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"Top Gun"

  • "Aces High"
  • "Air America"
  • "Air Force"
  • "Amelia"
  • "American Made"
  • "Angels One Five"
  • "The Aviator"
  • "Bat 21"
  • "Battle Of Britain"
  • "Behind Enemy Lines"
  • "Black Hawk Down"
  • "The Blue Max"
  • "The Bombardment"
  • "The Bridges At Toko-Ri"
  • "The Dam Busters"
  • "Dark Blue World"
  • "The Dawn Patrol" (1930)
  • "The Dawn Patrol" (1938)
  • "Dr Strangelove"
  • "Dunkirk"
  • "Fighter Squadron"
  • "First Man"
  • "The First Of The Few"
  • "Flight"
  • "Flight Of The Intruder"
  • "Flying Leathernecks"
  • "Flying Tigers"
  • "The Great Waldo Pepper"
  • "Hell's Angels"
  • "The Hunters"
  • "Hurricane"
  • "Iron Eagle"
  • "Jet Pilot"
  • "The Lost Squadron"
  • "The Malta Story"
  • "The McConnell Story"
  • "Memphis Belle"
  • "Men Of The Fighting Lady"
  • "Men With Wings"
  • "Midway"
  • "Mosquito Squadron"
  • "One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing"
  • "Only Angels Have Wings"
  • "Pearl Harbor"
  • "Pushing Tin"
  • "Reach For The Sky"
  • "The Red Baron"
  • "Red Tails"
  • "The Right Stuff"
  • "633 Squadron"
  • "The Sound Barrier"
  • "The Spirit Of St Louis"
  • "Strategic Air Command"
  • "Sully: Miracle On The Hudson"
  • "Tactical Assault"
  • "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"
  • "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines"
  • "The Thousand Plane Raid"
  • "Top Gun"
  • "Top Gun: Maverick"
  • "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
  • "The Tuskegee Airmen"
  • "Twelve O'Clock High"
  • "United 93"
  • "Victory Through Air Power"
  • "The War Lover"
  • "The Way To The Stars"
  • "We Were Soldiers"
  • "Wings"
  • "A Yank In The RAF"

  • "Aces High" (1976)

    This is a remake of the 1930 First World War film "Journey's End" with the action transposed to the air. Directed by Jack Gold, it has an impressive British cast including Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Simon Ward, Peter Firth, John Gielgud and Trevor Howard. The aerial sequences are excellent.

    "Air America" (1990)

    This is an attempt - which fails - to cover a serious subject in a humorous manner: the CIA's secret war, largely operated through fake airlines, in Laos during the ill-fated Vietnam War (in fact, it was filmed in Thailand). Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jnr play pilots in this covert operation and there is some good flying, but the political message is weakened by the buddy approach to war.

    "Air Force" (1943)

    Any film directed by the great Howard Hawks is worth seeing but this is definitely a movie of its time so it is really a work of propaganda. It starts on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and tells the story of one particular bomber crew in a 'gung ho' style in which everyone speaks very fast and shows considerable enthusiasm and courage.

    The aircraft in question is 'Mary Ann', a B-17 Flying Fortress, which takes off from California for Hawaii only for the crew to learn of the Japanese assault as they are about to land. Subsequently they see action at Wake Island, the Philippines, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. Actual newsreel footage was expertly inserted into the film, including scenes from the Battle of the Coral Sea.

    The aircraft used to play 'Mary Ann' was a converted B-17B, one of 19 that had the gunners' bubbles replaced by the flush gun positions of the B-17C and B-17D. The U.S. Army Air Force aircraft that appeared in the film were 10 Boeing B-17C/D Flying Fortresses from Hendrick Field, Sebring, Florida, North American AT-6 Texans (as Japanese fighters) and Bell P-39 Airacobras, Curtiss P-40Cs and Republic P-43A Lancers from Drew Field, Tampa, Florida ,and six Martin B-26C Marauders from McDill Field, Tampa, Florida as the Japanese bombers.

    The real 'Mary Ann' was used on a tour to promote the film and then assigned to Hobbs Army Air Field in New Mexico. Later, when it returned to combat duty, it was lost in the Pacific.

    "Amelia" (2009)

    Hilary Swank is a fine actress who has done good work since I first saw her a decade ago in "Boys Don't Cry", for which she received a well-deserved Academy Award, and she is rarely off the screen as the eponymous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart in this bio-pic for which she was also an executive producer. She really looks and sounds like her subject and the evocation of the period (late 1920s and early 1930s) is well-done, while the cinematography - the movie was shot mainly in Canada with some scenes in South Africa - is superb.

    All the support roles are male: Richard Gere as Earheart's publicist and husband, Ewan McGregor as her colleague and lover, and Christopher Eccleston as her navigator on the ill-fated round-the-world effort in 1937. Surprisingly though the director is an Indian woman: Mira Nair who gave us the wonderful "Monsoon Wedding". Sadly the film has an undistinguished script and a fragmented structure, giving the whole thing a rather pedestrian feel, but at least there is plenty of flying and beautiful-looking aircraft, notably the Lockheed Electra of the final flight.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Amelia Earheart click here

    "American Made" (2017)

    This film reminds me of "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007) and especially "Air America" (1990) since all three deal with true-life covert American involvement in foreign wars which were so bizarre that the movies in question are a mixture of drama and comedy and, in the cases of both "American Made" and "Air America", daredevil pilots are at the heart of the action. This time the central character is Barry Seal, played by Tom Cruise, a former airline pilot who switches to smaller craft to smuggle drugs and guns into various Central American war zones on behalf of agencies representing Uncle Sam.

    Cruise performed the flying scenes in a six-seat Piper Aerostar 600 and a Cessna 414 himself. Cruise, who is well-known for carrying out outlandish stunts in his films, is listed deep in the credits as the 'Aerostar and Cessna Stunt Pilot' followed by stunt pilots Jimmy Garland and Alan Purwin. Those two figured in a tragedy while the film was in production. Purwin was killed and Garland severely injured when the Aerostar in which they were flying crashed during a flight from Santa Fe de Antioquia to Medellín.

    "Angels One Five" (1952)

    The word "angels" in the title was Second World War Royal Air Force slang for altitude in thousand of feet and so "angels one five" refers to an height of 15,000 feet. This film about the Battle of Britain in 1940 was released only 12 years after the event, but the Hurricanes doing the take-offs and landings had to be borrowed from the Portuguese and sadly the dog fights use models. It is a stiff, upper lip account of life on an RAF station during that fateful summer.

    The stars are John Gregson and Jack Hawkins. Ronald Adam plays the part of a Group Controller and, during the actual Battle, he was Squadron Leader Ronald Adam, the Group Controller at Hornchurch. Both screenwriter Derek Twist and and cinematographer Christopher Challis spent the war with the RAF Film Unit.

    "The Aviator" (2004)

    Any movie directed by Martin Scorsese has to be worth watching and this ambitious, if flawed, biopic of Howard Hughes is certainly well worth the price of a cinema ticket. As he did in "Gangs Of New York", Scorsese works with Leonard DiCaprio who here has the most challenging role of his career so far as the eponymous businessman, womaniser, flyboy, movie mogul, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-sufferer. Thirty-year old DiCaprio works hard at the role and captures the manic energy, tortured expression and obsessive mannerisms of Hughes, but ultimately his boyish looks make this less than ideal casting. Except for a brief and unsatisfactory childhood scene, the film covers only the twenty years 1927-1947 of Hughes' 70 years, a period which enables Scorsese to present a remarkably sympathetic portrait of this complex character which underlines his great vision and commitment to competition - twin virtues of modern-day capitalism.

    Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium and this movie is wonderful to look at. The grand sets and contemporary clothing - enhanced by music of the period - provide a rich evocation of the era, while the appearance in the narrative of so many movie stars of the time enhances the feeling that we have stepped back to a time when Americans were assuming leadership of the world. The realisations of these famous personages is uneven: while Cate Blanchett is brilliant as Katherine Hepburn and a paunchy Alec Baldwin convincing as Juan Trip, Kate Beckinsale is weak as Ava Gardner and Jude Law is disappointing as Errol Flynn.

