Air Travel in Art, Music and Film


Take a look some time at the famous photograph of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. The image, captured by bystander John T. Daniels and since reproduced millions of times, is about the most beautiful photograph in all of 20th century iconography. Daniels had been put in charge of a cloth-draped 5 X 7 glass plate camera stuck into Outer Banks sand by Orville Wright. He was instructed to squeeze the shutter bulb if “anything interesting” happened. The camera was aimed at the space of sky — if a dozen feet of altitude can be called such — where, if things went right, the Wright’s plane, the Flyer, would emerge in its first moments aloft.

Things did go right. The contraption rose into view and Daniels squeezed the bulb. We see Orville, visible as a black slab, more at the mercy of the plane than controlling it. Beneath him Wilbur keeps pace, as if to capture or tame the strange machine should it decide to flail or aim for the ground. You cannot see their faces; much of the photo’s beauty is not needing to. It is, at once, the most richly promising and bottomlessly lonely image. All the potential of flight is encapsulated in that shutter snap; yet we see, at heart, two eager brothers in a seemingly empty world, one flying, the other watching. We see centuries of imagination — the ageless desire to fly — in a desolate, almost completely anonymous fruition.

The world’s first powered flight, 1903, captured by John T. Daniels

I own a lot of airplane books. They can be depressing. Aviation publishing is, let’s just say, on a lower aesthetic par than what you’ll find elsewhere on the arts and sciences shelves. The books are poorly written and packed with uninspired photography. It’s low-budget stuff, unsophisticated, and it’s frustrating too because it misses the point. No, not all of it. The works of Keith Lovegrove, John Zukowski and M.C. Huhne are refreshing exceptions. The jetliner photos of Jeffrey Milstein and Werner Bartsch have had gallery showings. The majority of it, though, appeals to the airline buff or hobbyist and not to the layperson.

This is typical of the ways in which aviation has, and has not, made its way into popular culture. For something that has been so historically important and influential — to industry, to commerce, and to the lives of millions of people — it remains surprisingly marginalized, exiled in an unenlightened realm of shitty writing, air crash documentaries and adolescent fetishizing.

What it needs is some crossover cred, but I’m not sure it might find it. Automobiles, motorcycles, commercial architecture, food — all of these things have, in their own ways, earned a certain highbrow credibility. Why not commercial aircraft? The Concorde or the 747, with their erudite melding of left- and right- brain sensibilities, are perfect for the cause, but it just hasn’t happened. You won’t find framed lithographs of 747s in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones of Boston, hanging alongside those romanticized images of the Chrysler building and the Brooklyn Bridge. A Ken Burns documentary, maybe, would help?

Until then, when it comes to popular culture, movies are the place we look first. We see a curious parallel in the1950s, when the dawn of the Jet Age coincided with the advent of CinemaScope — two archetypal tools that changed forever their industries. Decades later, there’s still a cordial symbiosis at work: a lot of movies are shown on airplanes, and airplanes are shown in a lot of movies.

The crash plot has been the easiest and obvious device — a genre that came of age in the 1970s and the Airport series. Other approaches, too, have had success, from the openly silly (Snakes on a Plane) to the disgracefully unrealistic (Flight). And forty years later, we’re still laughing at Leslie Nielsen’s lines from Airplane.

With aviation, its when Hollywood tries its hardest that it most badly screws up. For that reason, I’ve never been fond of movies about airplanes. Instead, to me, the best and most meaningful moments are those when a plane appears incidentally. Sure, the aircraft is the vessels aboard which we embark on so many exciting, ruinous, or otherwise life-changing journeys. But it’s the furtive glimpses that best capture this, far more evocatively than any blockbuster disaster script: the propeller plane dropping the spy in some godforsaken battle zone, or taking the ambassador and his family away from one; the Convair jet in the final scene of Dog Day Afternoon; the Air Afrique ticket booklet in the hands of a young Jack Nicholson in The Passenger; the Polish Tupolevs roaring in the background of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue IV. These little moments, when air travel and culture intersect, are always a thrill to discover.

