Hollywood loves fighter jets. And why wouldn’t they? After all, they are sleek, fast, deadly war machines capable of advancing the plot and creating some serious special effects.
But Hollywood also loves a cliché. Be it a pilot biopic, an action flick or a sprawling war drama, movies are almost always influenced by their predecessors, even if certain elements are wildly inaccurate.
Reality is often overlooked in favour of spectacle and drama. This is most notable when we look at the portrayal of fighter jets throughout cinematic history. Now, it is not like filmmakers do not know or even care about how these jets work. But the reality just isn’t exciting. Audiences want to be entertained and, as a result, people have become far more familiar with the cliché. When a cliché becomes popular enough, it can eventually be perceived as fact.
But what the average viewer knows about fighter jets has probably been gleaned from movies. Consequently, the popular image of a combat aircraft has been formed by a collection of myths propagated by cinema. We can also see these being emulated in European, Asia and African films.
At AeroTime, we have collated 10 such movie myths about fighter jets. There is no strict order to the list. But we have included the most popular at the top and, let’s say, the more ‘spectacular’ are featured at the bottom.
And if you think that our list is incomplete, or there are some more movie myths that we need to add, then let us know in the comment section below.
1. The afterburner is always on
Fire is exciting. What better way to spice up a scene than to show a jet engine spitting a streak of flames behind it? Hence, many fighter jets in films tend to fly with the afterburner on, whether or not it is needed.
An afterburner is a system that injects fuel into a jet engine’s exhaust. When operational, it produces more power, which allows the aircraft to accelerate faster as fiery blaze shoots out of its back. It also dramatically increases fuel consumption and may inflict additional wear on some engines. So, in reality, pilots tend to use the afterburner sparingly, engaging it when that extra oomph is necessary. But in a normal mode of operation, the jet engine does not produce any visible flames. For Hollywood, this is probably a little too dull.
Here is a scene from Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), where a fighter jet of indiscernible model taxis with full afterburners. If a pilot tried this in real life, they would risk setting half of the airport on fire.
2. Jets fly wingtip-to-wingtip
In films, when several fighter jets participate in an operation, they usually fly in a close formation with their wingtips almost touching, much like aerobatics teams do in airshows. In reality, not only is this an extremely difficult feat, it offers no advantages and may even result in the jets colliding in mid-air.
This trope originates from pre-jet era films. Regarding piston-engine fighters, fingertip formation was a common and practical thing. But when it comes to jet fighters, formations usually involve the aircraft keeping a significant distance from each other. This is usually several kilometers/miles. This way, their radars cover a wider area, they can react to the situation better, as well as engage and disengage the enemy as needed.
Below is a scene from Air Force One (1997) where a squadron of F-15s, arranged in a neat line with barely any space between the jets, is en route to engage the enemy. The clip does include a legitimate tactic, a formation known as ‘a Wall of Eagles’, where F-15s spread out horizontally to maximize their radar coverage. However, during a real Wall, the distance between adjacent jets is between 1.5 and three kilometers (one to two miles) so that the aircraft are barely visible to one another with a naked eye.
3. A lone wolf will win the day
Do you need to show the culmination of a character arc as a brave pilot? Let him come toe to toe with his mortal enemy above some picturesque landscape, and prove his worthiness once and for all.
While this technique may work for films, it’s incredibly dangerous in real life. However, Hollywood often depicts fighter jets embarking on solo combat missions. According to the movies, patrolling, bombing, or intercepting, it seems, is best conducted by a lone ace, especially if he is the main character.
In reality, fighter jets almost always function as a unit and are sent on a combat mission at least in pairs. There is little chance of a sole fighter jet being sent to intercept an opponent as this will mean significant disadvantage when confronted by multiple enemies.
Films often take this myth one step further. Even in a dogfight between multiple aircraft on each side, fighters engage each other one-on-one. Group tactics are rarely at play, each pilot just picks his or her target and attacks. This line of thinking leads to a complete misunderstanding of how modern wars are fought, and is probably responsible for all the comparisons between fighter jets of competing nations.
