There’s light at the end of the tunnel, at least as far as owner-pilots are concerned – however, it’ll be a while yet before we will see normal club hire and training resume. Meanwhile, even those who have managed to get back in the air might still want to track down one of the handful of movies that truly capture the thrill and romance of flying. Pilot Editor Philip Whiteman makes his selection of the top ten flying films
Aircraft have appeared on screen since the early days of the silent film era. At first, they were perceived as objects of wonder and stars in their own right.
Then they became tools of war – an endless fascination – and finally they came to be regarded as just another means of transport, only interesting to screenwriters when they went wrong or were hijacked.
Films that really have something to say about the thrills and romance of flying – films that are stuff of inspiration to pilots – are few and far between.
Happily, they do exist and many of them are available to stream online. So, taking my highly subjective top ten in reverse order:
10) One Six Right
We have been waiting for years for a film that would capture the spirit of contemporary private flying – a film about people like us and aircraft like the ones we all fly. Early web previews and trailers suggested that One Six Right, the story of California’s Van Nuys Airport, might be that film, albeit in documentary format.
Sadly, for all the stunning aerial footage that was shot, the end result was a very ‘American’ kind of talking-heads effort that is actually quite tedious in places.
There are some lovely episodes – a couple figuring in the extras included in the original DVD release DVD – that almost justify putting One Six Right into my top ten, but it is included not more for what it represents than its qualities as a film.
As to that ultimate private flying film? Well, we are still waiting…
2005 DVD, Terwilliger productions. 73 minutes
9) The First of the Few
Made in 1942 and billed as ‘the immortal story of the Spitfire’, The First of the Few is actually a less-than-accurate and highly romanticised account of the gestation of that great aircraft. At the same time, it captures the feel of those distant times – the story runs from the Schneider Trophy era of 1920s to the middle of WWII – in a way that nothing made today could match.
Of course, it is a wartime flag-waver – but Germans and Italians are portrayed as people, not the kind of mindless automatons who are the ‘enemy’ in so many Hollywood war films.
Much of the flying footage is done with models, although the full-size Schneider floatplane replicas taxying across water-tank based studio sets are wonders in their own way.
First of the Few factoid: if the fighter pilots David Niven is seen talking to at the start of the film appear to be convincing characters, it is because they were not actors but the real thing – serving wartime RAF Pilot Officers and NCOs.
Released 1942, 114 minutes (DVD release by Slam Dunk Media)
8) Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
A firm favourite with old-aeroplane people, to judge by the number of them who give the movie poster pride of place in their workshops, Those Magnificent Men was a big-budget 1960s film that entailed the construction of a number of flying replicas.
For what was intended to be a comedy, great attention was paid to Edwardian period clothes, cars and sets, and aeronautical advisor Allen Wheeler made sure the aircraft were equally authentic – so much so, that most of them could only be flown safely in the early morning or late evening hours.
In particular, the Antoinette proved downright dangerous until it was rebuilt with ailerons in place of wing-warping and a more modern blunt-edged wing section.
Famously, the film cast the best character and comedy actors of the 1960s – Terry-Thomas, Tony Hancock, Eric Sykes and even Benny Hill. Less well known is the fact that the erection of the ‘Brookley’ aerodrome set, complete with a section of banked motor racing track, marked the civil flying renaissance of RAF Booker, now better known as Wycombe Air Park.
Released 1965, 20th Century Fox. 132 minutes
7) The Blue Max
Based on Jack Hunter’s well-researched WWI novel, The Blue Max is about as close as any film has come to matching the aerial spectacle of Howard Hugh’s legendary 1930 masterpiece, Hell’s Angels.
By the time The Blue Max was made, flyable WWI aircraft were few and far between, so 20th Century Fox commissioned Fokker DVII and Dr1 replicas as well a pair of Pfalz scouts and a couple of very convincing SE5s. The ‘extras’, German and British, were almost inevitably mildly disguised Tiger Moths and Stampes.