Switching to music, I think of a United Airlines TV ad that ran briefly in the mid 1990s — a plug for their new Latin American destinations. The commercial starred a parrot, who proceeded to peck out several seconds of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on a piano. “Rhapsody” has remained United’s advertising music, and makes a stirring accompaniment to the shot of a 777 set against the sky.

We shouldn’t forget the late Joe Strummer’s reference to the Douglas DC-10 in the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs,” but it’s the Boeing family that’s the more musically inclined. I can think of at least four songs mentioning 747s — Nick Lowe’s “So it Goes” being my favorite…

“…He’s the one with the tired eyes.
Seven-forty-seven put him in that condition…
Flyin’ back from a peace-keepin’ mission.”

Somehow the Airbus brand doesn’t lend itself lyrically, though Kinito Mendez, a merengue songwriter, paid a sadly foreboding tribute to the Airbus A300 with “El Avion,” in 1996. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” sings Mendez, immortalizing American Airlines’ popular morning nonstop between New York and Santo Domingo. In November, 2001, the flight crashed after takeoff from Kennedy airport killing 265 people.

My formative years, musically speaking, hail from the underground rock scene covering a span from about 1981 through 1986. This might not seem a particularly rich genre from which to mine out links to flight, but the task proves easier than you’d expect. “Airplanes are fallin’ out of the sky…” sings Grant Hart on a song from Hüsker Dü’s 1984 masterpiece, Zen Arcade, and three albums later his colleague Bob Mould shouts of a man “sucked out of the first class window!”

In an earlier era, the Beatles were “Back in the U.S.S.R.” on a flight with B.O.A.C, but they neglected to tell us which aircraft type. The timing tells us it was probably a 707 or a VC-10. (That’s the Vickers VC-10, a ’60s-era jet conspicuous for having four aft-mounted engines.)

Then we’ve got cover art. The back side of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record shows a Douglas DC-8. On the front cover of the English Beat’s 1982 album, Special Beat Service, band members walk beneath the wing of British Airways VC-10. The Beastie Boys’ 1986 album Licensed to Ill depicts an airbrushed American Airlines 727.

The well-known Congolese painter Cheri Cherin is one of very few artists to commemorate a plane crash on canvas. His “Catastrophe de Ndolo,” seen below, depicts a 1996 incident in Zaire, as it was known at the time, in which an overloaded Antonov freighter careened off the runway at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport and slammed into a market killing an estimated 300 people.

Cheri Cherin's "Catastrophe de Ndolo" (1999)

Cheri Cherin’s “Catastrophe de Ndolo” (1999)

I asked Sister Wendy Beckett what she thought of Cherin’s non-masterpiece. You probably remember Sister Wendy — art historian, critic, and Catholic nun — from the PBS series a few years ago. “A splendidly gory recreation,” she tells us. “We see a bloody, devastated marketplace marked with the hulk of a burning fuselage. Yet the true fury of the event is captured not in the fire and gore, but in the cries and gestures of the people. It’s the apocalyptic landscape of a Bosch painting seen through the anguished psyche of modern African folk art.”

Yeah I made that up. In any case, Cheri Cherin has nothing on a certain young artist whose pièce de résistance appears below. This work commemorates the horrific, completely imagined three-way collision between Swissair, American Airlines and TWA. I would date this to 1975 or so, when I was nine years-old.

Disaster Over Fenley St.  Patrick Smith (c.1975).  Colored pencil on paper.

And, while this is maybe broadening things too much, allow me to note there’s a go-go bar in Bangkok’s Nana Plaza called the DC-10, and another, less raunchy nightclub in Brussels called the DC-8.

