Take Flight With These 30 Aviation Movies, From Thrillers to Rom-Coms
Hollywood has done a stellar job proving that planes make a great setting for a thriller — but, aviation movies don't get enough credit for all the other genres they explore. Sure, planes make the perfect stage for a situation gone wrong (usually involving a hijacking), but if you broaden your perspective, you'll see that movies about planes offer a way for people to learn about aviation heroes and real-life events in a more tangible and entertaining way.
Take "Flight 93" and "United 93." Both plots revolve around United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11, which often gets overlooked in 9/11 films. "Sully" is a biographical drama about pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who pulled off one of the most heroic emergency landings in aviation history.
Of course, planes naturally find themselves in suspense and thriller films, such as "Red Eye," "Executive Decision," "7500," and "Snakes on a Plane." All of these movies really hone in on the idea that planes, and air travel in general, truly make the best setting for a high-stakes crisis. After all, what's scarier than being stuck on an aircraft with a jungle of deadly venomous snakes?
But believe it or not, not all plane movies are about hijacks, murder, and crash landings. Rom-com storylines do exist, though they are an anomaly, so when you do come across one (I've hunted down two!), you better bookmark it for later.
If you're looking to do a bit of thrill-seeking or brush up on your aviation history, then you've come to the right place. This list of plane movies has all of that and more — from supernatural horrors to biographical period dramas to laugh-out-loud comedies to thrillers guaranteed to make your palms sweat. If you're browsing for in-flight entertainment, I recommend watching the trailer before boarding, as several of these may not be the best to binge while on a plane, especially if you're a nervous flyer. Without further ado, fasten your seat belt — here are the top 30 movies about planes.
From a murder mystery to a high-stakes crisis 36,000 feet in the sky, "Non-Stop" has all the makings of an airplane-thriller classic. Air Marshall Bill Marks, an alcoholic, is fed up with his airline job, which he considers to be a boring desk assignment. While on a transatlantic flight to London, he begins receiving a chain of cryptic text messages from an unknown number ordering that he command the airline to wire $150 million into an offshore account. If he's unable to complete the task, someone will die every 20 minutes until the wheels touch down.
As suspenseful as aviation movies can be, they can also be highly informative, like "Sully." This biographical drama film directed by Clint Eastwood is the historic retelling of when US Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of geese resulting in an emergency safety landing in New York's Hudson River. Thanks to heroic pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, all 155 people aboard survived. This resulted in one of most famous photos in aviation history. The investigation that transpired led Sully's career, reputation, and sanity into a downward spiral.
Based on true events, "United 93" is one of several 9/11 aviation-themed films to be produced following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On that horrifying day, two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and an additional one hit the Pentagon. However, this film centers around the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, PA, and the heroic passengers and crew members who fought back. Of the four hijacked planes, United 93 was the only plane not to hit its intended target, which was presumed to be the Capitol building in Washington DC.
Featuring acclaimed actor Denzel Washington, "Flight" follows commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker after his aircraft suffers a mechanical malfunction at 30,000 feet, sending him and everyone aboard his plane toward a track of homes. Somehow, he pulls off a miraculous crash-landing. He's praised and immediately dubbed an aviation hero, but all that quickly begins to fade when a lawyer for the airline shows up and reveals that Whip's blood sample from the hospital — where he was being treated the night of the crash — shows that he had alcohol in his system. A crash investigation unfolds, and Whip's drug and alcohol addictions and more come to light.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the title of this airplane thriller basically gives its plot away. The number is the emergency code pilots use to signal a hijacking to ground control, which is the exact position Gordon-Levitt's timid character, Tobias, finds himself in while flying a hijacked Airbus A319 flight from Berlin to Paris. Not long after takeoff, a group of terrorists manage to barge their way past the crew and into the cockpit with makeshift knives. Despite Tobias and others getting injured, the flight attendants are able to take control of the situation long enough for Tobias to lock and bolt the cockpit and issue a 7500 to ground control. He begins an emergency landing while simultaneously pleading for his passengers' safety.
