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Who Is the Best Pilot in Movie and TV History?

Tom Hanks’s Sully joins the greats — but is he no. 1?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A few notes on Sully, the third film in Clint Eastwood’s hand-eye–coordination trilogy, which opened Friday:

1. It’s time for a permanent and unsentimental moratorium on Movie Scenes Where New Yorkers Have Small Talk About Sports. If I wanted to hear Turtle from Entourage debate Eckersley vs. Rivera with a cop, then I would take out my Entourage spec script where the B-plot is “Turtle debates Eckersley vs. Rivera with a cop.” But I promise you: I don’t want that at all. I just want to watch Sully fly his plane. Seriously, that’s it. I don’t ask for much. Thank you in advance.

2. Clint Eastwood essentially made a $60 million, 96-minute, uninterrupted, 9/11-evoking rant about how math and modernity are no match for REAL MEN TRUSTING THEIR GUT in 2016, and it worked. This is maybe a little (a little! just a little) amazing. Like, the last scene of Sully is basically Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart flicking a supercomputer on the forehead and saying “owned” in unison and then sitting back, smiling, and giving each other a slow-motion high-five. Sully is one of the most petty and thorough I told you so’s ever put to film. It’s Lots of Country for Old Men. It’s really sweet.

3. Sully is a good pilot.

But is he the best movie/TV pilot ever?

Let’s do this:

35. Matt Kowalski — ‘Gravity’ (George Clooney)

Dies.

34. Pilot Kevin — ‘Cast Away’ (Christopher Kriesa)

Crashes and dies.

33. Howard Hughes — ‘The Aviator’ (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Flies around the world in four days, which is a long time and not that impressive.

32. Goose — ‘Top Gun’ (Anthony Edwards)

Not here to spit on anyone’s grave, but Goose is probably an average pilot at best. Like, yeah, for sure: Goose puts up some impressive stats. But there is also zero evidence that he can produce on his own. Does Goose take a cool (OK: very cool) Polaroid of a MiG from 1.5-meter range at an inverted position? Yes. But what does he do, really? Maverick is the one who gets them at range, and Maverick is the one who gets them into position.

All Goose does is click on a camera.

Here is the honest truth: Goose, as Maverick’s copilot, is the product of a run-and-gun system. He has one of the weakest pilot mustaches ever committed to film. He dies in crunch time. And “great balls of fire” is a lower-tier catchphrase. He seems like a nice enough guy, but I’m sorry. Goose is nothing special.

31. Seth Norris — ‘Lost’ (Greg Grunberg)

Con: crashes Oceanic Flight 815, triggering the events of Lost. Pro: crashes Oceanic Flight 815, triggering the events of Lost.

30. Frank Abagnale — ‘Catch Me If You Can’ (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Not an actual pilot.

29. Topper Harley — ‘Hot Shots!’ (Charlie Sheen)

Act like you’ve been there before.

28. Roger Murdock — ‘Airplane!’ (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

Getting food poisoning isn’t clutch.

27. See below.

26. Frank Lapidus — ‘Lost’ (Jeff Fahey)

Knew not to get on Oceanic Flight 815, showing great veteran savvy.

25. Swamp Thing — ‘Con Air’ (M.C. Gainey)

Exactly the kind of pilot I’d want to fly with: doesn’t complain about his role. Produces when called upon. Keeps the cockpit loose.

24. President James Marshall — ‘Air Force One’ (Harrison Ford)

Consider, for a second, the raw talent on display in Air Force One from President James Marshall.

CALDWELL: “How long since you’ve flown, sir?”
MARSHALL: “Twenty-five years. Little planes. Never jets. Nothing like this.”

He has to fly a plane — unlike any he’s ever flown before — after 25 years out of the game. He has to do it manually. He has to do it under enemy fire. He has to do it having just overcome a hijacking. And he has to do it all without a copilot, unless you count William H. Macy as a copilot, which I don’t. The degree of difficulty here — and the skill needed to pull this off — is off the charts. The sports equivalent of James Marshall’s piloting performance in Air Force One would be if CM Punk made his UFC debut at age 37

and won.

23. Amelia Earhart — ‘Amelia’ (Hilary Swank)

No one can prove she crashed, and I ride with Swank until someone can.

22. Jeff Skiles — ‘Sully’ (Aaron Eckhart)

21. Wedge Antilles — ‘Star Wars’ (Denis Lawson)

Classic glue guys.