Last but not least, the Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry registers no fewer than 20 entries under “Airplanes,” 14 more for “Air Travel,” and at least another five under “Airports.” including poems by Frost and Sandburg. John Updike’s Americana and Other Poems was reviewed by Kirkus as, “a rambling paean for airports and big American beauty.” (And while I can’t seem to find it, I specifically recall an Allen Ginsberg poem in which he writes of the blue taxiway lights at an airport somewhere.) Subjecting readers to my own aeropoems is probably a bad idea, though I confess to have written a few. You’re free to Google them at your peril. Maybe it was the cockpit checklists that inspired me, free-verse masterpieces that they are:

Stabilizer trim override, normal
APU generator switch, off
Isolation valve, closed


Closing note:

Looking at that Boeing 727 tail section on the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill album, there are several things that give it away as an American Airlines plane. First is the angled-off tricolor cheatline — red, white, and blue — visible just forward of the engine. Those obviously are AA markings. Then you’ve got the all-silver base — another tradition of that carrier — as well as the whitish, off-color section of cowling over and around the center engine intake. This section of cowling was made of a different material, so they couldn’t use the bare silver here, going with a grayish-white paint instead. This gave the tails of AA’s 727s a mismatched look. Oh, and lastly, notice the black lettering to the lower right of the flag. This is the spot where the registration decals went. It would say, for example, “N483AA” Except, in this case, it says “3MTA3 DJ.” The DJ part is for Def Jam records. The “3MTA3”  means nothing…. until you hold it in front of a mirror.

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35 Responses to “Air Travel in Art, Music and Film”
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  1. James West says:

    I remember a Cowboy Junkies lyric… “747 tracing lines through the sky”

  2. Planely Obsessed says:

    One that I can think of is Pink Floyd’s On the Run. No lyrics at all, just some clever synthesiser effects that sound like helicopters, recordings of jets and props taxiing and taking off, and a distorted PA announcement (“Have your baggage and passport ready and then follow the green line to customs and immigration. BA 215 to Rome, Cairo and Lagos”).

  3. John O'Dwyer says:

    Dammit! How could I have forgotten Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” – cut your engines, cool your wings, and taxi to the terminal dome!

  4. Lyn Robb says:

    Songs: None more obvious to me than Roger Miller’s Boeing Boeing. Which of course definitely dates me 🙂
    Overcharge for excess baggage know your concourse know your gate
    Up this way sir not that way sir airplane departs gate six eight
    Please sir may I see your ticket fasten your seat belt you can’t smoke
    Beverage anything you’d care for sorry but we’re out of coke

    Boeing Boeing 707 going going skywardly heavenly
    Higher than bluebirds fly why then oh why can’t I

    Destination de-plane slowly do this do that l comply
    God bless Orville God bless Wilbur it’s the only way to fly
    Boeing Boeing 707…
    Boeing Boeing 707…
    Boeing Boeing Boeing Boeing

  5. Joseph Muller says:

    Gordon Lightfoot’s epic (well, for Canucks) “Early Morning Rain” has a detailed reference of someone wanting to head back west (I guess 27 didn’t rhyme, but that’s artistic licence for you), whose mortal faults hold them earth-bound:

    Out on runway number nine a big 707’s set to go
    But, I’m stuck here in the grass where the cold wind blows
    Now, the liquor tasted good and the women all were fast
    Well, there she goes, my friend, well she’s going down at last

    Hear the mighty engines roar – see the silver bird on high
    She’s away and westward bound – far above the clouds she’ll fly

    There the morning rain don’t fall and the sun always shines
    She’ll be flying over my home in about three hours time

    This old airport’s got me down – it’s no earthly good to me
    ’cause I’m stuck here on the ground as cold and drunk as I can be
    You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
    So, I’d best be on my way in the early morning rain

  6. Martin says:

    One thing that most movie and TV scenes get wrong on airplanes is the background noise, or better stated, the lack of any. Airplane cabins are inherently noisy places (at least behind the engines), yet on film you could hear a pin drop. Granted, having jet engine noise at full volume would drown out the dialogue and be unpleasant for viewers, but there has got to be a away to mix in some background sound to make the scene feel more realistic.

