Helicopters have captured the imagination of aviation enthusiasts and civilians alike for more than a century.
Over the years, Hollywood has capitalized on this by pushing the envelope with a crush of spectacular, helicopter-based action sequences.
So let’s take a look, in no particular order, at some of the most breathtaking helicopter scenes in movies.
Possibly the most memorable helicopter scene ever filmed is the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war saga. It’s stirring, cinematic and a certified classic.
Moving from a serene shot of a group of helicopters over the ocean to a chaotic battle scene, the sequence introduced a new audience to Wagner’s music and made a mark on Hollywood history.
“Apocalypse Now” also featured helicopters prominently in its opening scene, showing a jungle landscape being bombed while The Doors’ haunting song “The End” plays – another combination of visuals and music that has made an impact on film fans.
Much like “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic used music to a powerful degree during its major helicopter sequence, incorporating Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
In the sequence, Sergeant Grodin (Willem Dafoe), betrayed and wounded by Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), emerges from the jungle while his remaining men are retreating from the air. Instead of being presented offensively, the helicopters here are shown as a means of escape and salvation, something Grodin is ultimately denied as he is cut down by enemy forces.
‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’
One of the best action films of the 1990s, if not of all time, also features a very memorable helicopter scene. After bursting through an upper-story window on a motorcycle, the villainous T-1000 (Robert Patrick) grabs onto and commandeers a police helicopter, then begins pursuing our heroes.
What follows is a thrilling chase on a highway, with shots being exchanged as the T-1000 keeps his vehicle hovering mere feet above the ground.
A lesser known but still impressive helicopter sequence comes from this 1995 film. The film’s lead scientist (Dustin Hoffman) is working to develop a cure to a rampaging virus, but a shady group is attempting to weaponize it.
As the scientist and a major flee with the host animal in a helicopter, they’re pursued by multiple choppers hellbent on stopping them. All four vehicles whiz through a forest, displaying some exciting maneuvers along the way.
Bond movies are famous for their spectacular action sequences. The 2015 spy adventure, the most recent in the long-running series, is no exception. With Daniel Craig’s Bond in hot pursuit of a villain in Mexico City, he follows the man onto a helicopter as it takes off.
Bond struggles with both the man and pilot as the helicopter careens wildly above a crowded plaza. Our hero eventually trades blows with the man atop a landing skid. With its fast pace, quick cuts and impressive stunts, this sequence definitely stands out as one of the best helicopter scenes in recent history.
As Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt pursues the traitorous Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) atop a train in the film’s climax, Phelps’s accomplice Krieger (Jean Reno) follows behind on a helicopter to help Phelps escape.
Once Hunt secures Krieger’s chopper to the train with a heavy cable, the villain is forced to follow the train into a lengthy tunnel, and both keep up with and avoid hitting the train itself. In one notable moment, Krieger even attempts to use the helicopter’s blades to cut Hunt, before our hero leaps to the vehicle and plants an explosive with his memorable, “Red light! Green light!”
‘Hobbs & Shaw’
One of the silliest helicopter scenes of recent memory still deserves a place on this list. With the villain Brixton Lore’s helicopter tethered to Hobbs and Shaw’s tow truck, the heroes are greatly concerned as the chain starts to slip loose.
Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) grabs the chain and keeps a hold of the helicopter with only his strength, being pulled between both vehicles. The “Fast and the Furious” movies, let alone the first spin-off vehicle, have never been much of a series for realism.
‘Black Hawk Down’
While most of the list’s entries hail from the action and thriller genres, “Black Hawk Down” belongs firmly in the gritty war film camp. The 2001 film showcases some of the dangers soldiers, particularly helicopter pilots, can face in the field.
With two Black Hawk helicopters shot down in Somalia, the film chronicles the crews’ struggle to stay alive and the efforts to rescue them. And while everything is grounded in reality, much of the film is still pulse-pounding, as it’s overseen by famed director Ridley Scott of “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator fame.”
‘Live Free or Die Hard’
Though it doesn’t receive as many accolades as earlier entries in the series, the fourth film in the “Die Hard” saga boasts some spectacular action sequences, including a notable helicopter scene.
Bruce Willis’ John McClane leaps from the police car he’s driving after being shot at by henchman in a helicopter. He lets the vehicle speed forward and climb up a toll booth, sending the car skyward.
What follows is an impressive bit of special effects work as the car crashes into the chopper, taking out the baddies. Even more impressive? The bulk of the sequence used practical effects, with digital artists cleaning up some elements of the crash.
The Matrix stands out as one of the seminal films of the ‘90s, with its action sequences being some of the freshest and best ever put on screen.
In one daring moment, Neo and Trinity free Morpheus from his AI captors by way of a helicopter. The sequence involves characters dangling from extreme heights, a ruptured fuel line and a stunning, physics-defying crash.
‘Kong: Skull Island’
If you’re looking for a rip-roaring helicopter scene, this “Kong” battle is the way to go. While the King Kong of the 1930s battled airplanes atop the Empire State Building, the more recent model takes on a fleet of military helicopters invading his home.
Some truly dazzling CGI and special effects work makes the scene an all-timer for the monster movie genre. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to put it on your list!
‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’
The long-running action series just keeps upping the ante with the newest entry pushing things to an amazing degree.
The scene features Ethan Hunt pursuing Henry Cavill’s villain in an epic helicopter chase through mountainous terrain. What’s most amazing about this sequence, though, is that Cruise’s piloting seen in the film is real, and that he learned to pilot a helicopter specifically for the film.
While not as death-defying and action-packed as many of the scenes listed above, a couple notable helicopter moments in movies come from the films “Dawn of the Dead” and “Predator.”
George A. Romero’s follow-up to his classic “Night of the Living Dead” features characters attempting to escape a zombie-infested mall via helicopter. In one of the film’s more inventive monster deaths, the chopper’s blades slice off the top portion of a zombie’s head, saving one of the key characters.
“Predator,” meanwhile, doesn’t feature any major scenes with a helicopter, but it does likely have the most famous movie line about the aircraft. While being pursued by the titular alien monster, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch tells another character to flee, uttering the immortal line, “Get to da chappah!”
We Miss Anything?
Have a favorite not on the list? Comment with your pick below!
Linton Lewis works with Cutting Dynamics, a leading manufacturer of essential components for aerospace companies. Some of his favorite movies include “Back to the Future,” “Inglourious Basterds” and the “Star Wars” series.