Paying tribute to some of the biggest (and fastest) stars in the movies we love: military aircraft.
Note: This post contains spoilers.
The Real Star
One of the biggest stars in Hollywood isn’t even a person. America has always been fascinated by aircraft, speed, and explosions. We see military aircraft star in some of our favorite movies, but what do we know about them?
1. A-10 Wart Hog
The “A-10 Warthog” – also known as a “tank buster” – looks as mean and powerful as it is The A-10 Thunderbolt II is the U.S. Air Force’s primary low-altitude close air support aircraft. The A-10’s nose is a powerful GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun. The GAU-8 fires armor-piercing depleted uranium and high explosive incendiary rounds.
In the movie Jarhead, A-10s appear in the critical scene where they engage U.S. Marines in friendly fire.
2. Air Force One – VC-25A
Technically, Air Force One is any aircraft the President is aboard, but we tend to think of it as the VC-25A. A Boeing VC-25 is a modified 747 operated by the United States Air Force. Its mission is to transport the President of the United States. In addition, Air Force One can serve as a military command center in the case of a nuclear attack.
Air Force One (1997)
President James Marshall (played by Harrison Ford), his family, and advisers board Air Force One. Unfortunately, a group of terrorists also board the plane. Marshall must work against the clock to save his family and everyone else when a group of terrorists hijacks Air Force One. Harrison Ford has many memorable lines in his career, but “Get off my plane!” might be the best.
3. B-17 Flying Fortress
The B-17 was a relatively fast and high-flying bomber. The plane was capable of long-range bombing missions while carrying heavy defensive armament. The B-17 developed a reputation for toughness. Many severely damaged B-17s still safely returned to base. The B-17s dropped more bombs during World War II than any other U.S. aircraft.
Heavy Metal (1981)
A B-17 flying in space and zombies are the stars of one of the more memorable segments of the animated movie Heavy Metal.
Memphis Belle (1990)
Memphis Belle is a true story based on a B-17 crew in World War II who survived 25 successful bombing missions. Five B-17s were painstakingly rebuilt for Memphis Belle. One even crashed during filming.
4. B-25 Mitchell
The twin-engine B-25 bomber was a staple of the Allied air forces throughout World War II. It specialized in either high-level or low-level bombing, strafing, photoreconnaissance, submarine patrol, and even as a fighter. (My grandfather flew B-25 Mitchells)
Catch-22 tells the story of a World War II bombardier trying to escape his flying missions. There is a memorable scene where many B-25s are taking off at once.
5. B-29 Superfortress
One of the largest aircraft used in World War II was the B-29. The Superfortress was a remarkably sophisticated bomber equipped with remote-controlled machine-gun turrets, a pressurized interior, and a fire control system.
The Wild Blue Yonder (1951)
Capt. Harold Calvert was sent to Kansas in 1943 to gain experience flying the B-29 Superfortress, the newest American bomber. The B-29 bomber could fly higher, faster, and further than any other bomber because it is pressurized. After training, the latest bombers and their crews were sent for bombing missions against Japan.
6. B-52 Stratofortress
The B-52 is perhaps the most capable bomber in U.S. history. The Stratofortress continues to be a critical contributor to the U.S. thanks to its large payload, long range, and ability to employ nuclear and conventional weapons.
Despite the band name, B-52s are anything but a “Love Shack,” Baby.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
What an incredible movie. There are many clever lines like “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” The film follows the President of the United States, his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) exchange officer as they attempt to prevent the crew of a B-52 plane from bombing the Soviets as instructed by a crazy general.
7. Bell 222
The Bell 222 has two Lycoming turboshaft engines and a sleek body.
The star of this TV Show was the helicopter. After the opening credits, there was no reason to watch. Airwolf was a modified Bell 222 twin-engined light helicopter. Similar to Knightrider, Airwolf sported many gadgets and surprises.
8. C-17 Globemaster III
The C-17 can deliver troops and any cargo quickly. In addition, during aeromedical evacuations, the aircraft can transport ambulatory patients and perform tactical airlift and airdrop missions.
Davis Okoye, a primatologist, and George, a highly intelligent gorilla in his care since birth, have an unbreakable friendship. But this friendly primate becomes a raving monster due to a genetic experiment gone awry. The C.I.A. transports George in a C17.
No Time to Die (2021)
When James Bond and Nomi, a new MI6 agent played by Lashana Lynch, accompany Q to board a C-17 Globemaster, it sets up a crucial moment in No Time To Die.
