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Airmail personnel look at film of Air Mail

In 1925, Paramount Pictures came out with a movie called Air Mail, with the good guys, bad guys, love and romance. The only good part of the picture was the ground and aerial scenes in which the old reliable DH-4 was the star of the show. At least that seems to interest such airmail personnel as (left to right) Steve Kaufman, Ed Carney, Robert Ellis, Shirley Short (holding reel), Randolph Page and Johnny Ruden in Chicago, 1925.

Glamorous Glennis X-1 and Yeagar

A popular movie, The Right Stuff, was made about the achievements of test pilot Chuck Yeager.

B-25 taking off from carrier deck on Doolittle Tokyo raid

In April 1942, U.S. forces led by Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo, an event that inspired the movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

B-17 bomber

The entertaining 1990 movie Memphis Belle, a fictionalized account of the crew of a B-17 bomber on its final and most dangerous mission over Germany, is a tribute to the men who fought and often died in the air over hostile territory.

Aviation in Film and Television


Film and television comprise two of the greatest influences on modern popular culture. They both reflect it and help shape it. Aviation has also influenced popular culture, and film and television, both directly and indirectly. Not only have there been movies and TV shows focused on subjects related to aviation, but aviation has also transformed the technical aspects of how movies and TV shows are made.


There have been hundreds of movies and television series about aviation or involving aviation in some way. The first movie to win the Oscar for best picture was Wings, a 1927 silent film about the horror of war, focusing on two young fighter pilots. During World War II, countless American movies featured the exploits of bomber and fighter pilots and often focused on heroic raids like Jimmie Doolittle's B-25 attack on Tokyo or the exploits of bombardiers. Some of these films were deliberate propaganda, intended to affect popular opinions about the war. Airplanes continued to be the focus of many movies during the 1950s and 1960s, and have sometimes led people to confuse fact and fiction. For instance, the 1952 British movie Breaking the Sound Barrier mistakenly led many people to believe that a British jet pilot, and not American Chuck Yeager, was the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound.


Airplanes quickly became important symbols in movies. At first they were exotic, a form of transportation available only to the rich. But they gained other symbolic meaning as well. The 1942 classic Casablanca ends at an airfield, symbolizing freedom and safety. Probably the most famous use of an airplane in a movie was the crop-dusting scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 film North by Northwest. The movie's hero, played by Cary Grant, is ironically trapped not in a confined space but in an open field by an adversary that swoops out of the sky, like a hawk pouncing on a rabbit.


By the late 1960s, commercial aviation had placed air travel within the reach of ordinary people, not simply the rich, and film producers changed how they portrayed air travel. With more people flying on airplanes, "fear of flying" had become a common pop culture term. Capitalizing on this, in 1970 Hollywood turned Arthur Hailey's best-selling book about an airliner in peril into a movie with the same name, Airport. This spawned several sequels, each more spectacular and ridiculous than the last. This series was successfully parodied by the 1980 movie Airplane!, starring Leslie Nielson.The movie featured such jokes as an inflatable dummy serving as an autopilot, and a pilot who beats up people soliciting in airports (it was once common for religious sects to solicit in airports before this became illegal).


In addition to crashing aircraft, another aviation-related fear that emerged in the late 1970s, was hijacking and being taken hostage aboard an aircraft. Numerous movies revolved around this theme. Several late 1970s TV movies retold the story of the famous Israeli commando raid to rescue hijacked passengers in Entebbe. In the 1979 movie Black Sunday, terrorists hijacked the Goodyear blimp, filled it with explosives, and used it to attack the Super Bowl. After an American aircraft was hijacked in the Middle East in the mid-1980s, this theme was adopted for numerous movies. The 1986 action movie The Delta Force concerned a special forces team sent to rescue passengers on a hijacked American plane in a foreign country. The 1992 movie Passenger 57 was about an airplane hijacking thwarted by a police officer. The 1996 movie Executive Decision concerned a commando raid on a hijacked 747 that was still in the air. And the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One was about the hijacking of the President's airplane.


The advent of the airplane also transformed traditional movie storytelling. Aerial chase and fight scenes became common in action thrillers, such as the dramatic helicopter-biplane chase sequence in Capricorn One and the spectacular freefalling skydiver fight sequence in the opening of the James Bond movie Moonraker (hence copied in several other movies, such as the Arnold Schwarzeneggar film Eraser). The 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now featured a powerful and obscenely beautiful helicopter assault on an enemy village that influenced filmmakers for decades afterward. The 1986 film Top Gun, about naval aviators and starring Tom Cruise, was a collection of highly polished aviation cliches set to rock music. Although some critics derided the movie as little more than a love affair about the F-14 fighter that pandered to a youthful audience, Top Gun proved to be a highly successful movie and a boon to U.S. Navy recruiting. But perhaps the most common use of airplanes in film was the quick transition scene of an airliner taking off and landing to signify that the characters were moving to a new location. Script writers no longer had to provide detailed explanations for why their characters were suddenly hundreds or thousands of miles away from their last location; commercial aviation made that possible.