    The real stars of the movie, in many ways, are the aircraft, most of which are necessarily CGI creations. We feel with Hughes as he films from the sky swirling dog fights for his film "Hell's Angels", takes Hepburn night flying over Los Angeles, sets a new speed record in the H-1, crashes in the experimental reconnaisance XF-11, enthuses over the purchase of the Lockheed Constellation, and finally lifts the mammoth 'Spruce Goose' (properly called the H-4 Hercules) a few feet off the water (the aircraft used to be on public display in Long Beach, California and is now to be found in an air museum in McMinnville, Oregon). This film of almost three hours is longer than it should have been, but it is at its most entertaining and exhilerating when it conveys the adrenalin excitement and social transformation of modern aviation.

    Link: official web site click here

    "Bat 21" (1988)

    This is an unusal subject for an aviation film because it concerns the story - based on a true incident - of a rescue mission in Vietnam of an American intelligence officer played by Gene Hackman, as the result of the persistence and bravery of a Forward Aircraft Controller portrayed by Danny Glover. It is well-done with a fair number of flying sequences.

    "Battle Of Britain" (1969)

    Almost 30 years after the most decisive air battle in history, producer Harry Saltzman and director Guy Hamilton made this commemorative film that collected together the greatest collection of Second World War aircraft ever marshalled for a movie. Although the cast list boasted many well-known actors of the day - led by Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding - much of the acting is wooden and the script is weak, but, not withstanding some obvious use of models and sets, it is the aircraft that make this film.

    Over a period of three years, the producers pulled together more than 100 1940-vintage aircraft. A total of 36 Spitfires were collected - one-third of them in flying condition, another third capable of taxiing, and the other third only useable as props on airfields - and three Hurricanes; a whole bunch of 28 Messerschmitt Me 109s was bought at auction; and 31 Heinkel He 111 bombers and a Junkers Ju 52 were borrowed from the Spanish Air Force. The aerial filming was done from a specially modified B25 Mitchell bomber and some 40 minutes of aerial combat appears on the screen in some terrific sequences.

    Great efforts were made to ensure that the film was authentic and the technical advisers included air aces Robert Stanford Tuck and Adolf Galland. The whole enterprise was the subject of a book by Leonard Mosley.

    "Behind Enemy Lines" (2001)

    Based very, very loosely on an incident in which an American was shot down and evaded capture in former Yugoslavia, "Behind Enemy Lines" delivers an adrenalin rush, but the style is too gung-ho for it to last long. The plot concerns the shooting down of an American jet which is 'off mission' over Serb-occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. The American military has co-operated fully with the hardware, so - in a return to "Top Gun" territory - there are terrificly atmospheric shots of the aircraft carrier that is the crew's base and some really exciting film of the F-18 Hornet that is their 'mount'. Slovakia stands in for Bosnia but fits the bill convincingly.

    It was a shrewd move not to cast a star in the lead role, but instead the newcomer, blond-haired, pinched-nosed Owen Wilson. In fact, the only really well-known actor in the movie is Gene Hackman, playing a characteristically gruff role as the admiral of the carrier, but he is sadly under-used, even when stupidly he is shown leading the helicopter rescue operation ("Let's go get our boy!").

    First time director John Moore deploys some flashy camera-work and provides plenty of pyrotechnics but, besides the fact that it has been done before (in the more intelligent "Bat 21"), the whole thing is just too formulaic and simplistic to make a lasting impression.

    "Black Hawk Down" (2001)

    Never have I seen a film which demonstrates so effectively the way combat troops and helicopters can be integrated as a fighting force. In this case, the choppers are the formidable UH-60 Black Hawk and the snub MH-6 Little Bird. The helicopter action is monitored by a Lockheed P-3 Orion spotter plane which relays pictures back to the Joint Operations Centre (JOC).

    The movie depicts in savagely graphic form the outcome of an October 1993 operation in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu when an attempt to detain henchmen of the local warlord gave rise to a 15-hour 'firefight' in which 18 American soldiers lost their lives and some 73 were injured, while something like five hundred Somalians - men, women ands children - were killed.

    Élite soldiers of the Rangers and Delta Force regiments go in, ferried by Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters but, from the start, it is a mess, as one soldier falls from a Black Hawk, resulting in it being downed by the local militia. This is war as we have never seen it before on the big screen: brutal and confused combat in city streets and houses where the enemy does not wear a uniform or fight by the rules and rescue is far from hand.

    This was always going to be a better work than the contemporary "Behind Enemy Lines" because it is helmed by one of the finest directors around and presents a very much less 'gung ho' depiction of war. Fresh from his success with the wonderful "Gladiator", British Ridley Scott - the son of a Royal Marine - has taken locations in Morocco and used magnificent camerawork to produce a stunning visual and visceral record based closely on the book by journalist Mark Bowden. Indeed such is the verisimilitude of Scott's action that one can't always hear what is said or understand what is happening.

    Like "Behind Enemy Lines", this is a movie rushed out in the aftermath of the World Trade Center horror, apparently on the assumption that it will make Americans feel better about themselves. It would seem that, in the US, there has been a 'Let's kick ass' response but, to this British viewer at least, such a reaction is hard to fathom. Certainly the film is a celebration of comradeship and heroism, but it reminds us of an appalling military misjudgement by the Americans and a lack of political will by the international community.

    "The Blue Max" (1966)

    The title of this film comes from the British nickname for the German medal awarded to First World War aces who scored a minimum of 20 'kills' and derives from the flying skills of the German pilot Max Immelmann. It is one of the better movies concerning this war's aviation exploits because the flying sequences are for real, even if the nine aircraft are replicas, and they are extended and superior. The aircraft in action are the British SE5A and RE8 and the German Pfalz DIIIA and Fokker Dr I and the star of the film, George Peppard (playing the German Bruno Stachel), took flying lessons so that he could actually pilot his plane for the filming in Ireland.

    "The Bombardment" (2021)

    Towards the end of the Second World War, Operation Carthage was a low-level, pinpoint bombing raid with an attacking force consisting of Royal Air Force De Havilland Mosquito F.B.VI fighter-bombers of No. 2 Group RAF from No. 140 Wing RAF, comprising No. 21 Squadron RAF, No. 464 Squadron RAAF, and No. 487 Squadron RNZAF. The target was Shellhuset, Gestapo's headquarters in central Copenhagen.

    The raid was initially successful, but one low flying aircraft from the first of three attack waves clipped a tall mast and crashed in nearby Frederiksberg next to a Catholic children's school. Aircraft from the second and third wave of bombers mistook the smoke from the Mosquito's wreck for the correct target and about a dozen planes dropped their explosive and incendiary bombs on the school full of children, teachers and nuns. Although all the aircraft scenes are CGI, this Danish film - shot in English - tells the moving story, largely through the eyes of children.

    "The Bridges At Toko-Ri" (1954)

    Few films have been made about the Korean war and, so far as I know, only two about the air war in Korea. In a sense, this is surprising - it was the last air war when there was close up and personal combat and United Nations pilots claimed sone 800 MiGs for the loss of only 58 Sabres. "Toko-Ri" was the first movie about the air war, followed four years later by "The Hunters". Based on a novel by James Mitchener, this focuses on the experience of a Navy bomber pilot, played by William Holden (Grace Kelly is his wife), flying the F9F Panther from a carrier. It is a more thoughtful and political film than most war movies.

    "The Dam Busters" (1954)

    On the night of 16/17 May 1943, a special unit of Lancaster bombers, 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, using a special type of bomb that could 'bounce' across water, made an audacious and successful attack on the Moehne and the Eder dams in Hitler's Germany. The legendary tale was published as a book by Paul Brickhill in 1951 and told in this film, directed by the then unknown Michael Anderson and written by distinguished author R C Sherriff, three years later. The movie celebrates the brilliance of the bomb's inventor, Barnes Wallis (played by Michael Redgrave), as much as the bravery of the crews who dropped it, led by Victoria Cross-winner Guy Gibson (Richard Todd). The whole thing was made in almost documentary style, enhanced by the use of monochrome instead of colour.

