Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Airplane Movies

With the true-story drama ‘Sully’ opening in theaters this week, it might perhaps be in poor taste to do a Roundtable about favorite plane crash scenes in movies. Let’s broaden the topic out a bit to cover any movie either set on an airplane or containing important scenes/storylines involving planes.

M. Enois Duarte

I don’t hide my love for the comedy classic ‘Airplane!‘. It ranks as one my personal favorites since childhood, and I can’t think of any better movie to watch while flying in an actual plane. As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. Why not soothe anxious flyers by making them bust a gut about being trapped inside the very airborne deathtrap everyone is traveling in? Who wouldn’t laugh at a blowup auto pilot needing some (ahem) assistance or Leslie Nielsen… well, just being Leslie Nielsen! With one stupid gag followed by another expected stupid gag, the satire of 1970s airplane disaster flicks is always fun.

Brian Hoss

“Not only is ‘Airplane!’ timelessly funny in every single aspect, but I love how the spoof is anchored in the frame of the 1957 film ‘Zero Hour!’. I really like the sequel as well, but if I had to go with another airplane-themed movie, then the very watchable ‘Executive Decision‘ would be my pick. The “Die Hard on a plane” plot stars a nerdy, Jack Ryan-lite Kurt Russell, who survives the miniature mid-air destruction of Steven Seagal in a grandly far-fetched action sequence. Even with that craziness, what helps the movie is that it avoids going to a Michael Bay level of destruction and goofiness.

Shannon Nutt

I’m going a bit off the beaten path with this week’s topic by selecting 1986’s ‘Iron Eagle‘, a movie that STILL isn’t available on Blu-ray. (Seriously, what’s up with that?!) It’s often referred to as a ‘Top Gun’ ripoff, although those who make such a claim have apparently forgotten this movie came out BEFORE ‘Top Gun’ . I actually find this one more entertaining, even though it’s easily more preposterous. The plot revolves around young Doug Masters (Jason Gedrick), whose fighter pilot father is shot down and held hostage by a (fictional) Middle Eastern country. Doug talks Air Force pilot Chappy Sinclair (Louis Gossett, Jr.) into training and joining him for a two-man rescue mission. The movie is pure ’80s action fluff, but it was always one of my go-to rentals when I was in high school and college. I haven’t seen it in years, but maybe the powers-that-be out there will see this and finally give this movie a high-def release.

Luke Hickman

Practical stunts will always be far more attractive and appealing than anything CGI can create, especially when they involve the actors themselves, where you can see that the actor’s face isn’t just a copied-and-pasted version over a stunt double’s body.

As much as I love the Dubai building sequence in ‘Ghost Protocol’, the opening airplane stunt in ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘ just might top it. The only thing better than watching how it plays out in the intro of the movie is watching the Blu-ray special feature that documents how it was achieved. Fearless Tom Cruise went through eight take-offs and landings on the side of that plane. If a blade of grass would have flown into one of his eyes, the damage would have left him blinded for the rest of his life. To remedy that, he wore thick protective contact lenses that he could hardly see through. What an awesome feat.

This scene appeared in all of the movie’s trailers, leaving it with no unexpected element of surprise when it played out in the film. Because of that, it was an absolutely brilliant idea to have it as the action piece to start the movie. We all knew it was coming, so why not have it be the heart-pounding opening? ‘Rogue Nation’ used the unforgettable scene in a perfect way.

Mike Attebery

The first movie that comes to mind is ‘U.S. Marshals‘, but as with so many things related to that ‘Fugitive’ sequel, the plane crash sequence is a combination of the fairly good and the inept. The actors playing the pilots: pretty terrible. The editing: mediocre. Tommy Lee Jones: muy bueno. The effects: eh, they’re OK. The plane hitting the telephone poles is pretty bad. But all in all, it sure looks great in the trailer!

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

For my money, ‘Final Destination‘ is the last great horror franchise. Unlike traditional body count movies where a masked slasher skulks around and slaughters every nubile teenager in sight, the villain here is Death itself. The allure of the series has always been its demented, elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style kill scenes. Where else can you see someone flattened by a gigantic pane of glass or watch their innards get sucked out through a pool drain?

