From Top Gun to Tora! Tora! Tora!, films about aviation have been a staple of American movies for nearly a century. But which of these movies are the most accurate? Which are the best? While Maverick flying upside-down might not be realistic, other movies have tried to get it right, much to the delight of flight fans everywhere. These are the best aviation movies you need to watch, and we’ll tell you just how accurate they are!
The Aviator Is Surprisingly Honest About Howard Hughes
On the surface, The Aviator is a fantastical re-telling of Howard Hughes’ life from the ’20s through the ’40s. During this time period, he became a successful movie producer and aviation enthusiast/daredevil.
According to Daily History, the movie is not as crazy as it appears. Hughes himself was an over the top figure and, “The movie accurately shows that Hughes was a lifelong lover of aviation and an innovative aerospace engineer.”
Top Gun Was A Great Recruitment Tool, But Factually Inaccurate
Top Gun is perhaps the most famous aviation film ever made. Starring Tom Cruise, the classic action film was released in 1986 and follows the exploits of rebel naval academy pilot LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
The film, which was made in cooperation with the Navy, may not have been a factually accurate depiction of life in the sky (by a long shot) but it did serve as an incredible recruiting tool. After the movie became a massive hit, it was reported that the number of men trying to sign up for the Navy increased by 500 percent.
The Spirit Of St. Louis Takes Honest Flight With Charles Lindbergh’s Life
Released in 1957 and directed by Billy Wilder, The Spirit of St. Louis is a harrowing look at the life of Charles Lindbergh as he prepares to make the world’s first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight.
The movie was a box-office failure at the time but has been hailed since then as an honest and accurate portrayal of Lindbergh’s story. The Smithsonian even uses the film as part of its “classics” series of screening for those curious about history.
Tora! Tora! Tora! Is A Misguided Classic
Today, Tora! Tora! Tora! is seen as a classic war and aviation film praised for its battle scenes. When it was released, it didn’t find the same praise, partially because of all the liberties it takes re-telling the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
According to Daily History, “the movie’s portrayal of the role of Emperor Hirohito was also incorrect, and it understates his role in the events in the run-up to the Japanese attack on the 7th of December 1941. These are serious failings, and they undermine the credibility of the film and give a false sense of the events.”
Historians Love The Great Waldo Pepper
George Roy Hill is most famous for directing The Sting in 1973, which has overshadowed the film he released two years later, The Great Waldo Pepper. Starring Robert Redford as a disaffected WWI pilot who examines his postwar dislocation in the ’20s, historians hail the film as one of the most accurate ever made.
Aviation and film historians Ed Schnepf and Jack Hardwick gave the film a four-star rating for its attention to period details and period-accurate aircraft featured.
Flight Is Laughably Unrealistic
Flight was heralded by critics when it came out in 2012 and was one of the most successful movies of Denzel Washington’s career. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor and another for Best Original Screenplay.
With the success and accolades Flight received, you might assume it gets aviation right. But as one real-life pilot revealed to The Daily Beast, it couldn’t be more wrong, “I cannot begin to describe how wrong it is, from the absurd idea that you would actually increase to maximum flying speed to race between storm cells to Whitaker’s impetuous descent, which for some inexplicable reason he believes will help lead them safely through the weather—all without permission from air-traffic control. Are you kidding?”
Flyboys Never Soars To Truthful Heights
A WWI drama released in 2006 and starring James Franco, Flyboys follows a group of Americans who travel to France to serve in the French Air Service. A unique take on aviation and war movies, Flyboys lacked the historical authenticity that could have made it a classic.
The main reason for the failure of the accuracy of the movie was the military advisor used, Jack Livesey. Just before the film came out, Livesey was revealed to be a fraud, lying about his military service for most of his adult life to be able to reap the professional and personal benefits.
Air Force One May Or May Not Be Accurate
Air Force One is a classic action film from the ’90s that stars Harrison Ford as the president on his plane who has to save everyone on board from terrorists. A commercial and critical success, we may never know how accurate the movie actually portrays the most famous jet in America.
