscars, and Denzel Washington's incredible performance as Captain Whitaker often shows up on "best acting" compilations.

4. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden

Comedy, War (1h 35m)

8.4 on IMDb98% on RT

Officially titled Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, this film is a Cold War satire that doesn't take place on a plane but does feature planes as an integral plot point.

When an American Brigadier deploys a B-52 nuclear bomb without permission, he puts the entire world on the brink of destruction.

Creatively directed by the zany Stanley Kubrick and starring an even zanier Peter Sellers as a nutty ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy film like no other.

A black-and-white masterpiece that remains as relevant today as it was back then, Dr. Strangelove is definitely one for cinephiles.

3. Airplane! (1980)

Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker

Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen

Comedy (1h 28m)

7.7 on IMDb97% on RT

A pilot who's afraid of flying? Talk about oxymoronic!

This classic 1980s romantic comedy—alternatively titled Flying High!—had three directors. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker put their heads together to create one of the funniest, highest-ranking British comedies, with Robert Hays starring as the pilot.

Former Captain Ted Striker, who's traumatized by his days as a fighter pilot, is once again brought to the wheel when a bout of food poisoning ripples through the plane. A precursor to the kind of humor championed by the Farrelly brothers, Airplane! is cult comedy gold.

2. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Starring Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Robert Walker

Drama, History, War (2h 18m)

7.2 on IMDb100% on RT

Air strikes and overhead battles were key in WWII, which is why so many WWII films feature fighter pilots, including Unbroken, The Forgotten Battle, Dunkirk, Firebird, and Bridge of Spies.

But Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo takes it one step further, centering on Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (later Brigadier General), who's responsible for heading the first air raid over Japan in 1942.

This air raid, which was the US response to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, was documented by Captain Ted W. Lawson, adapted for the big screen by Dalton Trumbo, and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Spencer Tracy stars in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo as Doolittle in this Oscar-winning classic that's been frequently referenced in pop culture.

1. The Aviator (2004)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale

Biography, Drama (2h 50m)

7.5 on IMDb86% on RT

Infamous director-actor duo Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio gave us this epic, award-winning movie back in 2004.

The Aviator tells the true story of a filmmaker, businessman, and aviation pioneer named Howard Hughes. Despite all his charm, wealth, and success, the troubled entrepreneur ended up spiraling into his ever-worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Set during the jazzy 1930s, Scorsese paints the screen with a brassy, turquoise color palette to accurately mimic the two-strip Technicolor process of the time. Based on Charles Higham's 1993 book Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, The Aviator is a finely tuned drama.

For more Howard Hughes aviation, check out the 1930 war movie Hell's Angels—acclaimed for its revolutionary dogfighting scenes—which is actually the film being made in The Aviator!