    I also find it tedious when a film uses a generic airplane shot to indicate that the action is changing location. It is effective, but feels lazy.

    Compare to the scene in “When Harry Met Sally”, inside the plane, The plane and the trip are important to the plot, and there is even a little bit of engine noise.

    And the airport coming out scene from the TV show “Ellen”,, was one of the most important cultural moments for the destigmatization of LGBs (Ts weren’t in Ellen’s mix) in the history of their struggle.

  7. Dan Prall says:

    Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?

  8. Edward Furey says:

    In the 1955 musical, “Funny Face,” Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, et al, head for Paris from New York on a TWA Constellation. A surprising amount of business takes place on the plane and I realized that, among other things, the movie is telling mid-Fifties Americans that Europe is an overnight flight away. Making a two-week vacation possible.

    My favorite “movies getting planes wrong” bit comes in “Princess O’Rourke” in which Olivia deHavilland gets onto a DC-3, the engine start is the Lockheed Electra footage from “Casablanca,” and the plane that takes off is a Boeing 247.

    Gordon Lightfoot got a “Big 707” out on runway number 9 and also discussed the melancholy feeling of being in an airport with no place to go in “Early Morning Rain.” But I fear I’m dating myself here.

    • John O'Dwyer says:

      Shocking! You’d have thought that Olivia, being the cousin of aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland, would have insisted on them getting the details right!

  9. John O'Dwyer says:

    One of my favourite twentieth-century British artists is Eric Ravilious, who loved to paint ships, trains, planes and, indeed, any old bits of machinery. Sadly, he was killed in the Second World War, before air travel became so widespread. Sometimes he painted highly stylised aircraft; other times his planes are instantly recognisable, as in the two examples of his work on his Wikipedia entry:

    And don’t forget the sleeve of Frank Sinatra’s “Come fly with me” album:

  10. Alan Dahl says:

    Were you aware that Airplane! is a remake of sorts of the 1950’s film Zero Hour! based on the Arthur Hailey book Runway Zero-Eight? The producers of Airplane! bought up the rights to the earlier movie so it was out-of-print until maybe a decade ago. Zero Hour! is funnier the more you watch it as scene after scene rolls by, some barely changed. Many of the iconic Airplane! lines exist in the earlier film as well and the engine noise of the DC-4 from that film is used in Airplane! too despite the latter featuring a 707. Lastly there is a retired sports star, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, inexplicitly playing the pilot (and speaking the now-famous line “Joey, have you ever been in the cockpit of an airplane before?”.

    Note: Zero Hour! itself is a remake of the CBC television production Flight into Danger featuring James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek). Zero Hour! was also remade as Terror in the Sky for ABC’s Movie of the Week in 1971. So if you’re counting that’s 4 films all from the same book and none of them using the original title!

    • mitch says:

      Peter Graves was the strange captain; the F/O was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The engines sounded more like turboprops than a DC-4.

      “The white zone is . . . ”
      “Vector, Victor”
      “And don’t call me Shirley . . . ”
      “But that’s not important”

      Re-connecting Otto Pilot

      Never mind its origins, “Airplane!” stands alone as one of the all-time funniest comedy classics.

  11. Know You're a Hüsker Dü fanatic says:

    RIP, Grant Hart.

  12. ReadyKilowatt says:

    Part of the issue is that not too many people have flown an airplane. Any idiot with a pulse can get a driver’s license, and a good many of them are able to scrape together $5000 to own a motorcycle. Getting into a personal aircraft is a high-dollar endeavor, and they guys who can afford one are people with exciting careers like dentist and engineer, where an analytical mind that deals in facts is an asset.

    And there’s nothing sexy (to a non-pilot) about a piper cub.

    I drive past KASE (Aspen Colorado) just about every day. There are some pretty nice looking private planes parked on the tarmac. Some that could even warrant a gallery showing if photographed properly. But most of the world will never see KASE, and of those that do they have no interest in the outside of a private plane, because for them it’s just transportation.

