I've been going to the movies for over 40 years and have literally seen every 'aviation movie' (a movie with an aviation theme or that uses aircraft extensively throughout the film) ever made from giant blockbusters to obscure independent films. Most Hollywood movies depict aircraft as either dangerous machines on the verge crashing at any moment or super vehicles that can perform physics defying stunts. I consider an aviation film 'great' when it depicts the operation of an aircraft accurately, ie closely to the way the aircraft would be operated in the real world. With this criterion in mind, I have compiled a list of the Top 10 Greatest Aviation Movies...
1. Capricorn One
This movie depicts aircraft the way all movies should depict aircraft. Not every aerial sequence was realistic, but they were very judicial in their creative license in this movie. Notable appearances by the Learjet 24, Hughes 500C, Bell Jetranger and Stearman Model 75.
2. The Final Countdown
The air to air footage in this movie was superb. It was done without today's CGI cheating and thus appears realistic. Unlike today's blockbuster movies like 'Maverick', this movie showed that the US Navy operates many types of aircraft. Notable appearances by the F-14A Tomcat, E2B Hawkeye, A6E Intruder, SH-3H Sea King, RF-8G Crusader, EA-6B Prowler, A-7E Corsair II, S-3A Viking, AT-6 Texan.
3. Cloud Dancer
The only movie ever made depicting the world of competition aerobatics. Notable appearances by the Pitts S-1S, S-2A, Piper Arrow and P-51 Mustang. As a side note, the P-51 depicted in the movie was flown by James Kent "Jimmy" Leeward. Ironically, 31 years after Cloud Dancer, Leeward would be killed while flying a P-51 during the Reno Air Races.
4. Blue Thunder
5. American Made
Rare modern movie with decent air to air sequences and realistic footage of general aviation aircraft. Notable appearances by: Piper Aerostar, Cessna 414, Beechcraft King Air C90, Beechcraft Bonanza and Boeing 727. As a side note, Tom Cruise is an active pilot who owns a Cirrus Vision Jet and a P-51 Mustang, therefore when he is acting like a pilot on film, he is usually not just acting!
6. Top Gun
Many people will be surprised that the Original Top Gun movie is not higher up on the list. While it is true that the original Top Gun is vastly superior to the sequel 'Maverick', it is not higher on my list because the aerial sequences were just ok and using the F-5E as a 'Mig' was just insulting. Notable appearances: F-14A Tomcat, Northrop F-5F Tiger II, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican, and Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King.
7. Fire Birds
This was a terrible movie. However, some of the aerial sequences made it worthy of being included on the list. Notable appearances by, Hughes AH-64 Apache, Bell OH-58 Kiowa, Bell AH-1 Cobra, MiG-23, Mil Mi-24, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, Hughes 500MD Defender, Bell UH-1 Iroquois and the Saab J35 Draken.
8. Battle of Britain
An excellent movie depicting the air war over the UK in the 1940's. No CGI cheating just real aircraft footage that couldn't be reproduced today. Notable appearances by, Supermarine Spitfire MKI & MkII, Hawker Hurricane, North American Mitchell, Casa 2.111, Hispano Aviación HA-1112 M1L 'Buchon', and Junkers Ju-52.
9. The Pilot
This movie starring Cliff Robertson was also directed by him. Robertson was an actual pilot in real life, therefore his portrayal of a pilot in command was accurately depicted. Notable appearance by the Douglas DC-8-30.
The film was directed by Clint Eastwood, who is an actual pilot. Therefore, his directing remained true to how an actual pilot would behave under those circumstances. Notable appearance by an Airbus A320-214.
That's it so far! If a new one comes along, I'll add it to the list.