While aviation geeks like to argue about which jet is more advanced, maneuverable or faster, they forget that such comparisons only make sense if jets engage each other, one on one, in a fair duel. This is commonplace in films. But never in real life.
4. Dogfight is the primary mode of operation
Films show combat as protracted, close-range duels where fighter jets get so close, the pilots can lock eyes. But there is so much wrong with this portrayal.
Even in WWII, when all air-to-air kills were achieved with guns at close range, most aircraft were shot down before pilots ever had a chance to notice their attacker. Later, when air-to-air missiles were introduced, engagement ranges grew dramatically. In recent wars, a significant part of aerial victories was achieved beyond visual range (BWR), and even close-range ‘dogfights’ were often over as soon as one side identified its opponent and launched a missile.
There is a long history of experts who claim that dogfighting is still relevant in this day and age. They believe that technology cannot always be trusted and good old close-range fighting is unavoidable. This may have worked during the Vietnam War, when early missiles proved unreliable and the US military had to rethink its tactics. But technology has advanced significantly since then, and continues to improve. The emphasis is now on technological warfare and increasingly less emphasis is placed on dogfights.
But realistic air combat is way too boring for Hollywood. Even fighter jets in the future are primarily engaging in dogfights. An example can be found in this scene from Stealth (2003), where super-advanced futuristic jets duke it out at close quarters like it’s 1941.
5. Dogfighting means flying behind each other
When it comes to an actual dogfight, most films depict the process as involving two fighters flying behind one another. One fires its weapons, another dodges incoming bullets and missiles. If the plot demands, a pilot will occasionally perform Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver to quickly change his position and get behind the enemy. This is a spectacular, but impractical stunt. It might be followed by an obligatory “can’t get a lock” sequence, where a maneuvering jet avoids an excruciatingly slow aiming reticle within the pilot’s gunsight.
In reality, if a fighter jet is behind its opponent, at the six o’clock position, then the opponent is already done for. Fighter jets are designed to eliminate targets in front of them efficiently and while doing some rapid, sharp turns (‘jinking’) can help to avoid a sudden burst of gunfire, it will not work for longer periods of time, certainly not against missiles.
Maneuvers found in real dogfights are usually much more dynamic. Pilots will carry out a sequence of turns in an attempt to put enemy aircraft in the weapon engagement zone and remain out of harm’s way. Of course, these dogfights are rare in modern conflicts (see point no. 4). But they are even rarer in films.
For example, here is a scene from Green Lantern (2011) where F-35s fight a couple of fictional combat drones. All they do is stay at each other’s six while constantly jinking and bantering. Somehow, that constitutes a dogfight.
6. Sidewinders are anti-everything
It is quite likely that AIM-9 Sidewinder is the world’s most-produced air-to-air missile. It was developed in the US in the 1950s and copied by both the USSR and China. Its vastly improved models are still in production today and, in popular culture, it became the missile carried by all combat aircraft.
In movies, when a fighter jet needs to attack anything, it usually shoots the Sidewinder. Be it an enemy aircraft, a tank, a flying saucer or a giant monster, the missile spirals into it and blows it up. There are bonus points if the jet shoots dozens of them, despite initially carrying just two or four.
In reality, the AIM-9 is a limited weapon. It is a short-range heat-seeking missile, and it can only lock on hot objects at comparatively short distances. It also has a small warhead, which is enough to destroy a fragile airplane, but would be nearly useless against anything with more substance. Real fighter jets can carry a vast array of missiles and bombs intended for different targets. But those are rarely seen in films.
In this scene from Godzilla vs King Kong (2021) a pair of F-35s launch their Sidewinders at a monster, which results in a predictable amount of damage. Why didn’t they use any of their much more powerful air-to-ground weapons? How did the pilots manage to lock the heat-seeking missile onto the cold-blooded animal? We will never know.
7. Playing catch with missiles
Real anti-aircraft missiles typically follow one simple operating procedure. They burn their fuel in the first seconds of the flight, accelerating to high supersonic speeds, and coast the rest of the way, adjusting their trajectory to intercept the target. Due to limited control surfaces, they can not be as maneuverable as aircraft. However, they make up for this with speed and precision.
