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Disney’s ‘Planes’ latest in long list of onscreen flights

08/03/2013 12:00 AM

08/05/2013 11:19 AM

Disney’s highly anticipated new cartoon flick takes flight Friday.

Will Planes fly as high as Cars did when it ruled the road at the box office? We’ll see.

It’s certainly not the first time Hollywood, or popular culture, has put airplanes on the big screen, small screen or printed page as entertainment.

Let’s don our aviator goggles and take a brief flight down showbiz-airplane memory lane.

Airplanes on the big screen

Although studies show flight to be an extremely safe form of travel, people love to sit in the safety of a darkened theater, watching airborne characters in peril. Thus the ubiquity of the airplane disaster movie, pioneered by 1939’s Five Came Back (featuring a young Lucille Ball), in which a flight headed for Panama is forced to crash-land in a South American jungle.

In 1951, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich starred in No Highway in the Sky (based on the novel No Highway by Nevil Shute), a British film in which an aeronautical engineer predicts that a new type of plane will fail. Numerous examples followed, including Fate Is the Hunter (1964), Flight of the Phoenix (1965, remade in 2004), the star-studded “Airport” quadrilogy of the 1970s, Alive (1993) and Con Air (1997).

Some flight-based disaster films, such as Airplane! (1980), are over-the-top hilarious, while others, such as Snakes on a Plane (2006), are over-the-top ridiculous.

One of the best-made but hardest and most poignant to watch, United 93 (2006), chronicles the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Of course, not all airplane films are disastrous. This includes Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), one of the best comedies of the past 30 years; The Terminal (2004), in which Tom Hanks gets stuck in an airport; and Up in the Air (2009), a character study starring George Clooney.

In Disney’s computer-animated Planes, an especially lighthearted take on flying the friendly skies, Dusty the crop-duster longs to compete in a famous aerial race, but, alas, he’s afraid of heights.

Airplanes on the small screen

Airline disasters are as ubiquitous on the small screen as they are on the silver screen, as evidenced by such made-for-TV movies as Flight Into Danger (1956), The Doomsday Flight (1966), Terror in the Sky (1971), Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac (1984), Crash: The Mystery of Flight 1501 (1990) and Panic in the Skies (1996), to name just a few.

One of the most dramatic fictional airplane sequences ever filmed was the crash that stranded the surviving passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 on a mysterious tropical island that was home to polar bears, a smoke monster and the “Others.”

From 2004 to 2010, Lost — a Twilight Zone of sorts for modern times — captivated and confounded millions of viewers. The plane crash occurred during the pilot episode, but its effects resonated throughout the entire series.

A far different take on tropical islands and airplanes was Fantasy Island, which began in 1977 as a pair of made-for-TV movies and ended in 1984 after an impressive 158-episode run. Each week, island proprietor Ricardo Montalbán, as Mr. Roarke, would welcome people to live out their fantasies.

Heralding the arrival of each set of guests was the diminutive Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), who would enthusiastically (and memorably) exclaim, “The plane! The plane!”

Sitcom fans with an appetite for airplanes might remember Wings, which ran on NBC from 1990 to 1997 and starred Tim Daly and Steven Weber as brothers who operate an airline at a small airport in Nantucket, Mass.

Airplanes on the printed page

While airplanes play a huge role in many books aimed at adults, such as Michael Crichton’s Airframe: A Novel (1995), a thriller about airline safety, and Paul A. Toth’s Airplane Novel (2011), a 9-11 story told from the perspective of the South Tower, they are even more prominent in children’s books.

Young readers may have read Byron Barton’s Planes board book (1998), which illustrates the many uses for planes, from travel to crop-dusting to writing messages in the sky. Aimed at the same age group — preschoolers — is Jerry Pallotta and Fred Stillwell’s The Airplane Alphabet Book (1997), featuring illustrations by Rob Bolster.

To help young children prepare for and get excited about their first airline flight, parents might find helpful Barton’s Airport (1982) and Nicola Smee’s Freddie Goes on an Airplane (2000).

For older children and adults wanting to know “all about the men, machines and landmark technology behind the most iconic aircraft from the Supermarine Spitfire to the Concorde,” pick up a copy of the info- and photo-packed The Aircraft Book (2013), published by Dorling Kindersley.

Playable airplanes

For kids of the 1960s and ’70s, building model airplanes was a rite of passage. Remote-control airplanes were also popular, and you can still purchase airplane model kits and RC planes at such stores as Hobby Lobby and HobbyTown USA.

Flight simulator video games date to the mainframe computers of the 1960s, but the genre took off (so to speak) during the 1980s with such popular titles as Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0 (1982) for the PC, Flight Simulator II (1983, 1984) for the Apple II and Commodore 64 and Tomcat: The F-14 Flight Simulator (1988, 1989) for the Atari 2600 and Atari 7800.

Modern flight sims run the gamut from the highly elaborate Microsoft Flight Simulator X (2006) for the PC to the extremely simplistic Wings Flight Simulator Experience (2008) for the iPhone.

For the more action-oriented gamer, there’s Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 (2010) for the PC, Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011) for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Both titles offer shooting as well as flight simulation.

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