    At the time that the film was made, the Avro Lancaster was still in service with the RAF operating with Coastal Command but, for the movie, four were taken out of storage at Aston Down in Gloucestershire. All of these were built by Austin Motors in 1945 as Mark VIIs and were too late to see operational service. They were NX673, NX679, NX782 and RT686. A fifth Lancaster that took part was Boscombe Down's NX739. This was used as a back-up and for some aerial filming (most of the aerial shooting was done from a borrowed RAF Vickers Varsity). Only one aircraft - NX679 - was painted up as Gibson's 'AJ-G' with the correct serial number ED932 for a key scene. Several Avro Lincolns were used in long shots to pass off as Lancasters. Also a Vickers Wellington makes a brief appearance.

    The 'bouncing bomb' - actually a depth charge codenamed Upkeep - was still on the secret list in 1954, so the film's property department mocked up something that in fact looked more impressive than the real thing. Barnes Wallis co-operated fully with the making of the film and even loaned the makers equipment that he used and some personal possessions.

    Footnote: In 1969-1970, I was full-time President of the Students' Union at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and my office was in the Union building named after Barnes Wallis.

    "Dark Blue World" (2001)

    I was desperate to see this film because it concerns the wartime record of Czechoslovak pilots with the RAF and my wife's father was the top scorer of these brave men. However, I had to wait a full year after it came out in Prague before I could see it London and it played to tiny British audiences.

    The film - titled "Tmavomodrý svět" in Czech - focuses on two contrasting personalities: Spitfire pilots Franta Sláma (played by Ondřej Vetchý) and Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek). I'd like to think that the names of these two characters are allusions to Josef František, who shot down 17 fighters in the Battle of Britain, and Karel Kuttelwascher (my wife's father), who shot down 15 bombers on night intruder raids plus three fighters.

    The script is loosely based on books by two Czech veterans, František Fajtl and Antonín Liška, both of whom I have met. One of the technical advisers on the film was my good Czech friend Zdeněk Hurt and on the official Czech web site for the movie the Czech edition of my book "Night Hawk" is mentioned as source material. Most amazingly, pilot insignia ("wings") worn by the two main stars belonged to Karel Kuttelwascher and his friend Gustav Pristupa and the leather pilot cap and gloves worn by Vetchý the principal hero belonged to Kuttelwascher.

    On the aircraft front, viewers might be surprised to learn that there were only two flying Spitfires in the movie: Nigel Lamb flew Spitfire Mk Vb (BM597) from Duxford and Robs Lamplough flew Spitfire Mk.VIIIc (MV154) which he owns. All the other fighters were there due to the marvels of computer graphics and modelling plus some clever recycling of material from the 1969 film "The Battle Of Britain". However, in a short scene, there is a lovely flying shot of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. Meanwhile on the ground, in an erotic opening scene, we see a pre-war trainer.

    Official website in Czech: click here
    Czechoslovaks in the wartime RAF: click here
    Karel Kuttelwascher's record: click here

    "The Dawn Patrol" (1930)

    This was the first version of a tale of First World War flying officers facing death on the Western Front and it starred Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. It was the first use of the Pfalz D. XII which is now to be found in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington.

    "The Dawn Patrol" (1938)

    This is virtually a scene by scene remake of the 1930 film using much of the same aerial footage, but it is a more watcheable version. This time the stars are Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven.

    "Dr Strangelove" (1964)

    "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" - to use its full title - was directed. co-produced and co-written by Stanely Kubrick with the other writing credits going to the author of the book on which it was based ("Red Alert" by Peter George) and noted satirist Terry Southern. Coming so soon after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, this black and white film was a brave piece of dark comedy that was commercially very successful in spite of military and right-wing critics. It is quite a wordy work but there are some wonderful lines including the injunction: "Gentlemen, you can't fight here. This is the war Room".

    It posits a scenario in which all-out nuclear war is unleashed by some crazy individuals, sophisticated technology, and unfortunate occurrences. Following the success of "Lolita" in which Peter Sellers' character assumes several identities, Colombia Pictures agreed to finance "Dr. Strangelove on the condition that this formula was repeated, so here the brilliant Sellers plays the British RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the bland American President Merkin Muffley, and the mad German scientist Dr. Strangelove. Other stand-out performances come from ex-communist Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper, George C. Scott as General 'Buck' Turgidson, and Slim Pickens as bomber pilot Major 'King' Kong, each of whom wishes to eliminate the Soviets.

    Another strength of the movie is the set of the War Room, a huge artifice designed by Ken Adam, fresh from his work of "Dr, No". An inevitable weakness of the film is representations of the B-52 bomber since the U.S. military was clearly not going to provide the sort of access and cooperation that it did for the 1955 work "Strategic Air Command", so - except for some opening film of a refuelling operation - Kubrick was reduced to very obvious use of models although the cockpit scenes and crew procedures look and sound very convincing.

    "Dunkirk" (2017)

    The last time we saw Dunkirk in a film was in Joe Wright's "Atonement" which featured a staggering five and a half minute Steadicam shot of a hell on earth beach scene. Now, thanks to the supreme talents of British director Christopher Nolan, we have an entire film devoted to the miracle of May/June 1940 that enabled some 340,000 British and French soldiers to be rescued by the British Navy and a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 small boats.

    Nolan is what film studies call an auteur, someone who stamps an individual style on every work that he produces. In fact, Nolan is a most unusual auteur because his films are commercially successful (most notably his "Dark Knight" trilogy). But he often makes his viewers work hard because frequently he likes to use a non-linear narrative (most dramatically in "Memento", "Inception" and "Interstellar").

    In this sense, "Dunkirk" - which he wrote, produced and directed - is classic Nolan in that there are three storylines: one largely set on land and covering a week, another located mainly at sea and occupying one day, and the third taking place in the air and filling just one hour. The three narratives intersect and finally converge temporally at the end of the film. It is as well for the viewer to know this before seeing the work for the first time and it means that a complete understanding of the timelines probably requires more than one viewing.

    The aviation segment of the film concerns a flight of three Spitfires, the leading pilot played by Tom Hardy. The three veteran aircraft were in fact two Mark 1s and one Mark 5. A Yak-52, a two-seater Soviet aircraft, was judged to be similar enough to the Spitfire that it was used for close-up shots of actors supposedly in the British fighter. A Spanish HA-1112 Buchón doubled up as Messerschmitt Me-109 which was given a yellow nose - not used by the Luftwaffe at that point in the war - to allow the audience to distinguish more easily the enemy from the Spifires.

    "Fighter Squadron" (1948)

    The unit in question is part of the United States Army Air Force serving in Britain in 1943-44 when it is tasked to escort the B-17 bombers as they attack Germany. The storyline concerns an ace pilot, Major Ed Hardin (Edmond O'Brien), who regularly breaks the rules until he is promoted and finds that he has to enforce them. The dialogue is dire and the acting not much better (everyone shouts his lines), but there are lots of real aircraft and actual footage from air combat.

    The fighter squadron in the film was equipped with 16 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts culled from Air National Guard units from Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The aircraft depicting German fighters were North American P-51 Mustangs from the California Air National Guard and do not look a bit like Luftwaffe planes. Several of the incidents wwre based on actual wartime actions of the 4th and 56th Fighter Groups.

    "First Man"

    The 'Space Race' between the USA and the USSR took place in the 1960s when I was an impressionable teenager and I followed avidly every exciting development. NASA's Apollo 11 mission - the concluding segment of this movie - was in July 1969, so chronologically "First Man" comes between "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13" and it is a superb addition to the space canon of the cinema. But the film begins as an aviation movie.

    Director Damien Lazelle ("Whiplash") and writer Josh Singer ("Spotlight") have chosen to tell Neil Armstong's story from 1961-1969, so the movie starts with a breathtaking flight in a North American X-15 experimental aircraft in which the viewer seems to feel and hear everything that the struggling pilot experiences in a stunning open sequence.