9. Douglas C-47
My late grandfather, a United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and Professor of Aviation, flew a C-47 (and B-25). His route was from China to Burma. He used to say they would fly ammunition, pigs, and world leaders. Anything that would fit in the door, they would fly.
Band of Brothers (2001)
One of the series’ most exciting episodes is when the Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment makes a daring jump into Normandy, behind enemy lines in occupied Europe. They were flying the Douglas C 47.
10. C-123 Jailbird
In real life, Con Air uses three different types of planes: The Hawker 800, Boeing 737, and S.A.A.B. 2000. The Jailbird C-123 used during the shooting of Con-Air, the movie, is now on display at Wendover Airfield.
Con Air (1997)
Ex-con Cameron Poe (played by Nicolas Cage) is on parol flying home on a prisoner-transport plane when the passengers seize control. As a former U.S. Ranger, he tries to save the day. Nearly the entire movie is on the C-123.
11. C-130 Hercules
The massive C-130 Hercules was designed as a personnel, medevac, and cargo transport aircraft. However, it is capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings.
The airframe adapts to many missions, including airborne assault, search and rescue, support for scientific research, weather reconnaissance, aerial refueling, maritime patrol, and aerial firefighting. It presently serves as the primary tactical airlift for numerous militaries worldwide.
The Dark Knight Rises (2013)
While airborne, a commanding C.I.A. Op (Aidan Gillen) interrogated three captives while holding them at gunpoint and threatened to kill them by throwing them out the window.
The third prisoner questioned was the muscular mercenary ringleader Bane (Tom Hardy). Suddenly, a giant C-130 dropped cables to the fuselage (to tow the smaller plane). At the same time, the rappelling commandos of terrorist Bane launched an airborne attack and successfully skyjacked the target. This scene is nuts.
12. CH-47 Chinook
“The Chinook is the United States’ premier heavy lift helicopter. It debuted in 1962 and will probably last 100 years.” shared Joe Wilson, President of Avion A.V. T.A.S.K.”
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Baby Godzilla was flown in a single CH-47J from Kyoto to the Ogasawara Islands as part of a scheme to lure Godzilla there so that Mechagodzilla could kill him with the G-Crusher.
Mechagodzilla had to be redeployed to the city to carry out the plan after Fire Rodan destroyed the helicopter flying over Tokyo to rescue Baby Godzilla.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
When the expedition reaches Skull Island, a Chinook and several UH-1H Iroquois are observed taking off from the Athena ship together. Kong smashes the Chinook in the subsequent combat after dropping three seismic bombs.
12 Strong (2018)
In a crazy mission made for movies, a Chinook helicopter flies over mountains at 16,000 feet in complete darkness without oxygen masks.
13. Corsair F4U
The F4U saw service throughout the Korean War and amassed more than 2,000 victories flown by naval and marine aviators. Due to the Corsair’s characteristic whistle when in attack mode at lower altitudes, the nickname “whistling death” was given to it by ground forces.
Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-1978)
Many American kids dreamed of becoming pilots thanks to the short-lived TV show Baa Baa Black Sheep which starred Corsairs.
14. F-4 Phantom II
One of the most adaptable fighters ever created was the McDonnell, twinjet, all-weather F-4 Phantom II, with top speeds exceeding the speed of sound. The F-4 was the fastest, highest-flying, and longest-range fighter in the U.S. Navy. As a result, more Western air forces used it than any other front-line plane.
The F-4 set sixteen records for speed, altitude, and time to ascend. At 98,556 feet, the prototype broke the world altitude record in 1959. On a 15-mile circuit, an F-4 achieved the world speed record in 1961 at 1,604 mph.
Forest Gump (1994)
Hostile troops catch Forrest and his unit off guard as a small squadron of F-4s drops napalm on the forest. Along with his commanding officer Lt. Dan Taylor and his closest friend, “Bubba” Buford Blue, Forrest takes several fellow soldiers and rushes them out of harm’s way.
15. F-5 Tigers
The F-5 tactical fighter series from Northrop Grumman Corporation has served its clients for more than 40 years and is one of the most durable military aircraft designs ever created.
The F-5 is a supersonic fighter that combines a cutting-edge aerodynamic design, powerful engines, and affordable operation. It is agile, highly maneuverable, and reliable.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Col. Kilgore calls in an airstrike to clear up a beach to surf on. A squadron of F-5s firebomb a village with napalm resulting in a furious fight. Many lives are sacrificed, and a helicopter is lost, but Kilgore goes on a rant explaining how he “loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Then Kilgore discovers that the napalm fires have heated the air so that the waves have died out. But, of course, being himself, he’s primarily angry about not getting to surf.