The reason for the unknown accuracy of the film is obviously for security purposes. What we do know is that producers and crew toured Air Force One while developing the movie. One feature, the escape pod, has been confirmed by one former President to not be a real feature, however.
Pearl Harbor Was An Endless Misfire
Pearl Harbor made 450 million worldwide when it was released in 2001. The epic retelling of the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a hit with audiences thanks to a pulpy love story and an action-packed 40-minute finale.
As far the historical accuracy of the movie and its flight scenes, well, it probably should be categorized as fiction, as just about everything that happens in the film, from the jets used to the glasses characters wore never existed at the time events take place.
The Man Sully Is Based On Says They Got It Right
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of Captain Sullenberger, the man behind the “Miracle on the Hudson.” In 2009, the pilot saved his entire flight of passengers when he was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. According to the captain:
“The level of detail, the granularity of it… All those kinds of things translate pretty well to the screen, and it seems real. It feels real.”
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines Used Era-Appropriate Aircraft
Released in 1965, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines may be a comedy, but that doesn’t mean it took liberties with history. The laugher focuses on the early era of aviation and features a sprawling ensemble cast.
During production, the director went through great pains to have 1910-era aircraft accurately be re-created that were going to be featured in the film. The only modern updates he allowed were those needed to ensure the safety of the cast and crew.
Wings Was Made By A Former U.S. Army Corpsman
Wings made its theatrical debut in 1928. The oldest film on this list, it also might be the most accurate. Legendary director William Wellman ran the show, and prior to filming was given access to a huge arsenal of authentic military vehicles and aircraft.
Wellman had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and used his connections to get permission to use the vehicles. The aerial fights, which stand up with the movies of today, are considered by historians to be as accurate as any movie made about war could be.
Midway (1976) Is Riddled With Mistakes
Starring Charlton Heston, Midway came out in 1976 and was a retelling of the famous Battle of Midway during World War II. It was a huge hit with audiences and was the 10th most profitable film of the year.
Unfortunately, Midway was riddled with mistakes and inaccuracies. One of the most prominent mistakes in the film is the planes used during the battle. Historical footage shown is also footage taken from different events with different aircraft altogether.
Midway (2019) Is Surprisingly Accurate
When a movie comes from the director of Independence Day, you probably expect it to riddled with inaccuracies. Get ready to be surprised by Midway, then. Sharing a title with the movie from 1976 and starring Nick Jonas, this one gets it (mostly) right.
Shortly after coming out, USA Today fact-checked the expensive action pic with retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, who said, “The people are real, what they did is real. This movie captures the courage and sacrifice and stakes involved in the battle.” While he admits there are some mistakes made by the movie, he also confirms it takes far fewer liberties than its predecessor.
Memphis Belle Is Loosely Based In Truth
Memphis Belle came out in 1990 as a co-production between the United States and Great Britain. It tells the story of the 25th mission of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber. It was based on the last mission for the American aircraft, and when we say based, we mean loosely.
The film was successful and is still fondly remembered by audiences, but historians have been less kind. Characters are composites of several real people while the date of the mission depicted is not that of the craft’s actual swan song.
The Right Stuff Got A Lot Wrong
The Right Stuff was released in 1983 to critical acclaim. It followed the story of the first military pilots selected as astronauts for Project Mercury. The movie holds a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, even though it’s not always factually accurate.
One of the more notable “dramatic liberties” the movie takes is making the flight of the X-1 to break the sound barrier a spur of the moment and a death-defying decision. In truth, the craft was rigorously tested and safe before this moment.
Flight Plan Is A Mixed Bag
Flight Plan was a huge hit in 2005. Starring Jodie Foster, the mystery film used a missing child as a plot point, which sounds implausible for a film that takes place on an aircraft. And even though the plane in the movie is fictional, it is based on a real one.
Aviation historian Simon Beck explains, “The aircraft is a fictional mammoth airliner called the ‘E-474’, a double-deck jumbo modeled strongly after the Airbus A-380, the large size being suitable for the missing-person plot of the film.” The portrayal of flight attendants, however, was widely panned as inaccurate.
