Flying on Film


cover-encyclopedia vol 1


Flying on Film

A Century of Aviation in the Movies 1912 – 2012

Second Edition

By Mark Carlson

Award winner at the 2014 Hollywood Book Festival and featured at the 2013 Reel Stuff Aviation Film Festival

From the Book Jacket

‘Airplanes and motion pictures were born within a year of one another. In 100 years they have both risen from uncertain infancy to growing adolescence to robust maturity. While Hollywood’s actors and directors learned the art of making movies, the aircraft industry and pilots learned how to conquer the sky. In peace and war, prosperity and depression, the airplanes and motion pictures have become a part of American culture.

In Flying on Film movie fans and aviation buffs can find their common bond with tiny biplanes dueling in the skies to vast armadas of bombers, from majestic China Clippers to huge 747s, from slow monoplanes to swift jets. The movies told the story of the airplane. William A. Wellman’s 1927 masterpiece Wings was the first of the breed, a standard to be emulated.

Flying on Film tells the history behind the films, the story behind the camera. Veterans and aviators from past and present tell the real story of one of the most fascinating genres of motion pictures in Hollywood.

From the Foreword by William A. Wellman, Jr.

“Mark Carlson has produced a remarkable and insightful chronicle of a 100-year history of aviation in the movies. He sketches an incredible portrait of the films, the diversity of aircraft, and the highly skilled and courageous flyers who helped make these films the spectacles that they became.

In this book, he has flown a resolute route, through brilliant blue skies surrounded by billowy white clouds, into 100 years of aviation in the movies. It is a book my father would love.”

430 pages

236 photos

14 Chapters

200+ interviews with pilots, veterans, directors, film crew, actors and historians

Foreword by William A. Wellman, Jr.



  • Warbird Digest

Ron Kaplan, Reel Stuff Aviation Film Festival

Have you watched the movie Battle of Britain so many times that you can recite the dialogue, in accent– “You can teach monkeys to fly better than that!” Did you finally shell out for a Blu-Ray deck, only because the silent classic, Wings, was just digitally re-mastered on DVD with a new score and sound effects? If so, have I got a new book for you! A must-have for any aviation film buff is the newly released, ‘Flying on Film – A Century of Aviation in the Movies, 1912-2012’ by Mark Carlson. When it comes to aviation movie history, Carlson not only knows the right stuff, he knows the right people, and lots of them. The author is an aviation writer who also serves as a popular docent at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and his knowledge and relationships are put to good use in this welcomed new look at a hundred year old medium that we never seem to tire of. Delving into a century of Hollywood aviation would seem a challenge, but Carlson has organized this book into chapters that enable him to cover a wealth of material, all in a deft, smooth style that makes it difficult to put down. He’s admittedly skipped a few wholly forgettable films, leaving only 174 (!) movies deemed not necessarily the best, but considered the most interesting. I believe he’s chosen wisely.

The very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture was the late pilot and director William A. Wellman’s aforementioned 1927 classic, Wings, the first of eleven aviation-themed movies Wellman would produce over his colorful career. Thus fittingly, Carlson’s chronicle kicks off with an introduction by the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr.

Then it’s off to the movies, starting with director Mack Sennett’s 1912 silent, A Dash Through the Clouds and accounts of Hollywood’s fascination with flight that followed. All along the way, the author’s not shy about calling out his favorites – or vice versa – with spot-on observations– “Pearl Harbor is about as historically accurate as a Tom & Jerry cartoon,” that he then backs up with the facts that call out the fiction.

For we ‘behind-the-scenes, how’d-they-do-that?’ junkies, those facts often come from interviews with actors, directors, and the pilots that flew for the studios. If you’re more of a stickler for historical accuracy, expect to be enlightened by the unvarnished observations and anecdotes from numerous veteran flyers, several of whom flew in the very events that inspired a movie’s storyline, such as test pilot Bob Cardenas, Tokyo Raider David Thatcher, and aces Dean “Diz” Laird and Ralph Parr. As a result, films are typically presented not only in their historical context but as seen through the lenses of their social and cultural impact, as well.

That’s not to infer that Carlson neglects exploring non-military aviation features, including adventures, comedies, and even some non-aviation fare. As long as a production made appreciable on-screen use of planes, helicopters, dirigibles or other powered aircraft, you’ll likely find them documented – deservedly celebrated or skewered, as well.

It’s been nearly thirty years since the last, best histories of aviation cinema hit the stores. Compellingly readable and generously illustrated, ‘Flying on Film’ thankfully fills that space – you know, that space on my bookshelf, right below the Toby mug.

  • By Ed Davidson, B-17 Pilot, 96th Bomb Group,

I have just finished reading ‘Flying on Film’ by Mark Carlson and highly recommend this book to all who love flying and/or films. The book is well written and does a superb job of tying together the histories of FLIGHT & FILM. The book contains short resumes of the films and reminded me of the story line of the films, many of which were watched long ago.

  • By Robert E. Johnston, Management Consultant, San Diego Air & Space Museum

Aerospace Industry Executive

This is a must read for both film and aviation enthusiasts. Mark Carlson’s writing style always provides an enjoyable, while still very knowledgeable read. Highly recommended.