    "The First Of The Few" (1942)

    "The Few" were, of course, the 3,000 RAF pilots - including my father-in-law - who in 1940 successfully defended the skies of Britain against the much-superior numbers of the German Luftwaffe. In cinematic terms, the first of these men was R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire although, in the Battle of Britain, the Hawker Hurricane - as flown by my relative - shot down twice as many enemy aircraft. It was the Spitfire, with its beautifully sleek design, that - then and now - captured the public's imagination and the story of its evolution from the Schneider Trophy-winning seaplanes made an effective propagandist film at a time when the war was beginning to turn in the Allies' favour. Leslie Howard produced and directed the work as well as taking the lead role.

    "Flight" (2012)

    In spite of the title, it would be a brave (or foolish) airline that screened this as an in-flight movie. It's not just the initial nudity, frequent strong language, regular snorting or injection of drugs, and repeated excess consumption of alcohol, it's that eponymous trip at altitude. A drunken lead pilot, a nervous co-pilot, a fierce storm and a suspected mechanical failure are not exactly reassuring motifs to flash in front of even hardened fliers.

    Clearly this is the most adult movie of the career of director Robert Zemeckis who started with the "Back To The Future" trilogy and latterly has worked on motion-capture films for children. Equally it marks a new point in the acting trajectory of Denzel Washington, here playing the inebriated and arrogant pilot 'Whip' Whitaker, who first came to prominence in the role of secular saint Steve Biko and has, in recent years, portrayed a succession of less attractive and more morally complex characters as in "Training Day" and "American Gangster". This is one of the finest performances of his illustrious career.

    The first half hour of the film is terrific and inevitably the remaining near two hours struggle to sustain the same grip and should perhaps have been a bit shorter, while the ending is possibly a little too moralistically neat, but this is a movie well-worth seeing - just not on your holiday flight.

    During the animation of the accident at the National Transportation Safety Board inquiry, the aircraft is identified as a JR-88 which is deliberatley a fictional plane but similar to a MD-88 (which was used for the flying and crash scenes). The story itself was inspired by a real-life disaster, the crash of Alaska Airlines 261. The plane suffered a catastrophic failure with its horizontal stabilizer eventually causing it to dive 'nose-down' at a rate exceeding 13,300 feet per minute. The pilots, as in the film, rolled the airplane to an inverted position to try and stabilize it. Unlike the movie, however, this unfortunately did not assist them in recovering the aircraft.

    "Flight Of The Intruder" (1991)

    This is a Vietnam movie based on a novel by Stephen Coonts and, in the hands of director John Milius (who gave us such sophisticated work as "Conan The Barbarian"), it is a real disappointment. The acting is poor - the stars include Danny Glover and Wllem Dafoe - and the models are all too obvious (the A6 bomber is the prime aircraft).

    "Flyboys" (2006)

    This is a worthy and entertaining enough film that tells a story little covered in the movie world: how American pilots made up a squadron La Lafayette Escadrille in the French Air Force during World War One before the USA eventually entered the war. It claims to be inspired by actual characters and, surprising as it may seem, there was - as the movie depicts - a black flier in the unit. Also some effort has been made to get the technical details right: the references to aircraft types (the squadron flew the Nieuport 17) are accurate and pilots did wear silk scarves so that they could look around the sky more easily.

    The success of the movie is the model work and the CGI. Most of the time, the aircraft do look authentic and the technical wizardry enables a closer up portrayal of the exciting action - and there is a lot of it - than could ever be possible with real aircraft. The problems are with stereotypical characters (lightweight actors led by James Franco) and predictable scenarios (the evil German ace is bound to meet his end).

    Link: info on La Lafayette Escadrille click here

    "Flying Leathernecks" (1951)

    Unit commander John Wayne (who never could act) and his second-in-command Robert Ryan battle each other as well as the Japs in this terribly old-fashioned and hackneyed account of American flyboys in the Pacific theatre of war. There is a good deal of actual war-time footage of Grumman Wildcats in action and depiction of a form of aerial combat rarely featured in the movies (close air suppport of marines), but the dialogue is quite dreadful and the characterisation utterly simplistic.

    "Flying Tigers" (1942)

    Before the United States belatedly entered the Second World War, American volunteers flew with the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese invaders and, once the USA was officially in the war, it was decided to make a morale-raising movie describing these earlier heroics. The Curtis P-40 Tomahawk and John Wayne star.

    "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975)

    Great title and great flying (by Tallmantz Aviation) in this tale of an American First World War pilot, played by the charismatic Robert Redford, who turns to stunt work in the 1920s. George Roy Hill was the director of this fun and excitement.

    "Hell's Angels" (1930)

    This is the work that almost bankrupted the young American entrepreneur Howard Hughes, since it took three years to make and cost $3.8 million (£ 1.7 million), making it the most expensive picture of its time. The use of vintage aircraft in films can be traced back to this movie when Hughes purchased a batch of World War One aircraft to use in the production of this particular film. Two Americans - played by Ben Lyon and James Hall - become pilots in the First World War in this film also starring a 19 year old Jean Harlow. Following its use earlier in the year in "The Dawn Patrol", this movie is the second appearance of the Pflaz D. XII now on show in America's National Air & Space Museum.

    "The Hunters" (1958)

    Following in the slipstream of "The Bridges Of Toko-Ri" released four years earlier, "The Hunters" is another movie about the air war in Korea. Whereas the former was about bombers, this film is about fighters. It is based on a well-written novel of the same title, authored by Korean flying veteran James Salter and published in 1956. I first saw the movie as a 14 year old kid in 1962 and loved the mix of kills and kisses in Korea. Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner star as American pilots and there are some good flying sequences of the F86 Sabre.

    "Hurricane" (1958)

    What "Dark Blue World" in 2001 did for Czechoslovaks in the wartime Royal Air Force, "Hurricane" - which had different titles in Poland and the USA - in 2018 did for Polish pilots in the RAF, namely paid tribute to brave men who left their Nazi-controlled nations to fight for liberty but were subsequently erased from history by the post-war communist regimes. This British/Polish production uses the vernacular of the characters: English, Polish, German and French.

    The events - which are largely true - focus on the role in the Battle of Britain of one particular Polish squadron (there were eventually 16 in the RAF): 303 or Kościuszko Squadron. Flying Hawker Hurricanes, the squadron claimed the largest number of aircraft shot down of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months after the Battle had begun.

    Two members of the squadron were among the highest-scoring aces of the Battle: the Czechoslovak Josef František with a score of 17 kills and the Polish Witold Urbanowicz with 16 kills to his credit. Both these pilots are represented in the film by actors of the appropriate nationality, but the lead role is assigned to another 303 pilot: the Polish/Swiss Jan Zumbach who surprisingly is played by Welsh actor Iwan Rheon. In this low budget film, the air battle sequences were shot using a combination of replica cockpits, a life-size replica Hurricane on a gimbal, a real Hurricane (one of only nine in the world) and visual effects.

    Link: Wikipedia page on 303 Squadron click here

    "Iron Eagle" (1986)

    This was directed and co-written by Sidney J Furie. It stars Louis Gossett Jnr, fresh from "An Officer And A Gentleman", and young unknown Jason Gedrick as pilots of the wonderful F-16 Fighting Falcon in a rescue mission like the one the Americans would have loved to have carried out to release their hostages in Iran. The plot is entirely fanciful, the dialogue is pure Reaganism, and the thumping soundtrack is incredibly loud, but the flying sequences are tremendous. It obviously suited the American mood because there were no less than three sequels.

    "Jet Pilot" (1957)

    As a film, this is pretty awful: a crude piece of American patriotism with a stereotypical view of the Soviet Union shown at the height of the Cold War. In fact, the work was produced by RKO in 1950 which was owned by Howard Hughes but, by the time it was released in 1957, Hughes had sold RKO and the film was released by Universal. It is presented as a kind of old-fashioned rom-com with John Wayne (a strong anti-communist) playing a United State Air Force colonel opposite Janet Leigh who is appallingly miscast as a Soviet defector (she makes no attempt at a Russian accent).

    For aviation buffs, however, the film has some interest. The USAF was very helpful and we see a great deal of the the North American F-86 Sabre in single, paired and formation manoeuvres. One sequence features a night interception of a Convair B-36 Peacemaker by a Lockheed F-94 Starfire. We even have the inclusion of the last two flights of the first Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis", launched from a Boeing B-50 Superfortress, representing the part of a Soviet "parasite fighter", as well as some stunt flying by the Bell X-1's most famous pilot Chuck Yeager.