The Real Frank Abagnale Set The Story Straight On Catch Me If You Can
In the ’70s, Frank Abagnale was 17-years-old when he became one of the world’s most wanted con artists for posing as a doctor and a Pan American World Airways pilot. His story was told in the movies Catch Me If You Can, which was directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 2002.
Abagnale watched the movie twice and revealed, “I thought he stayed very close to the story… He [Spielberg] was very concerned about being accurate, first of all, because it was the first time he made a movie about a real person living. Second, the Bureau had an information officer on the set for all the shooting of the entire film to make sure that what he said about the FBI … was accurate.”
The First Of The Few Is A Romanticized Take On History
In the United States, The First of the Few was released with the title Spitfire. A British production, the movie is the true story of the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. A hit when it was released in 1942, it was also a romanticized and inaccurate telling of the real tale.
R.J. Mitchell designed the plane and was portrayed as becoming mysteriously ill and working himself to death from his passion. While he did grow seriously ill in real life, it was not from his work. He struggled with cancer for several years until tragically passing away in 1937.
The Blue Max Used The Wrong Planes
Following a German fighter pilot during WWI on the Western Front, The Blue Max was a commercial success but a historical failure. Based on the highly researched novel of the same name, author Jack D. Hunter revealed one major flaw with the movie:
“I saw Fokker D-7s with inverted engines and 1916-style insignia, Dr-1s with radial engines and smoke canisters on their landing gear struts, machine-guns that looked like Space Cadet props spouting flame without benefit of ammo tracks, every pilot wearing an Uhlan uniform and Battle of Britain style goggles, Gypsy Moths pretending to be Albatros D-3s, a Stampe presented as an RE-8—the anachronisms and goofs compounded.”
Battle of Britain Employed 100 Historical Aircraft
The 1969 film Battle of Britain portrayed the World War II battle by the same name. In 1940, the British Royal Air Force aimed to cancel Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s plan to invade Britain. The film is famous for its fantastic flying scenes and historical accuracy.
For the film, producers had to get historically-accurate military aircraft. They ended up hiring 100 planes, called “the 35th largest air force in the world.” Although not all aircraft were flyable, the film showed a real Spitfire Mk I, Spitfire Mk II, Hawker Hurricanes, and North American B-25 Mitchell N6578D.
Flight Of The Intruder Did Not Get The Credit It Deserved
Flight of the Intruder was a 1991 film based on the novel by the same name. The novel was written by Stephen Coonts, a former pilot, who wrote about aircraft missions during the Vietnam War. Although the book was a best-seller, the film flopped.
Despite this, and despite some changes from the book, Flight of the Intruder accurately portrayed piloting and aircraft. The production team cooperated with the U.S. Navy and used eight of their facilities for filming. Danny Glover spent five days aboard the USS Independence to learn how to accurately portray a pilot.
The Tuskegee Airmen Combined Fact With Fiction
In 1995, the HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen was released. It was based on the writings of Captain Robert W. Williams, a pilot from the first African-American unit in the United States Army Air Corps. Both the manuscript and movie portrayed their battles in World War II, but the movie made some changes.
Most notably, the movie did not depict any real members of the unit besides Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. It accurately portrayed that the unit defeated the Messerschmitt Me 262s and won 850 medals, but it inaccurately said that they lost no bombers in the war.
633 Squadron Pulls From Many Historical Moments
The 1964 movie 633 Squadron was the first aviation film to be shot in color and on Panavision widescreen. Inspired by a book of the same name, the film drew from several real Royal Air Force missions. It also showed real Mosquitos in action, including the RS709, RS712, TA639, and TW117.
Although there was no 633 Squadron in World War II, there was a 613 Squadron equipped with Mosquitoes. Also, the movie portrays many real missions carried out by the 617 Squadron. The different nationalities depicted in the Royal Air Force–including Indian, Norwegian, and Australian–are also historically accurate.