16. F-14 Tomcat
The carrier-capable F-14 Tomcat made by Grumman is a supersonic, twin-engine fighter aircraft. The F-14 is a two-seater and has a unique variable-sweep wing design.
Retired Naval Aviator and aircraft historian Captain “Lites” Leenhouts added, “The Tomcat was the first iteration of flyby wire in the Navy and was fairly rudimentary. But quite successful once they worked all the bugs out of the system. Though the aircraft was sluggish below 250 knots, it was a phenomenal fighter because of its variable geometry wings.
The wings gave it an incredible turn radius and outstanding high-speed maneuverability. Couple that with the Phoenix missile system, the pinnacle of fighter aircraft of that era.” Lites recently retired as C.E.O. and President of Fun N Sun Aerospace Expo.
Top Gun (1986)
Explaining the star power of the F-14 Tomcat in Top Gun is like talking about the shark’s role in Jaws. Top Gun was saturated with stars, but they were all eclipsed by the Tomcat.
17. F-15 Eagle
The F-15 is an agile plane equipped with radar, missiles, and a gun. It can escape surface-to-air missiles and attack opposing fighters. The F-15 flies quickly and deeply into enemy territory to clear the skies of enemy aircraft.
Jasmine Hespen, an F-15 Supply Change Manager at Boeing, proudly said, “I am on the F-15 Program for Boeing. Other planes are baby-sh*t compared to the F-15. We have dual verticals, variable cambers to help it accelerate and slow down, and a lot more firepower!”
F-15 in Pop Culture
The F-15 Eagle is one of the most recognizable planes. That may be because they are so prevalent in children’s toys. For example, the Gobot Leader-1 changes into an F-15. In addition, the villain Starscream is the most famous character to transform into an F-15 Eagle in the Transformers toy line and media.
18. F-16 Fighting Falcon
The multi-role F-16 Fighting Falcon is a highly maneuverable aircraft. The Fighting Falcon is compact and has proven itself in air-to-air combat or air-to-surface attack.
The F-16 provides a low-cost, high-performance weapon system for the United States and allied nations. The F-16 can fly 500 miles, deliver its weapons accurately, defend itself against enemy aircraft, and return to its starting point.
Iron Eagle (1986)
Iron Eagle was released just a few months before Top Gun and has been in the shadow since. Col. Ted Masters (Tim Thomerson) is condemned to death for trespassing after his plane crashes in an Arab nation.
His 18-year-old son, Doug (Jason Gedrick), is determined to intervene. Doug calls upon Col. Chappy (Louis Gossett Jr.) to lend him a few F-16 aircraft so that he can fly across the Atlantic and begin a rescue effort.
19. Boeing F/A-18 Hornet
Peter Wilson, a Technical Fellow in Boeing’s F/A 18 Hornet Office Of The Chief Engineer, shared, “The F/A-18 Hornet was one of the first purpose-built multi-role fight attack aircraft in the free world.
The jet has been flown by six foreign countries as well United States Navy-Marine Corps. It has been credited for performing an attack mission, then switching to fighter mode to take out enemy aircraft on its return.”
Independence Day (1996)
An enormous extraterrestrial mothership enters Earth’s orbit. It deploys multiple saucers, each 15 miles wide, over major cities worldwide, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Then, on July 4, the saucer prepares to fire on humans. Two F/A-18 pilots are down to their last missile, but it cannot fire. So one of them sacrifices himself by crashing into the saucer’s weapon, destroying the warship.
Behind Enemy Lines (2001)
The local military tried to cover up the downing of an American Navy F-18 over Bosnia while photographing critical areas. The crew must fight to stay alive and deliver the knowledge to their leaders despite attempts at betrayal.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Why were F/A 18’s used instead of newer planes like F-35s? First, they needed two people in the aircraft: the actors and the expert Navy pilots, and there were no two-seat F-35s.
20. F-22 Raptor
One of the U.S. Air Force’s newer fighters is the F-22 Raptor. The lethal F-22 combines stealth, speed, maneuverability, and robust warfighting capabilities. Equipped with an impressive array of sensors and highly-lethal weapons ensures the F-22’s air dominance.
Iron Man (2008)
One of the most exciting scenes in the Iron Man series is an intense dogfight between Tony Stark and two F-22s.
21. F-117 Nighthawk
The F-117 continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration, despite being retired for more than ten years. The futuristic boomerang-looking F-117 had an external coating of radar-absorbent material that made it nearly invisible to radar. This groundbreaking technology paved the way for future advances in stealth technology.