20. Chewbacca — ‘Star Wars’ (Peter Mayhew)

The difference between Chewie, Han Solo’s copilot, and Goose, Maverick’s copilot, is all about mind-set.

MAVERICK: Well, I just happened to see a MiG 28 do a —
GOOSE: We!
MAVERICK: Uh, sorry, Goose. We happened to see a MiG 28 do a 4g-negative dive.

Being the copilot isn’t about whining or begging for credit; it’s about letting your pilot’s star shine. Goose never gets that. And I’m not going to say he dies because of it — but I’m not not going to say that.

Chewie, on the other hand, knows who’s the pilot and who’s the copilot. He knows he’s there for one reason and one reason only: to let Han Solo be great. Bonus points for the fact that Chewie joins up with Rey after [SPOILER ALERT FOR PROBABLY THE MOST WATCHED MOVIE OF THE DECADE] Han Solo dies, proving that he’s not just an effective no. 2 for Han. I’m prepared to call Chewbacca the best copilot of all time.

19. See below.

18. Alan Shepard — ‘The Right Stuff’ (Scott Glenn)

17. Chuck Yeager — ‘The Right Stuff’ (Sam Shepard)

16. Gordon Cooper — ‘The Right Stuff’ (Dennis Quaid)

Picking the best pilot in The Right Stuff is super difficult. Alan Shepard is the first American to go into space. Chuck Yeager is the first and hottest person to fly at supersonic speed. Those are both really impressive accomplishments.

But I’m going to give the top spot to Gordon Cooper — and I think it’s how the movie wants it to be. To quote the voiceover at the end of The Right Stuff:

I’m convinced.

15. See below.

14. Baloo — ‘TaleSpin’ (animated)

Top, down / chrome spinning.

13. Hikaru Sulu — ‘Star Trek’ (John Cho)

Lukewarm take: Kirk sucks. Like, what is Kirk even good at? Organizing? Delegating? Talking? Captain … ing? Is he amazing at Excel? Captains in the Star Trek universe, to me, are pretty much like managers in baseball: There are probably five of them — tops — in the entire league who really make a difference. The rest are just … there. Staring out into the distance, occasionally being rude, and awkwardly wearing clothes they’ve long since emotionally outgrown.

Kirk is trash. Sulu is Star Trek’s MVP.

12. Cooper — ‘Interstellar’ (Matthew McConaughey)

11. Hannibal Lee — ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ (Laurence Fishburne)

10. Ted Striker — ‘Airplane!’ (Robert Hays)

The three pilots on this list who best understand what flying a plane is actually about:

Fall looks.

9. Chappy Sinclair — ‘Iron Eagle’ (Louis Gossett Jr.)

The Iron Eagle movies are dangerous as shit. I think I would die in 10 minutes in an Iron Eagle movie. Making it out of all four Iron Eagle movies — seven goddamn hours of Iron Eagle — alive is automatic top-10 status.

8. Maverick — ‘Top Gun’ (Tom Cruise)

7. Iceman — ‘Top Gun’ (Val Kilmer)

“Maverick, it’s not your flying,” Iceman says halfway through Top Gun. “It’s your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous — but right now you’re worse than the enemy. You’re dangerous and foolish.” This is tough. But I’ve gotta say: I mostly agree with Iceman.

Here are the major strikes against Maverick, as I see them:
(5) Dangerous and foolish.
(4) Hasn’t figured out his hair yet.
(3) Wears his towel too high so it looks like a backless dress.

(2) Lets copilot die on his watch.
(1) GOES BACK TO TOP GUN AS AN INSTRUCTOR.

The last one really stings. How good of a pilot can you really be if, given your pick of any (any!) assignment you want after Top Gun training, you choose “go back to school and become instructor”? Like, yeah, on some level, it’s commendable. But commendable is not what this is about. Imagine if Kevin Durant was a coach at Texas right now — imagine if he went right into coaching instead of the draft and never played a minute in the league. Maverick choosing to go back to Top Gun is like that. Honestly, putting him at no. 8 might be generous.

As for Iceman:

Scoreboard.