"Up in the Air"
Anna Kendrick stars opposite of George Clooney in this dramedy about a corporate downsizer named Ryan (Clooney) who spent 322 out the last 365 days on a plane — not as a pilot or crew member, but as a someone who's flown in by companies to lay off employees. He's essentially the middle man who delivers the bad news, and Natalie (Kendrick), a new hire, has a plan that could ultimately be the death of Ryan's career. Determined to save his job, Ryan brings her along so she can physically see the gravity of face-to-face meetings. In the middle of all this, Ryan's also trying to juggle his casual relationship with a fellow frequent flier. Unlike most films on this list, this one you can actually enjoy stress-free in the sky.
If you couldn't tell already, airplane thrillers pretty much all follow a similar format, usually involving a hijacking of some kind, but "Flightplan" is the only plane film to take place on an Elgin E-474, a novelty double-decker — though nothing is novelty about the experience these passengers are in for. Making the long flight from Germany to New York to bury her husband is airplane engineer Kyle Pratt, along with her young daughter. Upon waking from a peaceful nap, Kyle realizes the seat next to her, her daughter's seat, is empty. In a panic, she begins searching the double-decker plane, though the captain and the air marshal say Kyle's daughter never boarded the plan.
"Blood Red Sky"
In this British-German action horror, Nadja, a single mother with an unknown illness that's been kept hidden thanks to a vial containing a heavy mix of concentrated pharmaceuticals, must protect her 10-year-old son after their overnight transatlantic flight to New York is hijacked by a mob of terrorists. With Germany thousands of feet below them, their eight-hour journey has only just begun. Nadja will have to make the hardest decision of her life: does she skip her next dose of medicine and release the demon inside of her that she's worked so hard to keep trapped for the sake of her and her son's lives?
Meeting your soulmate on a plane has to be one of the most cliché yet adorable meet-cutes in the history of meet-cutes, which is exactly what hotel manager Lisa Reisert thinks is happening to her when the handsome lad from check-in ends up being her seat buddy on her flight back home. Unfortunately, it couldn't be further from the truth. Jackson Rippner has big, big plans that involve murdering the head of Homeland Security. In order to make that happen, he instructs Lisa to give the official a specific room number at her hotel. If she doesn't do as he says, she can say goodbye to her father, whom Jackson has already kidnapped.
Transatlantic flights and supernatural forces make for an eerie-as-hell combination, so consider this your official warning not to watch this flick while airborne. Set on a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, "Flight 7500" begins with flight attendants Laura Baxter and Suzy Lee greeting their passengers as they take their seats and get situated for takeoff. However, once up in the air and suspended over the Pacific Ocean, things start to get a bit paranormal when a supernatural force wreaks havoc over the cabin and begins taking the lives of random passengers.
What happens when you're aboard a single-engine plane on your way to your best friend's island wedding with your ex and your pilot has a fatal heart attack mid-takeoff? Oh, and there's no copilot. That's for exes Sara and Jackson to figure out. Between the two of them, they have zero grid- or map-reading skills or flying experiencing, and to make matters worse they're completely surrounded by ocean for as far as the eye can see. Not to mention, there's a dark storm heading directly toward them. They'll have to put their differences aside and their brains together if they want to make it out alive.
Two-time Academy award-winning actress Hilary Swank portrays the real-life Amelia Earhart in this compelling biopic about the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Packed with nuggets of information about Amelia's life and aviation career, including the many speed and altitude records she set, the film heavily focuses on her biggest, most dangerous mission, which eventually led to her death: to become the first woman pilot to fly around the world by airplane.
No list of aviation-themed movies would be complete without "Top Gun," featuring a young Tom Cruise. The action-packed cinematic masterpiece follows daredevil pilot Maverick and the fighter pilots of the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School as they work to sharpen their aviation skills under the command of their extremely smart and attractive flight instructor Charlotte Blackwood. Maverick has plans to dominate the cockpit, but his overly confident attitude and wise-guy persona keep getting in the way. He'll have to make some changes if he wants to be at the top of his class and get the girl.