    "The Lost Squadron" (1932)

    It would have been better if this film had been lost, because this account of World War I pilots finding work stunting for a movie studio is appalling in every respect.

    "The Malta Story" (1953)

    Beside the Maltese people themselves of course, the hero of this Second World War siege which won the island the George Cross was the Supermarine Spitfire and the aircraft features constantly in the movie, although usually only in the form of models and mock-ups. Shot in Shepperton studios, some actual wartime footage brings the action to life but otherwise the whole thing is stilted and formulaic.

    Emotionally subdued Alec Guinness is a photo reconnaissance pilot whose tale acts as a thread through the tribulations of the islanders and their Royal Air Force and Royal Navy defenders, but the cast is replete with British actors who either speak as if with plums in their mouth or who struggle hopelessly to affect a Maltese accent.

    "The McConnell Story" (1955)

    Jay Chladek writes:

    This is one of my personal favourites. It stars Alan Ladd and June Allyson and tells the story of real life Korean war triple jet ace Joseph McConnell. Our hero starts out as an enlisted man in WW2, who isn't a pilot, but spends leave time learning to fly planes. Circumstances eventually find him becoming an aviation cadet, but after training he only qualifies as a navigator on B-17s during the later days of the air offensive over Germany. The war ends before he can get enough missions to qualify for fighter training and he finds himself flying a desk after the war. But, circumstances add up in his favour and he eventually winds up a jet pilot in F-80s and F-86s before going to Korea to shoot down 18 enemy MiGs.

    The story tends to revolve a bit more around his love interest with June Allyson (whom he marries) than the mechanics of flying and the story is typical 50s with a touch of melodrama. But it does have some nice footage with F-86s taking on F-84Fs dressed up as Migs (not reused Hunters footage either near as I can tell). And the story doesn't have a happy ending either, as the real Joseph McConnell was killed testing the F-86H at Edwards AFB while the film was being made. So, the producers and writers incorporated that tragic event into the story at the end.

    "Memphis Belle" (1990)

    This is a remake of William Wyler's documentary of 1944 produced by his daughter Catherine Wyler and David Putnam. It uses a cast of 10 young actors, largely unknown at the time, as the crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress - the Memphis Belle of the title - on their 25th and final bombing mission in the summer of 1943. Filming was conducted at Binbrook and Duxford in England with just five real B-17s (including the famous 'Sally B' based at Duxford), but there are some carefully-staged shots and use of models to convey the presence of more. It is worthy, but old-fashioned and predictable.

    "Men Of The Fighting Lady" (1954)

    Jay Chladek writes:

    In a sense, this film is something of a companion piece to "Toko Ri" as it also takes place on a US Navy carrier during the Korean war (and an F9F Panther squadron based on the carrier). Except, this one is based more on real life events as written by well known author James Michner when he was writing magazine articles. A lot of the shots are familiar, as apparently a lot of "Toko Ri" footage was used, and the film probably also made use of some unused footage as well as some new shot footage.

    The climax of the story involves one of the pilots (played by Van Johnson) who has to escort his wounded wingman back to the ship for a landing attempt. This is complicated by the fact that the wingman is blind and controls to his canopy and ejection seat are shot out, so he can't eject or bail out (and emergency landing strips are socked in with weather). In my opinion it is worth checking out even if it doesn't quite have the drama that "Toko Ri" has.

    "Men With Wings" (1938)

    This is a story of civil aviation pioneers directed by William Wellman. Following "The Dawn Patrol" and "Hell's Angels", this was the third use of the Pfalz D. XII now exhibited in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington.

    "Midway" (2019)

    While "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) and "Pearl Harbor" (2001) both portrayed the Japanese attack on the Americans in December 1941, "Midway" is an account of the American defeat of the Japanese in the battle of June 1942. Like "Tora!", this new movie includes the Japanese point of view with use of Japanese dialogue and sub-titles. Like "Pearl Harbor", it uses CGI - in fact, much more of it - to create vivid depictions of both vessels and aircraft with some breathtaking action scenes. There is an overlap of events with both "Pearl Harbor" and "Midway" featuring the Japanese attack of December 1941 and America's Doolittle raid of April 1942, but this newest film devotes around half of its running time to the four-day Battle of Midway on 4-7 June 1942.

    Since the director is Roland Emmerich (who gave us the two "Independence Day" blockbusters), there is nothing subtle about the presentation which is somewhat simplistic and bombastic, but there is a genuine effort to be historically accurate and to show the American victory as a combination of strategic leadership by the likes of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), the vital intelligence of codebreakers led by Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), and the skill and bravery of pilots such as Dick Best (Ed Skrein).

    The Battle of Midway was a ferocious conflict which was a turning point in the Pacific War, even though the conflict lasted for another three years. The Japanese lost all four of their participating aircraft carriers and the US one of its three carriers, while the Japanese lost around 250 aircraft and the Americans about 150. Among the many aircraft depicted by the brilliant special effects are the American Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber and the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter which are shown in exciting dogfights. In fact, no Dauntless/Zero dogfights occurred at Midway, not least because the Zero was much the faster aircraft.

    "Mosquito Squadron"(1968)

    David McCallum takes time off from his role in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." to lead a unit of RAF Mosquitos in a Second World War raid on French targets using bouncing bombs.

    "One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942)

    This British wartime propaganda film was made as a tribute to the people of the occupied Netherlands with its portrayal of the survival and escape of a British bomber crew who are forced to bale out but rescued by the bravery of the local Dutch resistance. The 'B for Bertie' crew fly the twin-engined Vickers Wellington and the first quarter of the film is devoted to the raid of Stuttgart. At the very end, we see the crew move to the four-engined Avro Lancaster. The work is a curio more in cinematic than aviation terms: it was written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the first of 14 such collaborations), the famous director David Lean had the editing role, and Peter Ustinov has a tiny acting part.

    "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939)

    In this film, the great American director Howard Hawks displays two of the characteristic feature of so much of his work: the creation of a very specific world and the appearance of a confident woman. In this case, the world is that of a team of American pilots who fly out of a fictional Latin American air mail base (Barranca) surrounded by steep mountains and subject to inclement weather, while the female protagonist is showgirl Bonnie Lee played by Jean Arthur (there is a support role for newcomer Rita Haworth). The action revolves around the manager of the base, ace aviator Geoff Carter, portrayed by tall heroic Cary Grant. It is a movie full of action and deep in dialogue, much of it on the ground, and it highlights the bravery of these risk-taking fliers and the difficulty for a woman who would like to share life with such a bravado.

    The aircraft featured in the film are the Hamilton H-47 Metalplane, the Travel Air 6000 and Ford Trimotor plus the Boeing Model 40 biplane.

    "Pearl Harbor" (2001)

    Of course, the December 1941 Japanese attack on the American fleet has been done before in "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), but the April 1942 raid on Tokyo by James Doolittle (never was a man so inappropriately named) has been previously neglected by movie makers. By combining the two in a three-hour blockbuster, director Michael Bay contrives to make the loss of 349 aircraft and 2,400 sailors, soldiers and civilians in Hawaii less the catastrophic failure that it was into the impetus for a demonstration of American valour.

    In the three decades since "Tora!" budgets has grown much bigger - "Pearl Harbor" cost $135M - and special effects have become breathtaking - Industrial Light & Magic once again produce visual miracles. The attack sequence may only last 35 minutes but it is brilliantly done with some stunning scenes. Indeed the cinematic technology is so advanced that it's often difficult to be sure which aircraft are real and which are simply special effects. In fact, 15 Japanese Zeros were specially built for the film, but only nine of them flew, while computers made it seem as if there were some 200 aircraft in the sky.

    The Planes of Fame company was heavily involved in the flying sequences, making full use of their 'Zero' and P-40, but purists have objected to the colour scheme of the Zeros in the movie (bottle green instead of pale grey) and pointed out that the wrong sub-type of P-40 was depicted. At one point in a film with many continuity and technical errors, Jon Voight as President Roosevelt refers to Flying Fortresses when what we see are North American Mitchells.