  13. Dave Walker says:

    The Beatles: “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (flew into Miami B.O.A.C…)

    • Patrick says:

      I wonder how many people today could tell you what the USSR was, or what BOAC was.

      • Bev Brookes says:

        I can!!! (Born 1947) Union of Soviet Socialist Republics British Overseas Airways Corporation.

      • Alan Dahl says:

        Or why the British Airways call sign is “Speedbird”…

        • Mike Richards says:

          That’s from the gorgeous art-deco logo designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott in 1932 for Imperial Airways which was merged with British Airways Ltd in 1940 to create BOAC.

          BOAC was then partially broken up after the war to create BOAC, British European Airways to serve European markets, and the infamous and deadly British South American Airways. BOAC merged with BSAA in 1949 (and stopped killing BSAA’s passengers). BOAC and BEA were then merged in 1974 reviving the British Airways brand.

          But why can’t they bring back the Speedbird logo? Apparently that sad little red and blue ribbon that isn’t even deserving of Patrick’s dreaded ‘swoosh’ is a limp little thing like a peeling bandaid. Let’s go back to something like this beauty – a VC10 in full Speedbird livery:

          America, you build amazing airliners, but you’ve never made anything this pretty.

      • Mark Maslowski says:

        I can. I flew in a BOAC VC-10 from Nairobi to Bombay in 1970. Nice plane!

        Just FYI – the recording of the airplane landing at the beginning of “Back in the USSR” is of a Vickers Viscount, the world’s first turboprop airliner.

  14. Dave Walker says:

    Pop Will Eat Itself: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. About a fear of flying.

  15. Ben says:

    The first thing that came to my mind here was the Boeing 747. I don’t know of any other airliner that has become a pop culture icon like it.

  16. Dave M. says:

    I always wondered what you thought of Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings.” If you’ve seen it, that is.

    Great arial photography. (specifically, a mountain-top rescue scene) Great foxhole mentality/gallows humor from the assembled team of mail-route flyers.

    It’s always been one of my favorites.

  17. Paddy Free says:

    I’ve always liked this one:

    “Flying North” by Thomas Dolby

    Metal bird dip wing of fire
    whose airlanes comb dark Earth
    the poles are tethers we were born in
    on the brink of a whole new deal
    on the floor of a hotel bar
    I’m staring right into the light
    and I’m drawn in like a moth
    and I’m flying North again…

    Here come the men in suits
    papers waving in the runway glare
    Lincoln streaming in the chilly air of the morning
    at the end of a double day
    at the back of an airport lounge
    I’m staring down into the cold
    and I’m worn out like a cloth
    and I’m flying North again tonight.

    Down with the landing gear
    up goes the useless prayer
    the poles are tethers we were born in
    now I’m back in the London night
    on a bench in a launderette
    I’m staring right into my face
    and I’m drawn out like a plot
    and I’m flying North again tonight.

  18. Simon says:

    Songs about flying… Airplanes… Airports…

    A few that spring into my mind;

    The Beach Boys, Airplane, from The Beach Boys Love You album in 1977.

    Over the city in an airplane
    I can see everything below
    The houses they look so tiny
    The cars look like dots
    We’ve only got fifteen minutes to go

    The clouds in the sky caress my mind so tenderly
    The sun shines down on the great big beautiful scene

    The sound of the engine fills my ears up
    I’m hopin’ this rainy weather clears up
    My lover is waiting at the airport
    Soon she’ll be kissing me hello

    The woman sitting next to me tells me ’bout her guy
    And I tell her all about you and I

    Airplane, airplane
    Carry me back to her side
    Airplane, airplane
    I need God as my guide
    Down, down on the ground
    Can’t wait to see her face

    There is also an interesting song from a mexican band called Kinky, from their Atlas album (2003). It depicts the steps before boarding a plane. It is a very interesting one (!):

    From a line at the counter
    boarding pass always with you
    now this is your gate number welcome aboard

    fasten seatbelt while seated
    turn off everything with your
    electronic devices welcome aboard

    i’ve got these airport feelings
    all over you i’m ready for landing
    i’m ready to lose

    this is your captain speaking
    thirty three thousand feet high
    now your skin is my runway welcome aboard

    i’ve got these airport feelings
    all over you i’m ready for landing
    i’m ready to lose

    now your skin is my runway i’m ready to lose.