A delightful departure from the heavier films on this list is Disney's animated feature "Planes." A movie about facing your fears head on, "Planes" tells the story of Dusty, a crop-dusting plane who wants nothing more than to fly around the world and compete in the legendary Wings Across the Globe race. The only issue is he's terribly scared of heights. Listen closely to spot the voices of some of your favorite Hollywood celebrities, including Stacy Keach, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, Cedric the Entertainer, and Teri Hatcher.
If you've ever had to spend a night in an airport terminal, then you definitely need to add this Tom Hanks-led comedy to your must-watch list. Upon landing at JFK Airport in New York, Viktor Navorski learns that a war has broken out in his home country. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security won't allow him to enter or leave the United Sates due international politics. Viktor has no choice but to take up a temporary residence inside the terminal — eating all his meals at the food court, taking up friendships with kiosk workers, and even falling for a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Will Viktor ever make it out of the terminal?
Directed by Andrew Lau, this Chinese movie is based on the true story of a Sichuan Airlines flight that weathered a shattered windshield in the cockpit at 30,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau, which resulted in the copilot being nearly sucked out his seat and several passengers in the cabin losing consciousness due to a lack of pressurized oxygen. In this thrilling retelling, the pilot and his crew immediately go into fight-or-flight mode and draw up a plan for an emergency landing while also trying to monitor the health and safety of the plane's passengers.
Neerja is an Indian biopic thriller about the heroic efforts of 22-year-old air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who sacrificed her life while protecting the lives of her 359 passengers and fellow crew members on Pan Am Flight 73 after a terrorist organization hijacked the plane during a layover in Pakistan in 1986. The plane had deported Bombay and was scheduled to arrive in New York with a stop at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan. Then the unthinkable happened. At just 22 years old (she died days before her 23rd birthday), Neerja was working diligently to reinvent her life and had a promising career as one of the airline's top pursers, or chief flight attendants.
Halle Berry stars opposite of Kurt Russell in this fast-paced action thriller about a hijacked plane traveling from the Greek islands to Washington DC. When tragedy strikes mid-flight, US Army specialist David Grant and Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis team up to devise an emergency safety plan. All that goes out the window though when they learn there's a bomb full of nerve gas wedged in the aircraft's cargo. It's then revealed that the hijackers are members of the terrorist organization whose leader was just put under US military siege. Consequently, they sieged an US-bound flight and are demanding for their leader's release.
"Snakes on a Plane"
Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sean Jones was just going for a joy ride on his dirt bike when he accidentally witnessed mobster Eddie Kim take the life of a prosecutor who was on the cusp of putting him behind bars, which Eddie solved with a deadly blow. Now Sean has unintentionally found himself playing the role of primary witness in Eddie's trial. Before he knows it, he's being escorted by FBI agent Neville Flynn on a red-eye flight to Los Angeles. At the push of a button, things take a turbulent turn when Eddie's hitman aboard the aircraft releases a time-operated crate of deadly venomous snakes.
"Air Force One"
On his way home from delivering a powerful speech in Moscow regarding the US's new zero-tolerance terrorism policy, President James Marshall's official government plane, Air Force One, is hijacked by a group of communist radicals. Also on board are his wife and young daughter, both of whom are taken hostage as insurance. A former Medal of Honor recipient, the president is able to fight off the terrorists long enough to contact Vice President Kathryn Bennett, who is now closely monitoring and negotiating with the terrorists from Washington DC. For every half-hour that passes and their demands aren't met, someone will die.
"Die Hard 2"
Bruce Willis is back in the second installment of the "Die Hard" franchise, which sees Willis's character, valiant LA cop John McClane, caught in yet another terrorist ambush. Set at Washington Dulles International Airport, McClane is anxiously twiddling his thumbs waiting for his wife's flight to land when he spots South American politico and drug lord Ramon Esperanza arrive and then escape from US custody. It's quickly made clear that the airport is being held hostage by Ramon's terrorist organization, which has taken control of all electrical equipment, meaning no runway lights, no ground control, and several planes hovering over the airport low on fuel. It's up to McClane to save the day once again.