6. Starbuck — ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (Katee Sackhoff)

5. Steven Hiller — ‘Independence Day’ (Will Smith)

Elite, elite, elite pilots. Judged purely on ability, Starbuck and Hiller are probably indistinguishable from Maverick and Iceman. But what separates these two from the Top Gun duo is a little thing called stakes. Top Gun School is extremely dope, don’t get me wrong — but Maverick and Iceman are in training for most of the movie. It’s still life or death (Goose, you were too young), but the stakes are relatively low. And when they finally have a “crisis situation” at the end? Who even knows what that shit is. There’s a “ship … in foreign territory … something something.” It’s all very vague. You could argue that, had Maverick and Iceman been mediocre pilots throughout Top Gun, the same number of people would have died. It just didn’t matter.

Starbuck and Hiller, on the other hand, are piloting to save the world.

I’ll take Hiller over Starbuck because Hiller never [AMBIGUOUS SPOILER ALERT SUFFUSED WITH REGRET].

4. Ryan Stone — ‘Gravity’ (Sandra Bullock)

Basically does Apollo 13 by herself.

27. Poe Dameron — ‘The Force Awakens’ (Oscar Isaac)
19. Luke Skywalker — ‘Star Wars’ (Mark Hamill)
15. Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader — ‘Star Wars’ (Hayden Christensen / James Earl Jones)
3. Han Solo — ‘Star Wars’ (Harrison Ford)

First things first: I am discounting the Force here, as best I can. For the purposes of these rankings, let’s consider the Force a banned substance. We’re not trying to figure out who has the best magical powers. This is “Best Pilot,” period.

In reverse order:

There is a lot of “Poe is the best pilot in the galaxy” buzz in The Force Awakens, but let’s get a couple of things straight: (1) Star Wars needs to relax with the “best X in the Y” talk in general. Show don’t tell. (2) Poe gets captured pretty easily. Which: It’s fine, and nothing to be ashamed of — people get captured pretty easily all the time. But it isn’t “Top 25” pilot material. And that’s where I stand on Poe: great actor, fun performance, good movie, overrated pilot.

Anakin over Luke might seem a little surprising at first, but upon careful consideration I don’t think it should be. Notwithstanding his pledge of loyalty to Emperor Palpatine and crossover to the dark side and transition into Darth Vader, Anakin shows a lot of heart and initiative in the Clone Wars. Those are good reps. On the other hand, like — what is Luke’s track record? He hits that one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope … and what else?

Also, can I ask a question? Are we sure that wasn’t a lucky shot?

Let’s go to the tape. Here is Luke’s face, the second before his miracle shot, right as he’s lining it up:

Now here is Luke’s face as he pulls the trigger:

Take a look at those two faces, one more time. I mean really examine them. Now are you telling me that those are the faces of the guy who is about to make … this shot?

No way.

Call it the Force, call it whatever you want, but Luke GETS LUCKY. Not to diminish him: Luke is a talented pilot. He beats Wedge Antilles’s record high on his flight simulation test. But I’ll take Anakin, he has the better body of work.

As for Han Solo, I’ll put it this way: He was in the conversation for no. 1 until last December.

2. Sully — ‘Sully’ (Tom Hanks)

Sully’s scouting profile is very late-period gunslinger: At 57, Does he have the total package of physical skills that he had at 27? Definitely not. Are his reflexes what they were at 37? Doubt it. Can he pull off every move that he could at 47? It’s not very likely. But Sully’s stayed in shape (Sully has some of the most exquisitely shot jogging scenes ever) (it’s a short list) (but still); he has more reps than just about anyone (42 years of flying); he has his head on straight (“When was your last drink?” “Nine days ago” — pretty solid); and oh yeah, did I mention that he LOVES TO FUCKING FLY?

As Sully tells it, “the Miracle on the Hudson” was a transcendent feat not so much for being, on its own, transcendent, but rather for being such a rare combination of so many different, smaller, exceptional feats all wrapped into one. Sully had to be fit enough to pilot into his late 50s. He had to be experienced enough to make a rushed, non-obvious, emergency call on instinct. He had to do what amounted to advanced mental physics, with the catch that if he got it wrong he’d die. And, right, last thing:

He had to land a plane in the fucking Hudson River.

Sully has a lot of messages tucked inside of it — some more fashionable than others — but my favorite by far is what it has to say about ageism. Because to me, Sully is the story of someone who is supposed to be past their prime, but insists against all criticism that no — fuck a prime. That’s wrong. They’re the best they’ve ever been.

And this time it turns out to be true.

So why isn’t Sully no. 1? Well: Landing a plane on the Hudson is cool.

But you know what’s really cool?

1. Whip Whitaker — ‘Flight’ (Denzel Washington)

Whip Whitaker is the greatest movie pilot of all time.