  • Pacific Flyer February 2013

Wayman Dunlap, Editor

If you are like most aviators, you have a library of motion pictures that feature airplanes in one way or another – from Hollywood fantasies like 1933’s Flying Down To Rio to Top Gun to documentaries. Airplanes and the people who fly them have always fascinated Hollywood. In fact the first Academy Award (1929) was for William A. Wellman’s 1927 silent movie called Wings about two WW I aviators in love with the same woman. Wellman’s son is interviewed in the book.
And as author Mark Carlson points out, “Airplanes and motion pictures were born within a year of one another. In 100 years they have both risen from uncertain infancy through growing adolescence to robust maturity. While Hollywood’s actors and directors learned the art of making movies, the aircraft industry and pilots learned how to conquer the sky.”
Carlson has just released his new book about the aviation movies made by Hollywood, from wooden biplanes to armadas of warplanes, from majestic China Clippers to huge 747s, from slow monoplanes to swift jets. Over the years, the movies told the story of the airplane. How many can you name off the top of your head?
We came up with 25 but you can probably do better.
Carlson seemingly talked to everyone who is anyone in aviation and the movies; his acknowledgement pages read like the history of the air, from famous actors to notable pilots.
Interspersed with photos of famous aircraft, pilots and actors, it’s the definitive study of the symbiotic relationship between aviation and movies. Carlson’s detail is amazing and it takes 412 pages to tell the story.
While airplane movies helped sell box office tickets, the movies helped promote aviation. In Flying on Film movie fans and aviation buffs can find their common bond.
Carlson is a good writer, spare and to the point, not wasting time on multi-syllabic adjectives or fancy-schmancy descriptions. He writes like aviators talk which makes the book all the more interesting.
I intend to keep my copy by my easy chair so when an aviation movie pops up I can read its history before seeing it. We suggest you do, as well.

  • Aviation History Magazine

By Col. Walter Boyne, USAF (Ret.)

Few articles can provoke more letters to the editor than one on “The Ten Best (or Worst) Aviation Films.” Try as you might to be objective, there is no way that the author’s selections will match those of all (or even a few) of the readers, and the reactions are prompt and pithy.

Mark Carlson’s new book will provide plenty of ammunition for both sides as he looks at the remarkable confluence of film and flying for over a century. Both disciplines started out in a primitive manner, both gained style and expertise over the years, and in both we find accurate reflections of the era being examined.

The author did his research well, conducting many interviews with movie pilots, directors, heroes such as the late, great Ralph Parr, and for full disclosure, me.

He had guidance from William A. Wellman, Jr. the son of the famous director who combined his flying and film experience to create such great films as the first Oscar winner Wings and eleven other memorable works.

Carlson adopted a sensible if a little unusual approach to his history. There is a general chronological approach, but he also has chapters devoted to film types, i.e. airliner, action, comedies. The films within the latter chapter are also kept in chronological order as a rule.

The major films naturally receive more extensive treatment, and wherever possible, Carlson provides data on where the film was made, what aviation interests any of the principals may have had, and of course, which aircraft were used. He does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, especially for genuine turkeys such as Richthofen and Brown.

Flying on Film covers many motion pictures that are rarely seen any more, not even the worthy Turner Classic Movie channel provides quick references even to these obscure films. If you like aviation, or films, and particularly if you like aviation films, this book is for you.

  • By Hal Bryan, National Museum of the Air Force

An Indispensible Reference for the Aviation Film Buff

I’m a lifelong pilot and amateur aviation historian, not to mention an avid movie collector. Somewhere around a third of my movies exist in my collection solely because they’re aviation-related in some way. When I first heard of this book, it was immediately a ‘must-have’ There has been other books on the subject, but none are anywhere near as comprehensive as this one.
The book traces the parallel histories of aviation and motion pictures chronologically, but with a twist: the films are grouped largely by when they take place as opposed to when they were produced. This simple but extremely clever idea makes the book far more readable, and offers the opportunity to compare and contrast things like historical & technical accuracy among films made, in some cases, decades apart.
The author is an accomplished writer with an impressive CV, and it shows. The book is clear and engaging and, as I said, quite readable, making it far more than just an invaluable reference book. That said, it’s well indexed by film title, interviewee, and even aircraft type – as a hardcore aviation geek, that last bit is extremely important to me. Most readers, I suspect, might initially cherry-pick their way through, looking up films of particular interest, but the author’s insights on history and film-making will inevitably draw them in deeper, until they’ve journeyed cover-to-cover.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter, this book is absolutely a must-have. I’ve bought two copies so far, and, come Christmas, you can bet I’ll be picking up some more.

Below you will find a four-part video filmed at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2013. Mark Carlson was invited to present and sign his book. In this video he tells anecdotes and trivia from 100 years of aviation in the movies.

Flying on Film Part 1

Flying on Film Part 2

Flying on Film Part 3

Flying on Film Part 4


You can order the Second Edition of ‘Flying on Film’ on Amazon by clicking the links below:

Flying on Film KINDLE

Flying on Film PAPERBACK


Or you can get an autographed copy from Mark for $26.95 + $2.75 S/H

Contact Mark