    Much of the air-to-air filming on this ambitious movie was carried out from the Douglas Skyraider owned by The Fighter Collection (TFC) based at Duxford in England.

    "Pushing Tin" (1999)

    This strange title comes from the unusual setting of the film - it's a term used by air traffic controllers to refer to positioning aircraft in tight air spaces and the movie is set in New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Local hot shot Nick Falzone, ably played by the charming John Cusack ("Grosse Point Blank"), is challenged at work, at play and ultimately in the sack by ultra-cool newcomer Russell Bell, portrayed by the excellent Billy Bob Thornton. All this is particularly tough on the wives: respectively Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who was so good as "Elizabeth", and sultry Angelina Jolie (daughter of Jon Voight). "Pushing Tin" is a black comedy, with a touch of romance, that is probably best avoided if you have a fear of flying. But, if you sometimes feel stressed at work, this film should put it all in perspective and entertain you in the bargain.

    "Reach For The Sky" (1956)

    This is about the first film that I can recall seeing as a child and it presented me with my first hero. It is the story of Douglas Bader - played by the quintessential Englishman Kenneth More - who lost both his legs in a pre-war flying accident, only to become a Wing Commander, fighter ace and prison escapee in the Second World War. It is real "Boy's Own" stuff with much use of aircraft models. Years later, I read the book by Paul Brickhill and more balanced works which revealed Bader to be almost as acerbic as he was heroic.

    "The Red Baron" (2008)

    Baron Manfred von Richthofen (aka the eponymous Red Baron) was the top-scoring ace of the First World War with an amazing 80 victories credited to him, so it is little wonder that the contemporary German film industry would be tempted to make a big budget movie on his life and exploits but, even 90 years later, this is a tricky subject for Germans and writer and director Nikolai Müllerschön was taking a commercial risk. He compounded the risk by taking massive liberties with the historic record and by shooting the movie in English to give it more international appeal. The movie crashed and burned - and it's not difficult to see why.

    Germans did not like the use of English and did not find find credible the politically correct representation of Richthofen as someone disillusioned with war and willing to take on the country's political and military leadership. Germans and non-Germans alike were astonished at what Müllerschön included and excluded in his narrative.

    So much of what is portrayed is simply fiction, notably Richthofen's shooting down of Captain Roy Brown and meeting with him in No Man's Land and the whole of the romance with the nurse Käte Otersdorf. Conversely all the critical incidents in Richthofen's war career are mysteriously omitted, such as his friendship with Oswald Boelcke and his combat with Lanoe Hawker and (most astonishing of all) his death.

    The acting - largely from a young German cast - is adequate with Matthias Schweighöfer quite dashing and charismatic as the young ace. The choice of non-German actors was odd though: the British Joseph Fiennes struggles with a Canadian accent as Roy Brown and the British Lena Headey seems to have a French accent as the German nurse Käte Otersdorf. The script is clunky and the cutting spasmodic.

    Having said all this, aircraft buffs will want to see the film for its authentic recreation of the period in costumes and vehicles, its representation of a variety of First World War aircraft, and its exciting use of CGI (although the action is shown as faster and closer than was actually the case).

    Link: Wikipedia page on Richthofen click here

    "Red Tails" (2012)

    This movie has the same subject - the success of America's all-black 332nd Fighter Group known as "The Red Tails" in the Second World War - as the more low-budget and less well-known 1999 HBO television film "The Tuskegee Airmen", but it is very different in structure and tone. The more recent work has nothing on the selection and training of the airmen, but jumps straight to their deployment in Italy in 1944, and it is an unashamedly action-orientated tale with a rather simplistic gung-ho approach.

    Black actors are understandably put out that so many films with good roles for them involve a white 'saviour' - think, for instance, of "The Help" - but, in a sense, "Red Tails" has its own white 'saviour' because executive producer George Lucas had to fund both the production ($59M) and distribution ($35M) costs since Hollywood was not willing to bank a movie in which all the leading roles are taken by black actors and, with the exception of Cuba Gooding Jr (who was in "The Tuskegee Airmen" as well), these actors are hardly known. Indeed the most dashing role is taken by David Oyelowo who is a British-born actor of Nigerian descent.

    So all credit to Lucas for bringing this heroic story to a wider audience, but it is as if anxiety about its commercial prospects led to it being made as entertaining as possible with little subtlety and some improbable scenarios. It has to be said, however, that the special effects - most of the production was in the Czech Republic - are excellent with authentic representations of the P-40 Warhawk, P-51 Mustang and B-17 Flying Fortress on the USAAF side and of the Me 109 and 262 on the Luftwaffe side (there is very little use of actual vintage aircraft).

    Link: Wikipedia page on the Tuskegee Airmen click here

    "The Right Stuff" (1983)

    This is not really an aviation film, but instead a stirring account of the Mercury space programme and the training and missions of the first seven American astronauts. Based on Tom Wolfe's book of the same title, it is a long (193 minutes) but inspiring - and often by turns amusing and moving - tale of great risk and great bravery. Bookending this space movie are flights from Edwards Air Force base by someone who had the right stuff in spades, one of the greatest pilots of all time, the famous Chuck Yeager, played by the ruggedly handsome Sam Shepard.

    Early on in the movie, we see the breaking of the sound barrier for the first time on 14 October 1947 with the Bell X-1 named - after Yeager's wife (Barbara Hershey) -"Glamorous Glennis". The film tells the true story of how, two evenings before the historic flight, Yeager broke two ribs in a horse-riding accident and so could only make the difficult transition from the B-29 mother ship into the Bell craft by using a sawn-off broom handle.

    Towards the end of the movie, we see the most life-threatening flight of Yeager's career when on 12 December 1963 he took up an Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, went through Mach 2 and reached 104,000 feet, only to go into a flat spin. He stayed with the aircraft for 13 of the 14 spins before bailing out.

    Chuck Yeager himself appears in the film in a tiny cameo role as a bartender. Today "Glamorous Glennis" hangs from the ceiling of the entrance hall in the magnificent National Air and Space Museum in Washington, my favourite museum in the world which I must have visted around a dozen times.

    The Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis"
    in Washington's National Air & Space Museum

    "633 Squadron" (1964)

    This is the tale of a 1944 Mosquito squadron on a dangerous mission to destroy a munitions factory in German-occupied Norway by bombing the cliff overhanging it. The pilots are led by Cliff Robertson in this enjoyable movie, enhanced by Ron Goodwin's rousing score.

    "The Sound Barrier" (1952)

    At the end of this famous film, a British pilot solves the mystery of the sound barrier by reversing the controls at the critical moment during the power dive. There are just two problems with this account. It was actually an American, Chuck Yeager, who first broke the sound barrier (see "The Right Stuff") and reversing the controls in the transonic zone is likely to kill the pilot. In his book "The Right Stuff", Tom Wolfe describes how Yeager was invited to the American premiere of the movie and, when asked afterwards for his reaction, responded that the picture was "utter shuck from start to finish".

    In fact, the film is something of a classic of aviation cinema. It was inspired by the death of Geoffrey de Havilland in his father's DH 108 in 1946 and involved an array of British talent: Malcolm Arnold as composer, Terence Rattigan as screenwriter, David Lean as director, and Ralph Richardson and Nigel Patrick (the pilot) as members of the cast. The aerial sequences were shot by a specialist called Anthony Squire and focused on the Vickers Supermarine swept-wing jet fighter, prototype 535 the Swift.

    "The Spirit Of St Louis" (1957)

    In 1927, the American Charles Lindbergh became the most famous hero in aviation history when he made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic in an astonishing non-stop flight of 3,600 miles from New York to Paris. Thirty years later, the achievement was commemorated in this film co-written and directed by Billy Wilder (better known for "Some Like It Hot"). James Stewart portrays the pilot in a movie which is bound to drag at times, given that a 33 hour flight by a man alone can only contain so much interest. Sadly Lindbergh's image was later seriously tarnished by his avowed sympathy for European fascism. Meanwhile "The Spirit Of St Louis" - a specially-constructed Ryan monoplane with no forward vision - can be seen in the entrance hall to Washington's National Air & Space Museum.