Executive Decision (1996)
There was a time when Steven Seagall didn’t die, and people rooted for him. He was invincible in every movie part. So it shocked audiences when he was killed off just a few minutes into Executive Decision while trying to leave his F-117 midflight and board a hijacked plane mid-flight.
22. KC-135 Stratotanker
The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker is an American military aircraft for refueling. The KC-135 is a variation of the C-135 used to transport cargo.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The opening sequence of Dr. Strangelove sets up the dark comedy perfectly. A KC-135 transfers its precious fluids to a B-52 Stratofortress through the phallic fueling arm. Romantic music plays along.
23. Bell H-13 Sioux Helicopters
The Army first acquired a militarized version of the Bell 47, now called the H13, in 1946. The H13 is one of the most popular light helicopters ever built.
It is well known for its role in medical evacuations during the Korean conflict, transporting wounded soldiers to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units (aka M.A.S.H) by air. The Sioux’s multiple roles in Korea and Vietnam included utility, wire laying, liaison, surveillance, and training.
Anyone who watches the top-rated TV Show M.A.S.H will instantly recognize the Bell 47 helicopter.
Mark Borivik, a former Helicopter Flight Nurse, recalled, “We had the best pilots because they were trained and worked in Vietnam! They were awesome pilots.
“They could land in the middle of a two-lane highway surrounded by all kinds of electrical power lines! Nothing bothered those guys! They could drop in, pick up our patients, and get out of there. Plus, they flew great at night.”
24. MiG (Generic)
MiGs represent enemy fighter jets in many movies based on the Cold War. There are many versions of “MiGs,” and sometimes models were just made up.
For example, the “MiG-28” is the name of the adversarial aircraft in Top Gun. Northrop F-5s were painted black for the movie to represent the imaginary aircraft. This model does not, however, genuinely exist in the real world. MiGs are always given odd numerals as designations.
25. MH-60 – Blackhawk
UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are medium-range rotary-wing tactical aircraft that protect the American public from terrorism and drug smuggling. They also enforce airspace security over critical venues. Black Hawk helicopters perform missions such as maritime, aviation, and land interdiction and the insertion of agents in remote areas.
In addition, the UH-60 conducts search and rescue operations over land because its spacious interior allows the aircrew to assess and stabilize injured persons. The UH-60 also supports special operations and air mobility, such as personnel and equipment transport.
Black Hawk Down (2002)
The movie was set in 1993. The United States dispatched special forces to Somalia to topple the government and deliver food and humanitarian relief. A sudden attack by Somalian forces brings two Black Hawk helicopters down immediately as they lower the soldiers to the ground. The American soldiers then have to fight while being subjected to intense firepower.
26. Mil Mi-24 – Hind
The Mil Mi-24 is a sizable gunship, attack, and troop transport helicopter with space for eight passengers. The Mi-24 was known as the “flying tank” by Soviet pilots.
Red Dawn (1984)
Who can forget the Hind ambush scene? Well, it wasn’t a Hind. Instead, it was modified Sud-Aviation SA 330 Pumas with bolt-on wings.
Rambo III (1968)
The ending is a wild game of chicken. It’s Rambo in a tank vs. a Soviet Coronal in a Hind. Any guess who won?
27. The Pilatus P-2
The P-2, primarily employed by the Swiss Air Force, was first designed in 1942 and had its first flight in 1945. The aircraft has frequently been utilized in films as a “Nazi fighter plane” because of its resemblance to the single-seat German Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Two P-2 fighters examined the Zeppelin D-138 in 1938 after the airship departed from Berlin carrying two wanted fugitives, Indiana Jones and Henry Jones, Sr.
28. P-51 Mustang
Most people agree that the P-51 is World War II’s best all-around fighter. For the Allies, the P-51 was a game-changer. German aircraft couldn’t compete with the Mustang when used as a long-range bomber escort, especially at high altitudes. The P-51 was also swift, reaching a top speed of 437 mph.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Models and repaired Mustangs were used in an attack on a Japanese airstrip nearby the internment camp where the protagonist of the plot is held captive. Film historians and critics consider the scene a notable cinematic achievement.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
A P-51 squadron defends American troops from German ground forces by flying overhead.
Spitfire’s speed difference was a significant advantage over Messerschmitt, its main adversary. The Spitfire’s renowned elliptical wing and powerful engine made the aircraft one of the faster fighters of its era.
The Spitfire’s wings also made it one of the most maneuverable in the air, giving it an advantage in one-on-one combat. Additionally, they possessed a booster capability that, for five minutes, let them go at rates of 25 to 30 mph quicker.