While there is much that is unconvincing about The Blue Max – not least the cod, aircraft-in-a-screaming-dive sound effects – one or two of the aerial set pieces are breath-taking and even lyrical.
For one scene, Derek Piggot flew both of the film’s Fokker dreidekker replicas under an impossibly narrow bridge arch – he quite literally had four feet to spare, either side – and in another, he flew an aerobatic sequence in a parasol-wing Morane 230 that, allied with the camera tracking behind the spectators, is one of the great works of cinematic art.
Blue Max factoid: George Peppard learned to fly in preparation for his role as Bruno Stachel. The insurers frustrated his ambition to pilot any of the replica aircraft during filming, although he did get to taxy the Morane 230 for the cameras. He liked it so much that, once production had wrapped, he bought one of his own.
Released 1966, 20th Century Fox. 149 minutes
6) Hell’s Angels
A 1930 film in the top ten of 2020? Hell’s Angels is a melodrama very much of its time but justifies its place here by being one of the first films to put cameras in aircraft, by including the biggest and most dangerous aerial dogfights ever shot, and being the brainchild of one of the most inventive – and ultimately deranged – perfectionists in aviation, Howard Hughes.
Stories of the making of the film are legend.
Hughes assembled a fleet of over fifty aircraft, including a genuine DH4, which served as an aerial camera platform, several SE5s and three Fokker DVIIs. When he needed to show battle damage, with the cameras rolling Hughes had his armourer fire live rounds from a machine gun at sections of aircraft.
He hired big twin-engine Sikorsky biplane to be dressed up as a Gotha bomber. When the aircraft was put into a spin for the cameras it proved irrecoverable, and it took the poor devil operating the smoke pots all the way down to destruction with it. This stuff is all in the film and still grabs you by the guts after eighty years because it is not fake – it’s again the real thing.
Hell’s Angels factoid: At first, Howard Hughes thought he could save money by employing amateurs instead of members of the Hollywood stunt pilots’ association. He put four private pilots in four rotary-engined Thomas Morse Scouts: none of those who survived takeoff got back down on the same aerodrome.
Released 1930, 127 minutes (Universal Pictures DVD release)
5) The Right Stuff
You might agree with me that space flight is the ultimate expression of aviation, and that space films should therefore figure in the list. The Right Stuff doesn’t include much of the hazardous jet test flying that makes the late Tom Wolfe’s book by the same name one of the great aviation reads (and I have to say that the book is better).
Devoting instead much early running time to the Yeager ‘sound barrier’ story, the film changes gear when it gets to the Mercury programme. The story of America’s first astronauts is embroidered here, but wonderfully so – and where it really matters the truth is served.
Much original NASA footage is woven into the space scenes, the aft-looking view from a Mercury launch giving new definition to the term ‘rate of climb’.
Right Stuff film factoid: John Glenn’s unbelievable sounding orbital flight commentary in the film, ‘fireflies’ floating outside his capsule window and all, is taken verbatim from the original NASA voice recorder transcript.
Released 1983, Warner Brothers. 185 minutes
4) The Rocketeer
A retro cartoon strip, The Rocketeer might in another world have been source material for a Netflix documentary on Howard Hughes. Happily, it was spotted thirty years ago by Touchstone Pictures, who made it into a superb, knockabout action thriller that not only takes eye-watering liberties with Hughes’ story but enlists as a Nazi spy a very Errol Flynn-like Hollywood actor, played by a moustachioed Timothy Dalton.
The film quite literally opens with the hangar doors, leading straight into a flying sequence with a Gee Bee racer that would have had any true-blooded aviator standing in his cinema seat.
The rest of the film is no less frenetic yet, for all the cartoonish action, it tips its metaphorical hat to real figures of 1920s and 30s aviation.
