Airplanes and Hollywood

It’s debatable whether movies better lend themselves to the topic than other forms of art, but if so perhaps this is due to the film industry having achieved a certain glamorous bloom simultaneously with commercial flight. One might parallel the 1950’s dawn of the Jet Age with a realized potential of Hollywood — the turbojet and Cinemascope as archetypal tools of promise. But decades later there still appears some cordial symbiosis at work: a lot of movies are shown on airplanes, and airplanes are shown in a lot of movies.

You’re expecting me to say so, but yes, I find myself roiling in frustration at Hollywood’s artistic license with the facts of flight. I’ll refrain from playing film critic lest I sound like an anal-retentive crank, but the most embarrassing thing I ever saw was Airport ’79 (John Davidson, Jimmie JJ Walker, Charo), which even in the 7th grade had me choking with incredulity at the idea of using giant nets to stop a brakeless Concorde from speeding off the end of a runway.

The crash plot is the easy and obvious device. But although we might theorize what part of the shattered fuselage those Uruguayan rugby players (Survive, 1975, later remade as Alive) used as an abattoir when preparing their deceased teammates for consumption, the most thoughtful moments are when airplanes appear incidentally: the requisite farewell airport scene (always departing, never arriving), the silhouette of a 747 climbing away; the propeller plane dropping the spy off at some godforsaken shithole, or taking the ambassador and his family away from one; the beauty of the B-52’s tail section snared in a tree along the riverbank in Apocalypse Now.

“Did you catch the Tupolev TU-154 in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalog, part IV?”

“Yes, and there was an IL-18 in the background.”

“You’re right. [Wistfully] I wonder where the Tupolev was headed?”

“Dresden perhaps?”

“No, Budapest I’ll bet! Maybe Prague? I’ll check my 1987 LOT timetable to see where any midday Tupolevs were going from Warsaw.”

For most of us, airplanes are a snapshot means to an end, and often enough the vessels of whatever exciting, ruinous, life-changing journeys we tend to embark on as human beings. There’s romance in there, but it’s the furtive glimpses that capture it best, far more evocatively than any blockbuster disaster script.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.