Malta Story (1953)
Since the film was shot in Malta on location eight years after the war, there are still plenty of bombed-out landscapes for some authentic views. In addition, the producers had access to real Spitfires for the project.
30. Sopwith Camel
The Sopwith Camel is a British single-seat biplane fighter aircraft that fought during the First World War. They became one of the most well-known fighters of the First World War.
It’s hard to consider that the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk only 14 years earlier. The progression of innovation in the earlier years of aviation was mind-blowing.
The Peanuts Movie (2015)
Snoopy often sits on top of his doghouse and dreams he is a pilot. His plane of choice is a Sopwith Camel. He acts like a World War I Flying Ace, battling with the Red Baron.
31. Fokker Dr.1 Triplane
Perhaps the most iconic and recognizable aircraft of the World War I is the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane. Sopwith Triplanes were an instant hit when the British Royal Naval Air Service first used them on the Western Front in early 1917. As a result, the German aviation ministry requested that numerous manufacturers design and construct triplanes for the air force of the Kaiser.
32. SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 remained the fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft throughout its twenty-four-year lifetime. The Blackbird could quickly examine 100,000 square miles of the ground below from 80,000 feet in the air.
“I was fortunate enough to see the SR-71 Blackbirds while they were still active. It’s about the most amazing air vehicle I’ve gotten to see during my 20+ year career. Awesome jet – that one.” Patty Helmich, a Navy Veteran and Systems Engineer at Lockheed Martin.
Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to see an SR-71 on display at Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The X-Men Blackbird jet is one of the most iconic vehicles in comics. The X-Men’s primary means of transportation is a highly advanced aircraft, which gets them around quickly and stylishly. Of course, it has evolved over the years, but there is no mistaking that the real-life SR-71 inspired the Blackbird.
33. U-2 Spy Plane
The Soviet Air Defence Forces shot down an American U-2 espionage plane on May 1, 1960, as it conducted aerial photographic reconnaissance deep within Soviet territory.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
The Coen brothers, Matt Charman, and Steven Spielberg collaborated on Bridge of Spies. The movie, set during the Cold War, centers on attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).
He attempts to negotiate the exchange of Rudolf Abel, a convicted Soviet K.G.B. spy held by the United States, for Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. Air Force pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
34. UH-1 Huey
Bell’s UH-1 Iroquois, also called the “Huey,” was a multi-purpose utility helicopter that became well-known for its extensive service in the Vietnam War. The primary purposes of the helicopter were aerial attacks, medical evacuations, and the transportation of troops and cargo.
“The Huey was loud and felt unstable, but that was more vibrations than anything else. Despite what you see in movies, it was so loud it was hard to hear the guys sitting next to you talking” Sal Benfatto, retired Staff Sargeant and Vietnam Veteran.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Numerous Hueys appear in the first half of Apocalypse Now, most memorably in the legendary “Ride of Valkyries” beach attack scene.
Hamburger Hill (1987)
This incredibly realistic portrayal of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War stars Hueys.
Running in the jungle away from the alien, Arnold Schwarzenegger belts out one of his most iconic movie lines: “Get to the Chopper.”
We Were Soldiers (2002)
In the final battle scene of this Vietnam War movie, several Hueys are shown firing Gatling guns and rockets.
35. V22 Osprey
The American V-22 Osprey is a multi-mission, tiltrotor combat aircraft that can take off and land vertically and briefly. Osprey’s design combines the practicality of a traditional helicopter and the high-speed, long-range cruising capability of a turboprop aircraft.
The CV-22 variant deployed by the U.S. Air Force and depicted in the movie served as the inspiration for the character Incinerator. Whatever position his wings or arms are in, pushing on the radar placed on his tail initiates a complex gear train that rotates both rotors/fingers.
The A-Team (2010)
The A-Team successfully steals printer plates used to print money from an ex-Iraqi Army gang by attaching their cargo container to the underbelly of a V-22 Osprey being flown by Murdoch.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Tom Cruise, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, and Emily Blunt star in Edge of Tomorrow. The quadcopter dropships in the movie were based on the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey that can tilt its rotors to fly as either planes or helicopters.
Military Aircraft in Movies
Next time you watch a movie or TV show, pay closer to the aircraft. Not all stars are people – many military aircraft have starred in our favorite films.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Greg is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) with 22+ years of experience in Financial Services. He has held numerous FINRA Securities licenses (series 7, 63, 65, and 66) and is an investment product and financial planning expert. Greg has 22+ years of experience as a real estate investor and degrees in Psychology and Philosophy. Greg and his wife Erin own ChaChingQueen and ClothDiaperBasics.