Francis McNeil "Frank" Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helicopter-pilot-officer and troubled Vietnam War veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His field partner is the newly assigned Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), who is given the nickname "JAFO". The two patrol Los Angeles at night and give assistance to police cars below.
Murphy is selected to pilot the world's most advanced helicopter, nicknamed "Blue Thunder," which is essentially a military-style combat helicopter intended for police use in surveillance and large-scale civic disobedience. With powerful armament, stealth technology that allows it to fly virtually undetected, and other accoutrements (such as infrared scanners, powerful microphones and cameras, and a U-Matic VCR), Blue Thunder appears to be a formidable tool in the war on crime.