It all started on Volee Airlines Flight 180, with a catastrophic explosion that leaves some hapless passengers sucked out of the cabin at 20,000 feet, others battered and bloodied beyond recognition, and everyone else reduced to scorched, smoldering little chunks. Before the debris even has a chance to hit the ground, Alex (Devon Sawa) wakes up, alive and well. His nightmare sends him spiraling into a screaming panic, and a bunch of his classmates and teachers follow in tow as Alex is dragged off the plane. After one of Alex’s understandably miffed classmates tackles the kid, furious about missing half a day in Paris because of some twerp’s bad dream, the glass windows in the terminal violently shatter. They can only look on helplessly as flaming wreckage spills from the night sky. That was no nightmare; it was a premonition. Alex’s vision cheated the fates of seven warm bodies, and Death intends to collect. A parade of darkly comedic deaths quickly follow, as do four gloriously over-the-top sequels, with number five closing the circle in the most unexpectedly brilliant way.

Josh Zyber

In terms of plane crashes, one that has stuck with me for a long time happens in Peter Weir’s 1993 drama ‘Fearless‘ (not to be confused with the Jet Li action flick of the same title). Jeff Bridges stars as one of a handful of survivors of a major airline crash, and undergoes some serious personality changes as he tries to cope with the trauma. My memory of it is that the crash scene is very realistic and harrowing, but I haven’t seen the movie in ages and I’m not sure if it holds up. The film is available on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive and I’ve owned the disc for quite a while. I need to make time to watch this again.

I also must express my admiration for the aerial combat scenes in ‘Hell’s Angels‘, the 1930 World War I melodrama famously directed by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. The movie as a whole isn’t particularly good. Even for its day, the drama parts (which make up the bulk of the running time) are corny and stilted. The flying scenes, however, are still amazing in their scope, ambition, and pure recklessness. Martin Scorsese attempted to depict the filming of this movie in his Hughes bio-pic ‘The Aviator’, but even $110 million worth of fancy digital VFX couldn’t approach the audacity of the original practical stunts.

Dr. Strangelove‘, of course, culminates with a plane flight that changes the course of the world.

Once the black sheep of its franchise, ‘Die Hard 2‘ sure looks a lot better in retrospect after the last entry. The last time I watched this on Blu-ray, I actually had more fun with it than I originally did in the theater. The climax in which Bruce Willis has a fighfight on the wing of a taxiing jet is ludicrously dumb but also hilarious in its macho posturing.

I’d feel remiss if I didn’t also mention the likes of ‘Airport‘, ‘Air Force One‘, ‘Passenger 57‘ or ‘Snakes on a Plane‘. They’re all pretty crappy movies, but they seem to have fans.

Tell us in the Comments about your favorite movies set on or involving airplanes.


  1. Paul Anderson

    I have a great affinity for the recent Criterion release of Howard Hawks fantastic “Only Angels Have Wings”. Love me some Jean Arthur. She easily handles anything Cary Grant throws at her

    Couple of Honorable Mentions would be The Right Stuff and the recent Zemeckis film, Flight.

    • charles contreras

      I agree with you, I love those movies, too. I had the opportunity years ago to meet a few of the actors from Airport 1975, namely George Kennedy, Erik Estrada and Linda Blair. They were very nice people to meet.

  2. NJScorpio

    ‘Memphis Belle’ holds a special place in my nostalgia-bank, as I went as a young lad with a bunch of my friends to see it for my 10th birthday. Having rewatched it a few years ago, I know that it isn’t quite a classic in the repeatedly-rewatchable sense (like ‘Executive Decision’, or ‘Airplane!’), but it is a nice period piece with a great cast. It also makes me think of my Grandfather who was a pilot during the war.

    • Ronald Moody

      Nice, good choice, also one of my faves. That was one lucky ass crew! Her last run wasn’t quite as dramatic as it was filmed, but those bomber boys had it hard. Freezing temps, cramped spaces, fighters, flack. It’s a wonder any of them made it home and way too many didn’t. Thanks to your Grandfather, truly the greatest generation! Besides, HCJ? Yeah, I’d switch teams for that, uh huh.

  3. Chris B

    Oh and speaking of B movies: Passenger 57! Snipes in the sky! Watch it back to back with Drop Zone and it’s an action-aviation two-fer!!