Iron Eagle Took Many Liberties With History
During the same year that Top Gun hit theaters, Iron Eagle also debuted. The film got mixed reviews but a great box office reception. It was loosely based on the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981–and we mean loosely.
The inspiration for the main character, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., was not even a part of the operation. He was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. Because the film was aided by the Israeli military, it was shot in both California and Israel, not in Libya where the real story takes place.
Bat*21 Was Much More Dramatic Than Real Life
Bat*21 was originally a book by William C. Anderson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. In it, pilots went on a rescue mission to retrieve an air navigator who was shot down behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War. The 1988 movie dramatized these events and was not entirely accurate.
In short, the film Bat*21 made the operation appear a lot more simple than it was. The real rescue mission occurred over 11 days, and many lives were lost on both sides. That said, the aircraft in the movie were real, supplied by the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
Although Con Air Isn’t Real, It Has Real Action Scenes
In 1997, the action movie Con Air was released. This prison-based aviation film was entirely fictional, and it was heavily dramatized. However, the aircraft and action scenes were real. For instance, the Las Vegas hotel that the characters destroyed during the film’s climax was real. It was the Sands Hotel that was scheduled to be demolished.
If you want to see real aircraft in action, feel free to watch Con Air. The movie shows Bell 206B JetRanger III, Bell AH-1F Cobra, and Bell UH-1D Huey helicopters. A Fairchild C-123K Provider was used for flying sequences and the Las Vegas crash.
Behind Enemy Lines Got In Legal Trouble For Its Inaccuracies
In 2001, the film Behind Enemy Lines was John Moore’s directing debut. It tells the story of Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an American naval officer who got shot down in Bosnia and uncovered the Bosnian genocide. The movie was so inaccurate that was got sued by the person it was based on.
The real person was not named Chris Burnett; he was U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady. He sued the movie for defamation of character and false representation. In real life, he never entered populated areas or engaged in combat, as the film portrayed.
Twelve O’Clock High Was Culturally And Historically Significant
One of the most successful aviation movies in history was the 1949 Twelve O’Clock High. This war film depicted the United States Army’s Eighth Air Force, who combated Nazi Germany during World War II. It was inspired by the real Eighth Air Force and accurately depicted their missions.
Although the movie’s characters had fictional names, they were inspired by real naval officers during the Second World War. Twelve O’Clock High is famous for portrayed the gritty realities of war. In an early scene, for instance, a stuntman crashed a real B-17 bomber.
Although Fictional, Hell’s Angels Had Impressive Aerial Effects
The 1930 movie Hell’s Angels was not about the bicycle group; it depicted two brothers who enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. The movie was not based on any specific incident. Instead, it used real WWI planes and pilots to portray a fictional tale.
Hell’s Angels is one of the most famous aviation movies in history, mainly because of its impressive effects. Seventy pilots worked on the film, and the director, Howard Hughes, flew a plane himself (and crashed one). Sixty-five mechanics were needed for the aviation scenes, which cost a whopping $1,200,000.
Empire Of The Sun Got Some Things Right, Other Things Wrong
In 1987, Steven Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun became a box office success. The movie was based on the semi-biographical novel by J. G. Ballard, which portrays a child growing up in World War II alone. Spielberg went to great lengths for historical accuracy, like getting real P-51D Mustangs.
Some aspects of Empire of the Sun were accurate, such as that Japan invaded China before the war began. But the depiction of internment camps was not as accurate. Even some planes were wrong; four Harvard SNJs were modified to resemble Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft.
History Fans Will Love Amelia
As the name suggests, Amelia is based on the life of Amelia Earhart. This 2009 film received negative reviews, but history fans revived it as a cult classic. The movie is deeply rooted in history, portraying everything up to Earhart’s mysterious disappearance.
Amelia’s flying sequences were a combination of real flights and CGI. The filmmakers tried to get as many period-appropriate vehicles as possible, such as a Lockheed Vega and Fokker F.VIIb/3m Tri-motor. But other aircraft were imitated and had some historical inaccuracies that critics frequently pointed out.