Guess what, plane movie fans: another biopic! This one covers almost two decades of legendary businessman Howard Hughes's career. A billionaire and movie director known for being romantically linked to Katharine Hepburn, Hughes played an innovative, promotive, and financial role in designing experimental aircrafts from the late '20s to the '40s. One of his biggest successes was acquiring and expanding Trans World Airlines (TWA). No dream was too big and no dare was too dangerous for him. Leonardo DiCaprio won the 2005 Golden Globe for best actor in a drama film for his portrayal of Hughes.
"View From the Top"
Ready for a big change in her life, an ambitious young woman named Donna sets her eyes on becoming a first-class international flight stewardess — but first, she'll have to wow her instructor and pass the rigorous training course. With the love and support of her two best friends and her dreamy new man, Donna makes it her goal to see the view from the top. This early-aughts rom-com is stacked with A-list talent, including appearances from Christina Applegate, Mark Ruffalo, Candice Bergen, Kelly Preston, Rob Lowe, Mike Myers, and more.
Ted Striker is a former Air Force fighter pilot with a severe of fear of flying who is still hung up on his old war crush, flight attendant Elaine Dickinson. If he could conquer one of these two things, he'd consider his life a success, so he books a seat on Elaine's flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. He's got almost four hours to win her back, but instead he finds himself back in the cockpit after the pilot comes down with a threatening food-borne illness. Ted is now in a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone scenario.
Former Secret Service agent John Cutter has a lot to look forward to. He's moving to Los Angeles, having been hired to head up the antiterrorism unit of a major airline. Suffice to say, he's a pretty big deal. But before he gets there, his security and combat skills are put to the ultimate test. On John's flight, an arrested terrorist breaks free when accomplices kill his FBI escorts. With no other security personnel on board, it's up to John to protect the cockpit, keep the passengers safe, and reapprehend the terrorist.
In this late-'90s airplane action-thriller featuring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and John Malkovich, former US Ranger Cameron is eagerly headed home to see his wife after being paroled. However, his means of transportation is a prison transport plane, comedically nicknamed "Jailbird," which is also responsible (as you might have guessed from the name) for shuffling around some of the most dangerous and powerful criminals in the world. All hell breaks loose when serial killer Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (Malkovich) attempts to escape from captivity during the flight.
"Catch Me If You Can"
Inspired by a true story, Frank Abagnale Jr. is a professional fake pilot and forger, and one of the most successful con artists in US history. Here's the kicker: he's a teenager. He knows the FBI is after him, but that doesn't stop him from flying planes around the world with a string of smitten stewardess under each arm. When he finds out the FBI has put their lead agent, Carl Hanratty, on his case, he'll have to make sure every move he makes is bulletproof.
"Flight 93"came out the same year as "United 93," just five years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 1, 2001. This docudrama depicts the terrifying events that transpired that fateful day on United Airlines Flight 93, including voice calls to loved ones back home and the brave passengers who banded together in an attempt take down the terrorists and seize back control of the aircraft. However, that did not happen and it was the fourth plane to crash. Unlike the others, this plane did not harm any civilians on the ground, nor did it reach its hijack target destination.
Who wouldn't say yes to an all-expenses-paid trip to New York? Not contest winners Jo, Max, Gwen, and Dave. The trip is turning out to be even more glamorous than they expected thanks to a cozy, Champagne-stocked private jet that will be ushering them to and from the Big Apple. This is all part of the rewards package they individually earned for winning the social network All2gether.com's contest. And since the flight is sponsored by the social network, all passengers are asked to forfeit their cell phones and participate in a brand-new in-flight gaming experience. Little do they know, the game will task them to save the lives of their loved ones while suspended miles above ground.
Alex Browning and his high school classmates are about to embark on a trip of a lifetime to Paris. As passengers make sure their seat backs and tray tables are placed in their upright and locked positions and that their seat belts are securely fastened, Alex has a vision of their plane exploding mid-takeoff. He begins warning nearby passengers and directing them to get off the plane. This doesn't bode well with the crew, and they escort him off the aircraft along with seven other people who decide to follow. Back in the terminal, the eight of them watch as their plane does indeed explode like a big firework in the sky. That's not where this story ends. Alex and the others aren't safe, because in their wild escape, they awoke a grim reaper.