    And another one comes to mind; John Denver’s 1966 classic that everyone knows….

    But, I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
    Don’t know when I’ll be back again
    Oh babe, I hate to go…

  19. TXC says:

    I thought immediately of “Suzie Lightning” by Warren Zevon, with its opening line: “She only sleeps on planes … ”

  20. Clark says:

    One of my favourite airplane songs, when I’m on a long-haul night flight back to London, is from Tom Petty’s under-rated 1982 album “Long After Dark”:

    I remember flying out to London
    I remember the feeling at the time
    Out the window of the 747
    Man there was nothin’, only black sky

    We went Straight Into Darkness…

  21. Ad aburdum per aspera says:

    I’d take a wild guess that pretty much every jet in “Calvin and Hobbes” is a 727. (Well rendered, too. The strips can have a deceptive simplicity, but Bill Watterson can just flat-out draw when the situation calls for it.)

    Music? Tons of ’em. Gordon Lightfoot namechecks the 707 in “Early Morning Rain”. Te late Henson Cargill reveals why he’s a songwriter rather than a pilot in “Some Old California Memory” (unless in some parallel universe the 747 has two engines and was called the Whisperjet; but it’s a good song anyway). The Learjet had enough pop-cultural range to make it from Carly Simon to Sheryl Crow nonstop.

    For air travel as extended metaphor, it’s hard to outdo

    And though it isn’t exactly about air *travel,* I’ll put this out there in parting because listening to it, especially in a drought year, always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Bonus points for its being a pretty darned faithful step-by step poetic rendering of the 1940s part, as opposed to the modern-day detective-work part, of the book Young Men and Fire. Songwriter James Keelaghan’s own version is on the Web too.

    • Anonymous says:

      Trying to reply to Ad aburdum per aspera

      If you’re thinking passenger jets, the 727 might be right, but there are a lot of Calvin & Hobbes episodes with military jets.

      An F-15 attacking his school in a daydream before he gets to the school. November 6, 1988.
      Tyrannosauruses attacking prey in F-14
      Calvin in an F-4 with construction defects–representing a model he wrote..

      Okay, I better get back to work.

  22. Alex says:

    “Still, you won’t find framed lithographs of airplanes in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones of Boston, hanging alongside romanticized images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.”

    I’m not so sure about that. I know they’re not really lithographs, but still, I have a poster of Georgia O’Keefe’s Brooklyn Bridge in close proximity this wonderful 1937 (when design mattered, I guess) poster celebrating NYC’s municipal airports:

    Well, to be fair, I don’t live in either SoHo or Boston (but I kind of wish I did).

  23. Alex says:

    The first song that comes to mind for me is “Jet Airliner,” by Paul Pena, made famous by the Steve Miller Band: “But my heart keeps calling me backwards/As I get on the seven-oh-seven.”

    (As a side note, I highly recommend the documentary “Ghengis Blues” to learn more about Paul Pena — and Tuvan throat-singing.)

  24. Simon says:

    I find it interesting that the artist managed to combine two SR liveries into one in his famous 1975 oeuvre. The red cheatline is reminiscent of their original livery. However, in that livery the flag only covered the upper part of the tail fin and the company name was printed all-caps above the wing. The artist, however, chose to show the tail fin as it later appeared in SR’s 1980s livery using the black & brown cheatline and lowercase brand name (the artist chose all caps here) in the front section of the aircraft. Considering the artist’s young age, the foresight and creativity that went into this work are astounding.

  25. GS test says: