Which Aircraft Have Been Used As Film Sets?

The next time you are watching a movie with a plane in it, you might wonder how they got that shot? Was it computer-generated, or did the producers rent a plane? Which aircraft does Hollywood use for filmmaking? Let’s explore.

Which Aircraft Have Been Used As Film Sets?
How do film productions use aircraft in movies? Photo: British Airways

Renting a cargo Boeing 747

For the film Air Force One, Hollywood needed an entire plane for the film that looked as realistic as possible on the inside and out.

Instead of building a set, the production team hired a real-life 747 cargo plane from American International Airways and painted it in the presidential livery. This aircraft would fly and be the muse for the ‘exterior’ shots of the presidential plane. Apparently, the livery was so realistic that it confused some nearby fighter jets during production in California.

“They came up and saw what looked like Air Force One full of bullet holes [simulated by decals],” the director of the film recalls to Air Space Magazine. “Once they ID’ed it, [Los Angeles Center] told them who we were and they broke off and went home. But I can just imagine what was going through their minds,” 

For the interiors, the production team partnered up with the US Air Force to use the actual previous Airforce One, a Boeing 727-200. Talk about realism!

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For the scene in which the hero needs to jump from the plane, the US Air Force provided a C-130 transport plane, strung a real-life wire between the two aircraft, and filmed it in flight. Alas, the dummy that zipped across was tossed around by the wind so much that it was cut and replaced with a computer-generated look-alike.

A Boeing 747 in a spy film

Another example of Hollywood renting a well-known aircraft is an ex-British Airways Boeing 747-200, tail number G-BDXJ, that starred in the James Bond film Casino Royale. Painted with the fictional N88892 livery, the plane was decked out as a new prototype aircraft, the Skyfleet S570, from a fictional aviation firm Skyfleet Aviation. The filmmakers changed the aircraft’s engine nacelle to have two engines and give it a retro space-age look.

A miniature model of the 747 that was made for the hangar scene. Photo: Morio via Wikimedia

This same Boeing 747 would also be used for a music video featuring Westlife, and for an advert for insurance firm Compare The Market. Only yesterday, British Airways has also sold another ex-747-400 to the same firm, and it will join this spy 747 at the BBC Top Gear test track for filmmaking purposes.

Buying a 747 to crash it

Our next example comes from the 2020 film Tenet. This film has only been released in some cinemas worldwide, and thus we won’t discuss the movie’s plot. But it does feature a Boeing 747 with a very unusual role. During development, it was discovered that it would be cheaper to buy an older 747 frame and crash it for real (while rolling on the tarmac) than use computer imagery.

“We started to run the numbers … It became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform this sequence for real in-camera, rather than build miniatures or go the CG route.” Director Christopher Nolan said in an interview.

The crew found the plane while scouting locations in Victorville, California. Because the plane only rolled on the ground (and didn’t need to fly), the filmmakers could use a real cargo 747 for the majority of the scene (and interiors) and then swap it out for a shell for the crash. Talk about a second life for an airframe.

Buying a plane to chop it up

But one director went a step further. In the film adaptation of War Of The Worlds, there is a scene where the hero awakes to a plane crash with what appears to be an entire aircraft strewn across a neighborhood. You can watch the scene here:

To achieve this look for only three days of filming, an old Boeing 747 was brought to the production set at Universal Studios, California, and chopped up. The plane itself only cost $60,000, but the cost of the transport itself was around $200,000. The set can still be visited today in Los Angeles and has most certainly paid itself off.

How do films shoot inside of a plane?

These three examples above show how Hollywood uses the exteriors of planes, but how do they get the actors’ interior shots moving around the cabin? That is where the professional Air Hollywood comes in.

This firm specializes in aviation filming and offers an incredible range of sets. Everything from 737s, 767s, private jets, cockpits, toilets, terminals, and jetbridges. They even have an entire Boeing 747 layout with three classes fashioned in a 1970 Pan Am interior.

“Air Hollywood’s 747 Wide-Body Jet has the iconic airline Pan Am interior furnishing and styling. There are three cabins – the Main Deck first class Cabin or “A Zone,” where the walls taper towards the nose of the aircraft, the Main Deck business class Cabin, and the uber-swanky Upper Deck Lounge.”

These sets are nearly all portable, are customizable, and can be taken anywhere in the world.

Why doesn’t Hollywood use real cabin interiors?

Some films feature actual airline cabins (especially if it’s a quick shot), although airlines are generally reluctant to dip their toes into the limelight. For the film Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore Airlines declined the producer’s request to film in its first class cabin (despite the film being all about Singapore’s luxury side).

Crazy Rich Asians producer Brad Simpson told The Wrap,

“But they [Singapore] were not sure the movie would represent the airline and their customer in a good light. … they [want to] make you want to visit the country.” He went on to add, “People didn’t have faith in this movie. They didn’t know what this movie was. It seems obvious now, but when we were making it, everyone thought it was a little movie, and they were very suspicious about what we were trying to do.”

The actors instead flew onboard a set of a fictional airline called ‘Pacific Asean Airlines.’

It is incredible to see what can be done with Hollywood magic; alas, the one thing we have yet to see is our heroes inside of a realistic economy cabin with only 30 inches of legroom!

What do you think? Have you been on an aircraft set before? Let us know in the comments!