    "The Spirit Of St Louis"
    in Washington's National Air & Space Museum

    "Strategic Air Command" (1955)

    James Stewart is a baseball player recalled to US air force duty and June Allyson is his wife in an Anthony Mann film full of Cold War and sexist attitudes. Once the flying scenes kick in - Boeing B-36 and B-47 bombers - it becomes a little better.

    "Sully: Miracle On The Hudson" (2016)

    On 15 January 2009, Captain Chesley B "Sully" Sullenberger III had to take over the controls of US Airways flight 1549 when when a flock of Canada geese hit his Airbus 320 and knocked out both engines. The aircraft had only just taken off from New York's La Guardia airport and he judged that he did not have enough altitude to return to La Guardia or reach nearby Teterboro and decided to land on the freezing waters of the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived. Between the engines dying and the splashdown on the Hudson, there were just 3 minutes and 32 seconds. How doe one make a film about such a short period of time when the outcome was known to the world at the time?

    Well, master craftsman Clint Eastwood (now in his mid 80s), who produced and directed, has done it - and extremely well - by deploying three techniques. First, he revisits those few minutes again and again, showing different perspectives, including a nightmare and simulation exercises, and each time the tension is almost paralysing. Second, he examines the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which questioned Sully's decision - something I had not appreciated until the publicity for the film. Third, he has the perfect casting of Tom Hanks as Sully who is totally credible as the eponymous and heroic pilot.

    Clever visual effects and superb sound put the viewer right into the action. But, if there is any need to remind you that this actually happened, the credits are enlivened with photographs of the aircraft on the river, with passengers stretched out along both wings, and a clip of Sully, his wife and some of the passengers having an emotional reunion. Over his long career, Eastwood has had a recurrent theme of the lone hero acting without the full support of authority - all the way from "Dirty Harry" to "American Sniper" - and, in that vein, a criticism that one unfortunately has to make of "Sully" is that it unfairly represents the NTSB officials as hostile to the pilots rather than doing a professional job designed to learn lessons and make recommendations.

    For aviation buffs, there is some fascinating detail about cockpit procedures, air traffic control, and flight simulations. Plus the NTSB inquiry shows the complexity of modern aviation (the film suggests that the hearings followed hard on the incident but it was a process that in reality took some 15 months). An interesting note: Sully had never flown before with his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (ably played by Aaron Eckhart). Finally, although this is a wonderfully feel-good movie for the viewer, we should remember that most of those involved - including Sullenberger - suffered serious post-traumatic stress disorder.

    "Tactical Assault" (1998)

    As a conventional movie, this is truly awful: a thin and utterly implausible plot, a dire script and indifferent acting. It features the revenge of a US pilot, shot down over Iraq by his commander, when he somehow reappears six years later and is assigned back to duty on his former commander's base. If the USAF admitted psychopaths like this to fly military jets, the world would be in even more trouble than it already is. The mystery is how they persuaded (a paunchy) Rutger Hauer ("Blade Runner") and Robert Patrick ("Terminator 2") to appear in such rubbish (money, I guess).

    On the other hand, as an aviation film, this work does sport a fair amount of action cinematography of a wide range of military flyware: AWACS, combat helicopters (Mi-17 HIP and Mi-24 HIND), and fighter jets (F-4 Phantom, F-16 Falcon, MiG-29 and L-39) in bewildering markings. In fact, there are so many clips of different aircraft that the continuity goes totally awry. Then, if (like me) you've ever been to Budapest, you'll enjoy the location shooting in the Hungarian capital.

    "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944)

    Jay Chladek writes:

    I am very certain that this film was done right after WW2 considering the aircraft used in it appeared to be correct B-25B model Mitchells like those used in the raid. It covers the Doolittle raid on Japan in 1942 as seen through the eyes of the crew of "The Ruptured Duck" and does it from early training, through the raid, and to the end when the crew makes it out of China and back to the States. Spencer Tracy stars as Jimmy Doolittle with Van Johnson as the captain of "The Ruptured Duck" and Robert Mitchum as the commander of another B-25.

    This film makes a nice companion to "Tora Tora Tora" and is much superior to the raid as portrayed in "Pearl Harbor". But it does drag a bit in spots towards the end as a delirious Van Johnson, injured in the crash of his plane, thinks about his wife and how his injuries might complicate their marriage. Still, it is a good story and the footage of the bombing raid is very well done.

    I have no idea how they filmed it, but it looks like they really are flying over Japan and not some redressed American countryside. Some of the footage shown came from the actual launch off the "USS Hornet" from that raid, but I really don't know how they did the rest of it. Sharp-eyed viewers might notice that some of the footage filmed for "Thirty Seconds" was also reused in the opening credits for the 1970s film "Midway". I think this film is worth a look see as it doesn't seem to have the type of melodrama that many air pictures filmed during WW2 (like "Flying Tigers") seem to have, making it much more fun to watch in my humble opinion.

    "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines" (1964)

    The majority of the aircraft used in this comedy were built especially for the film. Most of the replicas remain in existence and the Avro Triplane and the Bristol Boxkite, 'flown' in the movie by Terry Thomas and Stuart Whitman respectively, still delight the crowds annually at the summer air events of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire, England.

    "The Thousand Plane Raid" (1969)

    This low-budget American movie describes a raid by a thousand bombers - a technique started by the British - to attack the Third Reich whose Führer claimed that it would last a thousand years. Most of the flying footage is taken from wartime filming.

    "Top Gun" (1986)

    In terms of the actual flying sequences, this has to be the best aviation movie ever made. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer & Don Simpson (who made a string of action money spinners) and director Tony Scott (who cut his teeth on television advertisements) had the full backing of the United States Navy which allowed them access to the Navy's Fighter School (known as Top Gun), an actual aircraft carrier, and above all the mighty Gumman F-14 Tomcats. The Northrop F-5 stands in as the "MiG-28" (there is no such aircraft.)

    The film is the story of a naval aviator - codename 'Maverick' - who has to learn to be less self-centred and more a part of the team. On the ground, it is much too slow, with a poor script and weak characterisation, but in the air it is if anything too fast with superb aerial photography of practice and real dogfighting. 'Maverick' is played by the good-looking Tom Cruise, while the love interest comes from a blonde Kelly McGillis (whatever happened to her?) as Charlie. There is an excellent soundtrack, notably the opening sequence by Harold Faltermeyer and the song "Take My Breath Away". Definitely a film best seen at the cinema with 70mm and Dolby stereo.

    "Top Gun: Maverick" (2022)

    Two years after it was originally scheduled for release (there was the little matter of a global pandemic) and 36 years after the original movie (amazingly its star Tom Cruise looks little older), we have the sequel to the best aviation movie ever. Was it worth the wait? You bet. Featuring many of the tropes of the original film - the formidable armoury of the US Navy, the aviator glasses and the leather jackets, the fast motorbikes, the singing in the bar - plus some of the same music (how could one beat that Harold Faltermeyer theme?), there is even more exciting flying (making this the new best aviation movie ever), a more credible love interest (Jennifer Connelly), more humour and a better narrative.

    The movie opens with a test flight sequence that resonates with scenes from "The Right Stuff" (which depicted heroics of the true story of Chuck Yeager). Then the main narrative channels that of "The Dam Busters" (which again was a true story - this time of the RAF's 617 Squadron) with more than a hint of the original "Star Wars". The cast of characters both harks back to the original film, with Iceman now an admiral (played again by Val Kilmer who has had major throat cancer) and the son of Goose (portrayed by Miles Teller), and brings us into the 21st century with a more diverse group of pilots including a woman (Monica Barbaro as Phoenix).

