Best And Worst Movie Pilots: From Jack Lemmon To Harrison Ford (VIDEOS)

In “Flight,” veteran commercial pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is praised as a Captain Sully-like hero for his quick thinking and unorthodox moves during a midair catastrophe. But when it’s revealed he had alcohol in his system, he becomes a villain who’s now on trial for the lives he lost.

However, Whitaker is not the first film character faced with life and death decisions at 30,000 feet. Which is why we’ve rounded up some of our favorite famous airline pilots who tangled with hijackers, serial killers, poisoned fish and even an overdose of mushrooms and ranked them from worst to best.

FYI: For the purposes of this exercise, we considered only movies about commercial airlines, so all those hotshot air aces and helicopter pilots are grounded. (Sorry, Maverick and Billy Covington)

RELATED: 14 Movies That Will Make You Not Want To Fly


  • 11. The pilots of ‘Soul Plane’

    Captain Mack (Snoop Dogg) of NWA airlines is smooth as silk on the intercom of this pimped-out plane, but he fails at flying because he’s afraid of heights. (He learned to fly in prison!) When Snoop conks out from too many mushrooms, it’s up to copilot Leslie Gaemon (Godfrey) to step in, but a hot tub accident (yes, it’s a de-luxe airline), puts him out of commission. Therefore, Nashawn Wade (Kevin Hart), NWA’s owner, has to land the plane himself, aided by a stewardess.

  • 10. The pilots of ‘Turbulence’

    The pilot, who’s inexplicably transporting violent criminals along with civilians, insists that the marshall turn over his backup .38 revolver since it’s not on the manifest. When the shooting starts, he foolishly rushes out of the cockpit and promptly gets killed. The copilot isn’t much smarter: Realizing the captain is in trouble, he jumps to his feet — and then dies of a head wound because the plane is a nosedive. Plucky stewardess Terri (Lauren Holly) has got the autopilot and suave British pilot Ben Cross to talk her through it, but she’s also got a “Level 6” storm, a serial killer (Ray Liotta) and an F-14 to deal with. Somehow, she and the autopilot manage to land in one piece. Her wild, billboard-crashing descent starts at 1:15:00.

  • 9. The pilots of ‘Airplane!’

    In one of this classic comedy’s most famous scenes, pilot Peter Graves questions a young boy visiting the cockpit, “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” and his copilot, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, er, we mean Roger Murdock, threatens the boy for trash talking his game. Of course, both are laid low by the fish, so it’s up to traumatized war pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) to save the day. And although, <a href=””>he has that drinking problem</a>, he also has no-nonsense Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) <a href=””>on the ground to guide him down</a>. And at least Otto the autopilot <a href=””>is there to save the day</a> (and get the girl!)

  • 8. The pilots of ‘Catch Me If You Can’

    The oblivious flight crew lets teenager Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) con his way onto a jet, just because he’s wearing a pilot’s uniform. No one notices that he doesn’t know the lingo and he can’t find the jump seat. And yes, that’s Ellen Pompeo as the stewardess who asks “Are you my deadhead?”

  • 7. Sean Bean in ‘Flight Plan’

    All the heroics are left to star Jodie Foster, whose daughter inexplicably vanishes mid-flight, but Bean, as Captain Marcus Rich, does look dashing in uniform and it’s always good to see him in one of his rare good guy roles.

  • 6. M.C. Gainey in ‘Con Air’

    Convict “Swamp Thing” pulls off a literally rock-and-roll touchdown as he crash lands on the Vegas strip, taking out a big chunk of the guitar on the Hard Rock Hotel’s sign along the way. He then hits paydirt as the plane slams into a slot machine. Let’s see Denzel (who is mentioned as a contender for the part of Ving Rhames’s convict Diamond Dog) do that! There are so many pieces of the plane flying at the screen, we’re surprised no one has thought to re-release this in 3D.

  • 5. Dean Martin in ‘Airport’

    This snoozy clip shows you just how pacing in movies has changed since 1970. Things are surprisingly tame as Captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), assists Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson) in an emergency landing. The movie already blew its action wad when a would-be hijacker’s bomb went off. The remaining suspense: WIll George Kennedy (and another stalled plane) clear the runway in time?

  • 4. Jack Lemmon in ‘Airport 77’

    Since he gets knocked out almost immediately by hijacker art thieves, Captain Don Gallagher (Lemmon)’s real heroism comes after one of the thieves crashes the luxury private plane into the ocean and he’s the only one to stay calm. Then he nearly goes down with the ship. What a pro. Probably the only air disaster movie with the line, “See if you can move that piano over there.”

  • 3. Kurt Russell in ‘Executive Decision’

    Dr. David Grant (Russell) and his special forces team board a hijacked flight in a risky midair maneuver, disable a bomb, and take out the head terrorist. Nope, he’s not an Air Force pilot (he’s a naval graduate and Army intelligence officer) but Grant himself lands the plane, with plenty of time to make a date with beautiful and resourceful stewardess Halle Berry. Win-win.

  • 2. Harrison Ford in ‘Air Force One’

    President James Marshall (Ford) doesn’t just singlehandedly defeat a Russian terrorist (Gary Oldman), he can also fly his own presidential plane after the pilots have been disabled. Sure, it’s been 25 years since he flew and never one this big. Six MIG fighters, a fuel leak and a traitor on board prevent him from bringing that baby to the ground, but we know he can do it. <a href=”″>Ford’s a real life air hero, after all</a>.

  • 1. Charlton Heston in ‘Airport 75’ and ‘Skyjacked’

    We have to give it to Chuck for heroically saving two flights in two different movies. In “Airport 75” (as Alan Murdock) he is lowered by helicopter onto a jet in midair to take over for blinded pilot Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.. In “Skyjacked,” he stands up to crazed Vietnam vet Josh Brolin, who wants him to fly the plane to Russia. In one day, he outmaneuvers a small aircraft on a collision course, signals the Russians not to shoot him down and takes a bullet in stride. He’s the kind of guy who says “screw the regulations” and lights up a celebratory pipe in the cockpit once they’re safely on the ground.

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