Aviation themes have been relatively unsuccessful on television, despite many tries. The first American television show to incorporate aviation into the plot was the 1951 series Sky King, featuring cowboys who flew airplanes. In 1957, CBS aired Whirlybirds, about Los Angeles police patrolling the city in helicopters. During the 1970s and 1980s, television shows with war themes frequently used helicopters and airplanes. The long-running comedy M.A.S.H. opened with a scene of a helicopter. The 1976 series Black Sheep Squadron (originally titled Baa Baa Black Sheep) concerned the famous Marine fighter squadron in the Pacific led by Colonel Patrick Boyington. The ubiquitous Huey helicopter, probably the most recognizable symbol of the Vietnam War, was common to many shows with Vietnam themes like China Beach and Tour of Duty.


Helicopters have always been more popular for television shows than airplanes. This is probably because of their dramatic ability to land virtually anywhere and get the heroes into or out of trouble. In many ways, the 1980s was the golden decade of aviation on television, but it was a tarnished gold, as numerous shows with aviation themes premiered and quickly died. The 1979-1981 series 240 Robert, about a rescue squad, featured a helicopter. AirWolf, Blue Thunder and Call To Glory all had aviation themes and premiered in 1984 only to be canceled by the end of the television season. NBC's Riptide, which also premiered in 1984, featured a large, ugly, pink Sikorsky H-34 helicopter named the "Screaming Meamie", but it folded after two seasons. Only a few shows with aviation connections were reasonably successful. The A Team, about a group of freelancing heroes, often used helicopters in a supporting role, as did CBS's detective show Magnum, P.I., which ran from 1980-1988. One of the supporting characters on Magnum was a pilot who flew a colorfully painted tourist helicopter around Hawaii when he wasn't shuttling the hero into trouble. The sitcom Wings, which premiered in 1990, concerned a small charter plane service in New England. Medical dramas have often used helicopters to transport critically injured patients to the hospital or to rush organs needed for transplants to hospitals just in the nick of time.


In addition to its influence on stories and plots, aviation has also had an important effect on the production of films and television. The most obvious impact has been the ability to provide a new vantage point for the camera, extending the traditional "crane shot" much higher into the air. Cameras on airplanes or helicopters can show the action from afar, or swoop in on the characters after showing the surrounding terrain. They may even play important roles when the audience does not realize it. It has become common for movies to end by pulling the camera back from the actors, reducing them to no more than specks in the countryside as the credits roll across the screen. Similarly, airborne cameras make it possible to shoot action scenes on the ground by following them from a safe distance in the air. Stunt men might simulate a fight on a moving train while a helicopter films them from a few dozen feet away, or a car might jump from a bridge while filmed from a hovering helicopter. Cameras have been mounted in airplanes, helicopters, blimps, and various remote-controlled aircraft. Some film equipment companies even market small remote-control blimps for relatively inexpensive aerial photography, whereas others specialize in custom-made camera mountings for helicopters and airplanes.


But just as it has in many other aspects of modern life, aviation has also had other less obvious effects on the production of movies and TV shows, particularly in transportation. Commercial air transport has made it possible for movie and TV crews to travel around the world to film in locations that were previously inaccessible. Inexpensive and fast air freight services like Federal Express have also enabled easier distribution of movies to theaters, although shipping thousands of rolls of film around the world remains a significant expense for movie studios and is prompting a search for other solutions. In recent years lower commercial transportation costs have even had unexpected and unnoticed effects on the industry. During the 1990s, many American TV and film companies began shooting productions in Canada, particularly Vancouver and Toronto, taking advantage of cheaper Canadian labor costs and the strong American dollar. But these productions were also assisted by the fact that stars and producers can travel easily and relatively inexpensively from their homes in Los Angeles to production sites in a foreign country.


-Dwayne Day


Sources and further reading:


Farmer, James H. Celluloid Wings: The Impact of Movies on Aviation. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, Inc., 1984.

Farmer, James H. Broken Wings: Hollywood's Air Crashes. Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1984.

Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985.

Skogsberg, Bertil. Wings on the Screen: A Pictorial History of Air Movies. San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc., 1981.

Wynne, H. Hugh. The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots, and Hollywood's Classic Aviation Movies. Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1987.