Thus, when the hero escapes from his hangar by gliding away under a scale model of the ‘Spruce Goose’ flying boat, Howard Hughes murmurs “the sonofabitch will fly” – a throwaway line purely for the propellerheads in the audience.
Released 1991, Disney Studios/Touchstone Pictures. 104 minutes
3) Battle of Britain
Patriots and anoraks would no doubt have had the Battle of Britain at the top of the list, even if some of them can never forgive the production crew for blowing up one of Duxford’s historic hangars in making the film.
Indeed, in pursuit of authenticity, aerial coordinator Hamish Mahaddie searched Britain for Spitfires and Hurricanes that could be made airworthy and the producers bought from the Spanish air force much of its recently pensioned off Hispano Buchon (licence-built Messerschmitt 109) fleet.
British, Canadian, American and Spanish pilots flew their hearts out in the making of the aerial battle scenes, and the storyline was extraordinarily faithful to the real events of 1940.
The Battle of Britain is more of an honest, accurate historical record than most latter-day documentaries. However, for the same reason it lacks the humour, beauty and romance that put the first and second-place films above it in my list.
Released 1969, United Artists/MGM. 127 minutes
2) Catch 22
Forget the whinge that the book is better (it’s not) forget the rather flat feeling television remake, which lacked class and grandeur, and marvel at the seventeen-ship B-25 squadron Frank Tallman assembled for the cinema film, David Watkin’s outstanding cine photography and a cast that included some of the finest and most charismatic actors ever seen on screen.
Of course it is yet another war movie, but one with some of the best and most hairy flying scenes ever staged for the cameras. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget the great mass takeoff, shot in a howling crosswind with one or two sick engines trailing smoke.
It takes more than action to make a satisfying flying film: Catch 22’s great strength lies in the compelling combination of period atmosphere and black satire: war, you think, really must be like this hell.
Catch 22 film factoid: dancing around on a pontoon off the beach, ‘Hungry Joe’ was supposed to have been cut in two on screen by a low-flying B-25. However, even Frank Tallman could not wheel one of these big, twin-engine bombers tightly enough over the confines of the dunes and hills on location to get a convincing shot.
A hastily borrowed Stinson L-5 ‘spotter plane’ was substituted, but there was no time to get it painted up – hence the odd non-military colour scheme it wears in the movie.
Released 1970, Paramount. 116 minutes
1) The Great Waldo Pepper
Set in the great barnstorming and movie stunt-flying era of the 1920s, Waldo Pepper is in every sense a pilots’ film – in fact, the pilots’ film. Based on a story by director George Roy Hill, who flown as a US Marine Corps pilot in WWII and Korea, and directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, Waldo Pepper is genuinely a distinguished film-maker and aviator’s salute to the great flyers of the past.
Hill not only used where he could genuine aircraft of the era – ‘Waldo’s Hisso-engined Standard biplane and his rival ‘Axel Olsson’s Curtiss Jenny – but sent his actors and cameras aloft in them. Blue-screen studio shots were only used where the flying – and crashing – absolutely could not be done for real.
Thus, when you see someone climbing out on the wing in flight and then from one biplane to another, it is the real thing. The only concessions to it being 1975 and not 1925 were concealed slim-line parachutes for the wing-walkers and disguised Tiger Moths substituting for Standards or Jennies when there was a lake or fairground to be smashed into.
However, The Great Waldo Pepper is far from being a mindless action movie; it somehow manages to capture all the beauty, romance and tragedy of flight in one story. Nothing made since has even come near it.
Waldo Pepper film factoid: aerobatic star Art Scholl was employed to fly the ‘Styles Monoplane’ – actually a canopy-less Chipmunk with dummy wing bracing wires – in the film’s blood-curdling low-level outside loop sequence. The actor who played Styles was practising his ‘negative-G face’ in front a dressing room mirror when the director arrived and told him that he’d be doing it for real, with Art flying from the front seat.
Released 1975, Universal Studios. 108 minutes
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