  4. Diane

    I’ve always thought the plane crash scene in the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway” was very well done. My favorite cheesy B movie has to be “Turbulence II: Fear of Flying” starring Craig Sheffer and Jessica Beales. That movie got everything wrong and consequently is hilariously funny.

  5. Csm101

    SOOOOUL PLANE BITCHES! Just kidding, never seen it. A lot of my picks have already been mentioned. How about Flyboys. I really like this movie and the dog fights are amazing.

    • Ronald Moody

      I’ve not seen it, and I wanted to like it as an aviation and history nut. I have it on DVD in storage (moving) so I’ll have to dig it up and give it a watch. One day, I’ll have to find it in the bluray bargain bin sometime.

      • Csm101

        I don’t know about historical accuracy, but it’s a gorgeous blu and great audio as well with some great bonus features. Amazon has it listed for seven bucks. Even if you hate the movie, the flight sequences are amazing! We are talking Flyboys, right?😊

  6. Ronald Moody

    Ok, I’ll bite. Stealth. OMG was this movie shit. But with Jessica’s B cups, what could go wrong? Cheesy from start to finish, but fast enough to satisfy. 100 over 100. haha Ok, pictures, take them please!

  7. photogdave

    I remember Alive being pretty good. Haven’t seen it since VHS days though…

    Not a film but my favourite screen story featuring a plane was the TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey starring the amazing Grumman Goose. We can’t really talk about the other star anymore…

    • Thulsadoom

      Haha! I’d forgotten about Terminal Velocity! Haven’t watched it in years, but I really enjoyed it on VHS. Might have to pick up a copy some time. 😉

  8. Thulsadoom

    It’s a pretty bad B-movie and I know it, but I’m going to go with Millennium. It’s a silly scifi, but I love the ideas, and it’s made with heart. 🙂 I always have a soft spot for it.

    2nd place has to go to Con-Air, and of course Airplane itself.

    • Csm101

      I’m glad you mentioned Millenium. I forgot I owned it in a two pack from Shout! which I bought solely for R.O.T.O.R. I’m gonna have to give it a watch.

      • Thulsadoom

        It’s funny, I was thinking of getting that two-pack for Millenium, and don’t think I’ve seen R.O.T.O.R! 😉 It’s on my list for next month… I’m on a bit of a ‘update the older B-movies’ bender at the moment. Recently got a whole load of Ray Harryhausen’s and things like Cyborg, Moon44, Moontrap and a few others. I always forget that Millennium was also directed by Michael Anderson who did one of my favourite science fiction movies, Logan’s Run.

  9. Bill

    The High and The Mighty. That whistling theme is both hypnotic and haunting. It is also amusing to see how much airport check ins have changed.

  10. photogdave

    There have been some pretty great WWII movies that centre around planes or have planes in prominence. Tora! Tora! Tora! and Battle of Britain come to mind.

    • Bill

      Add The Blue Max for WWI with its great flying sequences and The Flying Tigers and Twelve O’clock High for WWII. Also Task Force (1949?) about the early development of naval aviation between WWI and WWII.

  11. William Henley

    Well, I am going to throw in Airplane II The Sequel. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the first movie, but I think the second is even better. I may be one of the few, but I love the space theme, love William Shatner’s character (perfect actor for a space spoof), I just love everything about it!

    I also want to tap Iron Eagle. One of my favorite movies as a kid, and while it’s plot is completely unbelievable, they treated it like it was Shakesphere or something. It is just a really well done movie, and has a great 80s feel. While there is no Blu-Ray of it, you can find it in HD on some VOD sites.

    I don’t care what people say, I love Top Gun. I don’t get the hate for this movie. It is just a lot of fun.

    As far as 3D stuff, there is an Imax movie called Zack’s Flying Machine. If you are into 3D, this is a fun film.

    This may be stretching it just a bit, but trying to come up with something original. I am going to throw in Independence Day. Think about it. The whole movie is pretty much going from one plane to the next – crop dusting, chasing aliens through a canyon, Air Force One, then trying to bring down the ships with gun fire and missiles. As such, I don’t think its too far of a jump to say its a movie involving airplanes.

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