The Hindenburg Was Too Speculative
The Hindenburg was a 1975 movie based on the Hindenburg disaster. In 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg got destroyed while trying to dock at a Naval Air station. The film theorized that Nazi forces sabotaged the airship.
Although this was a popular theory at the time, there is no evidence that anyone sabotaged the Hindenburg. However, the film also includes real footage from the incident. Director Robert Wise also studied the Hindenburg for over a year with footage and documents from the British National Archives, the American National Air and Space Museum Library and Archives, and Germany.
United 93 Got Some Things Wrong
United 93 is described as a “docudrama thriller,” which is certainly accurate. The movie depicts the events of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. When the film released in 2006, it had little success but great critical reviews.
United 93 had some issues with historical accuracy. Namely, the cockpit voice recording was not released until after the movie, so the script had to improvise some of the dialogue. Critics did not like the portray of German passenger Christian Adams; he was depicted as asking for appeasement, although he never did so.
Alive Had A Few Mistakes
The 1993 movie Alive is less about aviation and more about the result of a crash. It is based on the 1974 book that detailed the crash-landing of a Uruguayan rugby team aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The team had to survive in the Andes until they were rescued.
The film is fairly accurate; one survivor, Nando Parrado, was the technical advisor. But some things were inaccurate. Alive says that eight people died in an avalanche, while only six did in real life. Instead of being filmed in South America, it was shot in Canada.
Strategic Air Command Shows Some Unique Air Force Craft
In 1955, Strategic Air Command became the first American aviation film to portray the role of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. The lead actor, James Stewart, was a B-17 instructor pilot and squadron commander during World War II.
Strategic Air Command is famous for its beautiful and accurate portrayals of aircraft during the Cold War. It is the only movie to highlight the Convair B-36, the most mass-produced piston-powered aircraft ever. The U.S. Air Force aided Strategic Air Command, and the movie shows several real Air Force bases.
The Dam Busters Used Bombers For Filming
Similar to 633 Squadron, The Dam Busters depicts the real story of Operation Chastise. In 1943, the British Royal Air Force attacked the Möhne, Sorpe, and Eder dams of Nazi Germany. Twelve years later, the movie released based on a book with the same name.
The Dam Busters is historically accurate, although small changes were made for dramatic license. The RAF supplied real Avro Lancaster bombers for filming. One of the filming locations was the Upper Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, where the real raid tests happened.
You’ll See Some Vintage Korean Fighters In The Bridges at Toko-Ri
The Bridges at Toko-Ri, based on a novel with the same name, is about the Korean War. It chronicles U.S. Navy pilots who were assigned to bomb heavily defended bridges in North Korea. After the film debuted in 1954, it received many awards and honors.
The original author, James Michener, based his story on real missions against the railroad bridges at Majon-ni and Samdong-ni. The Bridges at Toko-Ri used a Grumman F9F-2 Panther for filming, although pilots flew McDonnell F2H Banshees in the novel. Japanese-American naval bases were the primary filming locations.
To See Cool Aviation Tests, Watch The Right Stuff
If you are a fan of aviation tests, you might want to check out The Right Stuff. This 1983 film follows Navy, Marine, and Air Force test pilots who partook in aeronautical research in California. The film even dips into astronaut training for Project Mercury.
Although The Right Stuff was a box office bomb, it got eight Oscar nominations and numerous awards. The film was praised for its historical accuracy, although many liberties were taken. For filming, the crew gathered “prop” WWII planes, such as the Douglas A-26 Invader, North American P-51 Mustang, and Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
Dark Blue World Shows A Different Side Of The RAF
If you want a unique World War II film, consider watching Dark Blue World. This 2011 Czech film chronicles Czech pilots who worked for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Despite having mixed reviews, Dark Blue World became known for its brilliant aerial battle scenes.
Part of the film focuses on the Battle of Britain, with dogfight footage from the 1969 film seamlessly ingrained within the scenes. Some scenes from the 1990 Memphis Belle were also incorporated. Since aerial scenes cost $10,000 per hour, Dark Blue World is one of the most expensive Czech films ever made.