Chapman Freeborn blog

The most iconic aircraft in film history

While leading manufacturers are increasingly turning to Hollywood brand ambassadors to help sell private jets, in the past the aircraft themselves were the star attraction and helped ticket sales soar at the box office.

From the supersonic Grumman F-14 Tomcat to the Boeing 747 workhorse, we take a look at five of the most iconic aircraft types in film history:

Fairchild C-82A Packet

Released in 1965, The Flight of the Phoenix and its ensemble cast depicts a ragtag group of men and their struggle for survival after the emergency landing of their Fairchild C-82 Packet in the Sahara desert. When released the film divided audiences and received mixed reviews, but has since secured its status as an all-time classic. One thing that cannot be disputed is the unique and instantly recognisable features of the C-82 aircraft. With its distinctive twin-engine, twin-boom design, it was designed as a heavy-lift cargo aircraft to succeed pre-second world war designs, and achieved its first delivery in 1945. The aircraft was phased out in 1948, although the last civilian example was retired from active air cargo service in the late 1980s. Regardless of this, the C-82A is regarded by many as the predecessor to Fairchild’s hugely successful C-119B “Flying Boxcar”, a staple aircraft for air cargo requirements throughout the 1960s.

Boeing 747

A list of iconic aircraft just wouldn’t be complete without the Boeing 747. This type has featured extensively in Hollywood blockbusters including Airplane (1980), Die Hard 2 (1990), Executive Decision (1996) and Air Force One (1997). These films alone carried combined box office revenues of over $760million – and the B747 has appeared in well over 200 films to date, making it the most represented aircraft in film history. First flown commercially in 1970, the 747 was the first wide body aircraft ever produced and held the passenger capacity record for 37 years. Due to the expectations surrounding supersonic airliners in the late 1960’s, Boeing expected the 747 to become obsolete by its 400th sale. As of 2012, nearly 1500 aircraft had been built with many more on order. A hugely successful cargo and commercial passenger airliner, the 747 is also used in VIP configuration to transform it into the ultimate private jet.

Grumman F-14 Tomcat

While Top Gun’s score, hairstyles and script have suffered greatly at the hands of time, the opposite can be said for its seemingly timeless star aircraft, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Introduced in 1974, the aircraft was a supersonic, twin engine, variable-sweep wing fighter jet. Retired by the US Navy in 2006, the jet saw 32 years of active service. Tony Scott’s portrayal of TOPGUN, the US Navy’s fighter pilot training programme, was a huge success at the box office becoming the highest grossing film of 1986. It pulled in an astounding international total of $354 million and, when combined with several other notable appearances, the F-14 is arguably the most widely depicted and recognisable fighter jet of all time. The United States Navy reported a 500 per cent increase in aviator enlistments directly following the film’s release, with a generation of young men and women inspired to take control of an F-14 and become the real life “Maverick”. Outside of work, Tom Cruise reportedly owns his own state-of-the-art aircraft – the incredible Gulfstream IV private jet.

Learjet 23

The iconic Learjet 23 has appeared in a number of heavily budgeted films including the historical drama Frost/Nixon (2008), Airport 1975 (1974) as well as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). However, the Learjet is probably better known for its role outside of Hollywood. Based around a Swiss fighter jet concept and released in 1964, the aircraft hailed the emergence of a completely new market for fast and efficient private jets. The Learjet 23 essentially used the same power plant as an air force F-5 supersonic jet, and hence boasted staggering power and performance for its time. For many, the Learjet aircraft is instantly recognisable for its wing tip fuel tanks and sharp, aggressive lines, reminiscent of its fighter jet origins. The staple private jet of the 1970s, it provided solid and monumental foundations for the business and private jet charter industries that exist to this day.

Fairchild C-123 Provider

The Fairchild C-123 Provider was famously depicted in the 1997 action-thriller Con-Air, which borrows its title from the nickname for the USA’s real life “Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System”. Effectively a government operated airline, the agency transports people in legal custody. In the film, such a flight takes place on a C-123, but the plane is hijacked by the prisoners in the air, providing the newly paroled Nicholas Cage the perfect opportunity to save the day. Whilst Cage’s attempt at the southern American drool is embarrassing, much more can be said for the heavily budgeted crash scene in which a C-123 destroys numerous landmarks on the Las Vegas strip, ending up in the lobby of the Sands Hotel. Three of the monstrous aircraft were involved in filming, with one destroyed during takes. The second remains as a monument at Wendover Airport, while sadly, the third C-123 used for the flying scenes crashed in 2010 while performing a cargo flight. Additional prominent appearances include Outbreak (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).