But they appear to operate differently in movies. Whether launched from the ground or by another jet, missiles have unlimited fuel, fly at the same speed as an aircraft, and can perform crazy maneuvers. Missile attack scenes often feature extended chase sequences with dodging and maneuvering, which may look exciting, but are not accurate.
The missiles of the latest generation, such as the AMI-9X, the Python-5 or the Meteor, are extremely maneuverable. They boast thrust vectoring nozzles, rear-attack or mid-course acceleration capability. But even these missiles are incapable of playing catch with aircraft and become useless if they miss the target on the first pass.
Nevertheless, here is the scene from Behind Enemy Lines (2001) where a 9M37 missile, shot from a Strela-10, dances with a F/A-18 fighter jet for minutes. It is just one of many similar examples. In fact, finding a film scene with realistic missile behavior is nearly impossible.
8. Double .50 cals
Just like missiles, guns are also riddled with clichés. Many fighter jets are shown with two guns, one mounted on each side of an aircraft. When fired, they produce the iconic ‘thump-thump-thump’ associated with a heavy machine gun, leaving a trail of holes in their target.
Before and during WWII, most countries began mounting cannons on their fighters, and have stuck with them ever since. Most modern fighter jets have a single autocannon near the cockpit or in the wing root and, although there are exceptions (notably the F-5 and various models of the Mirage), a single gun is the standard.
As cannons, these guns have a pretty small caliber (usually between 20 and 30 millimeters). But typically, they fire high explosive shells whose impact is similar to that of a hand grenade rather than a regular machine gun bullet. They also have extremely high firing rates (between 1000 and 2000 rounds per minute for single-barreled ones and over 5000 rounds per minute for rotary ones) and sound somewhat like a motorcycle when firing.
In this scene from Pacific Rim (2013) the F-22 attacks a “kaiju” with what appears to be two belly-mounted machine guns whose bullets bounce off the monster’s skin. In reality, the F-22 has a single M61A2 Vulcan 20 mm cannon between its cockpit and the right wing, capable of unleashing 100 high-explosive shells per second.
9. The closer the better
Filmmakers love to include as much intense action as possible. Often this includes a jet attacking a target at close proximity, swooping right above, whether there is a need for that or not.
This is a legitimate tactic and low-level strafing runs were quite commonplace in WWII. Even today, these moves are still occasionally conducted. However, the speed of jet aircraft means that such an attack typically starts at a distance of several kilometers or miles. The aircraft does not go any closer than several hundred meters near its target.
Getting close to a target is dangerous, so pilots tend to stand back as much as possible. Long-range precision strike capabilities are integral to almost all modern fighter jets. This allows the aircraft to stay out of the range of most surface-to-air missiles when attacking.
Yet, such an attack is difficult to make exciting. A jet just flies at high altitude, releases a bomb or a missile, and the target blows up a minute or so later. To make it more exciting, films tend to portray ground attacks as a close-range affair, with bullets whizzing by the cockpit and pilots grinning at their opponents.
There are also bonus points for depicting the jets flying between buildings, even though real pilots would have to be insane to attempt that. And that’s exactly what F-22s do in the following scene from The Tomorrow War (2021), as they bomb a street with what appears to be napalm. They also fly at full afterburner, wingtip-to-wingtip, because one cliché is never enough.
10. VTOL jets can do anything
Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) or short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) jet aircraft are designed to take-off and/or land vertically, which allows them to operate from short runways or small ships. The Harrier, the F-35B and the Yak-38 are the best-known examples, and the only ones that were mass-produced.
This limited ability to hover is usually exaggerated in films. Instead, such jets behave like flying saucers when attacking ground or air targets. While real VTOL and STOVL jets can, under some circumstances, attack while hovering, they discard their main advantages (being fast and nimble) by doing so. As a result, they are made vulnerable.
Here is a scene from Live Free or Die Hard (2007) where the F-35B demonstrates some gravity-defying behavior while trying to attack Bruce Willis. The jet also flies alone, comes to unreasonably short range, fires AIM-9 Sidewinders and shoots two belly-mounted guns. The full package.