    Ultimately what makes this movie so successful are two obvious ingredients. The first is Tom Cruise. He is a less cocky, more nuanced Pete Mitchell but with the same sense of bravado and the same disregard of the rules. Cruise is a real star with a mega-watt smile and someone who actually can ride a bike and fly a plane and even gets to do a bit of his trademark running. The other vital ingredient is, of course, the aircraft. Some three decades on, the F-14 Tomcat has been superseded by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet which, under the controls of a pilot with the right stuff, can tackle anything on the planet, including an enemy 'fifth generation fighter'. We even get to see a P-51 Mustang (which Chuck Yeager's wife wrote to me was his favourite mount) - one which Cruise has long owned.

    For we aviation enthusiasts, it should be noted that the Darkstar hypersonic aircraft at the beginning is modelled on the Lockheed Martin SR 72, while the the fifth generation fighters at the end are modelled on the Sukhoi Su-57 Felon.

    "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970)

    At least two other war films of this period "The Battle Of Britain" and "Patton" (both issued the previous year), took pains to show the enemy viewpoint, complete with use of German dialogue, but "Tora!" - the word means "Tiger!" in Japanese - took the process a stage further by presenting the enemy's point of view equally, in this case the American and Japanese versions of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Indeed the technical advisors included Kuranosuke Isoda, a member of Admiral Yamamoto's staff, and Kanoe Sonokawa, a former Zero pilot.

    This 'balanced' approach dampens the emotions and the real stars of the movies are definitely the aircraft - more than 70 of them. Not all of them are what they seem: 12 North American AT-6 Texan aircraft were modified to duplicate the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 type 21 'Zero' fighter, nine Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainers were modified to duplicate the Aichi D3A1 'Val' dive bomber, and a combination of AT-6 and BT-13 airframes made up the nine Nakajima B5N2 'Kate' torpedo bombers. Real enough were the five Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, the two Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, and the Consolidated PBY Catalinas.

    "The Tuskegee Airmen" (1995)

    The title is a reference to the American base in Alabamba which saw the training of black (or "coloured", as they were called then) aircrew in the United States Army Air Force of World War Two and this HBO television film is based on the actual experience of the 332nd Fighter Group known as "The Red Tails" because of their aircraft markings. All the pilots were graduates and skilled at their craft, but blatant prejudice kept them away from active operations until intervention by the White House. This is a noble - and little known - story utilising some good flying footage.

    Footnote: A war-time report submitted to the Pentagon stated: "The negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot". The Red Tails escorted bombers on 200 missions over Europe without losing an aircraft. The US Air Force was finally desegregated in 1949.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949)

    Set in 1942 and made only seven years later, this is an account of Gregory Peck's high minded leadership of a 'hard luck' unit of Flying Fortress crews. There is little flying until the end when some actual aerial photography taken in the war is used to good effect.

    "United 93" (2006)

    Although there have already been a couple of television programmes on the seismic events of 11 September 2001, this is the first feature film. There will, of course, be many more, but it is difficult to imagine a more stunning and impactful one. In a sense, therefore, it is ironic that the writer and director Paul Greengrass is British and that most of the filming was done at the Pinewood studio just outside London, using the inside of a salvaged Boeing 757.

    The style adopted by Greengrass so effectively is an utterly sparse one. The hand-held camera work and rapid cutting give the whole thing the feel of a documentary. There is no preamble or scene-setting, no flash-backs, no explanations, no star actors. Instead the narrative is simply linear and the confusion self-evident. The research as to events and dialogue is meticulous, members of the aircrew are played by actual stewardesses and pilots, and many of the air traffic controllers and military personnel are playing themselves.

    There may be no analysis or commentary but many of the messages are stark. The nearest F-16 was 100 miles away and the military knew nothing of the airliner's fate until four minutes after it struck the ground. Neither the President nor the Vice-President was in contact. They and we were totally unprepared for an event of this nature.

    Since United Airlines flight 93 took off from Newark airport 40 minutes later than scheduled, the passengers were able to learn of the suicide missions carried out by the three other sets of hijackers. Since the time to elapse from the first jet slamming into the World Trade Center to the crashing of United 93 was around an hour, this film is able to adopt a real-time narrative.

    The tension, as the 40 passengers gradually understand more about their dilemma and plan a last-ditch effort to gain control of the plane, is almost unbearable. The mobile calls to relatives and friends makes one's eyes well with tears. The timing and nature of the final shot - the actual crash and a totally black scene - is stunning.

    This impressive and compelling work was produced in full co-operation with the relatives of the passengers and it is a fitting tribute to them, their bravery and their sacrifice.

    "Victory Through Air Power" (1943)

    This is a real oddity: a Walt Disney documentary cum animation feature to promote radical new theories on the importance of strategic bombing. Made in 1943, it was wartime propaganda which extolled the arguments previously set out in a book of the same name by Major Alexander de Seversky. Apparently, after seeing the movie (at Winston Churchill's urging), the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally committed to a full strategic air campaign against Germany.

    The Second World War did not fully underline the validity of the theories - air power alone did not break Germany and it was the atomic bomb which defeated Japan - but more latterly the two Gulf Wars have demonstrated the continued potency of air power.

    "The War Lover" (1962)

    Set in 1943 and filmed in black and while, this is the story of an American bomber unit flying from a British base to destroy targets in Germany. Two decades after the events portrayed, only three B-17 Flying Fortresses were available for the movie, but repainting of nose art, clever camera angles, and recycled wartime footage create the impression of swarms of bombers. The first third of the narrative provides lots of authentic detail for such raids, the last third offers plenty of flying action, and in between we have a classic love triangle between the eponymous lead pilot (Steve McQueen), his co-pilot (Robert Wagner) and a pretty English girl (Shirley Anne Field).

    "The Way To The Stars" (1945)

    A lot of talent - but not much flying - went into this account of life on an airfield and a nearby hotel in wartime Britain. Terence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald wrote the screenplay and the cast featured a host of established actors (led by John Mills and Michael Redgrave) and stars-to-be (including Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons). The action - set in 1940, 1942 and 1944 - surrounds the use of the base by British and then American pilots and it's clear that, whatever your nationality, if your name is Johnny your number is going to come up. There are glimpses of Hurricanes and Blenheims, then A-20 Bostons, and finally B-17 Flying Fortresses, but the plot really concerns the effects of war on relationships and, as such, shows the effect on women (Renée Asherson and Rosamunde John).

    "We Were Soldiers" (2002)

    This is an account of one of the very few full-scale battles between American troops and North Vietnamese regulars which occurred in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands (recreated in central California). Some 400 US soldiers took on around 2,000 Vietnamese in a fire fight lasting three days and nights.

    War movies will never be the same since "Saving Private Ryan". "We Were Soldiers" - like "Black Hawk Down" - presents a brutally visceral version of war in which we are left in no doubt of the terrible sound and awesome destruction of modern ordnance. Indeed there are so many similarities between these two films issued within weeks of one another. Both are based on books and show the essential role of the helicopter in modern warfare to both deliver and sustain ground troops and the all-decisive nature of air power; both involve US troops being massively outnumbered by local forces, inflicting far more deaths than they suffered, and having to fight by night as well as day; and, above all, both portray ill-conceived and ultimately failed American operations in an heroic light.

    The American soldiers in this conflict were members of Custer's old unit but,instead of horses, their mode of transport was the ubiquitous Huey helicopter. When their commanding officer (played by Mel Gibson) realised that his men are about to be overrun by the North Vietnamese, he issues the message "Broken Arrow", whereupon a whole variety of warplanes bomb the hell out of the enemy. For some of this section, footage is borrowed from the earlier Vietnam movie "Flight Of The Intruder".

    "Wings" (1927)

    This was the first Academy Award Best Picture winner. Directed by William Wellman, it was the most expensive movie of its time with a budget of $2 million. The film tells the story of two World War I pilots, one rich, one middle class, who fall for the same woman. Much of the film was based on the experiences of the director as a combat pilot during that war. With the conflict still fresh in most people's minds, the War Department saw "Wings" as an effective recruiting tool and provided 5,000 troops, five tanks, and over 100 aeroplanes. The 'German' fighters in the film are actually Curtiss P-1 Hawks.

    "A Yank In The RAF" (1941)

    This sounds as if it should offer some good flying sequences, but the aircraft are models and poor at that. Instead we have a limp romance between the titular Tyrone Power and Betty Grable in wartime London.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 15 June 2023

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