Flying has been one of humanity’s most passionate aspirations since time immemorial. Even Greek myths contain the story of Daedalus, who built wax and feathers wings so he could fly. Naturally, in speculative fiction stories, our imagination has conjured all kinds of vehicles that can navigate space or propel themselves with advanced technology.
But what about the intrepid pilots at the wheel or the stick? With every cool ship comes a crack-shot, crazy-skilled, impossibly lucky pilot who is more at home in the air or in space than on the ground. From the cockpit, their heroic shots and maneuvers save the day just as often as the more combat-savvy heroes or leaders fighting below.
This list is a tribute to them, to the most impossible shots, the most impassible routes and the most difficult maneuvers ever pulled off from a sci-fi vehicle. Here are The 18 Best Pilots In Science Fiction History.
18. ALEX ROGAN – THE LAST STARFIGHTER
“Greetings, Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada”
Plenty of arcade-goers in the ’80s could become hotshots at their favorite cabinet games. But in The Last Starfighter, trailer park teenager Alex Rogan gets the chance to use his gaming skills for something greater than he ever imagined. After breaking the record on his local Starfighter cabinet, Alex is visited by a strange man in a suit and hat who whisks him away to the real Frontier. Turns out the arcade game was a real interstellar recruiting tool for capable pilots.
Alex is initially way in over his head as a mere Earthling. He wants nothing to do with an alien conflict where people are risking their lives. But then he realizes Earth itself and his home town are threatened as well. Alex turns out to be a natural Gunstar pilot. He and Copilot Grig successfully repel the entire Ko-Dan Armada single handedly, with the strategic use of Death-Blossom.
17. LEELA – FUTURAMA
In Futurama, no one else captains or pilots the Planet Express Delivery Ship but Turanga Leela. Even the lack of depth perception, due to having only one eye, doesn’t dampen her piloting skills, somehow. Her eagerness to fly was apparent when she deserted her job as a Fate Assignment Officer to join Fry’s adventures and pilot the delivery ship.
Most of the time Leela is the professional, level-headed foil to Fry’s bubbling antics. But if she catches a whiff of something she doesn’t approve of or if she has to put up with the rest of the crew’s incompetence for too long, Leela will crack skulls. She’s even put the ship and the crew in danger to get back at Zapp, but she always gets them through to safety. Besides being a capable pilot, she’s also the most proficient melee combatant in the crew. There’s hardly a tough spot that Leela can’t get out of with her signature “Hi-Ya!” kicks.
16. ASAMI SATO – LEGEND OF KORRA
In the Legend of Korra series, Asami Sato is the daughter of the famous industrialist Hiroshi Sato, the founder and engineering mind behind Future Industries. She had a falling out with her father when it was discovered that he had joined the Equalists and was developing weapons for them. Asami inherited her father’s knack for mechanics and became a capable pilot of pretty much any vehicle. Her skills would prove invaluable to the Avatar team.
In a motorcycle chase with the gang, she manages to jump between the moving cycles to disarm and knock off her pursuers. Having grown up around cars as part of her father’s business, she’s able to drive just about any kind of car the team encounters. There was also the time she conducted a bombing run against Unalaq’s defenses, without any escorting planes and while having to dodge heavy anti-aircraft artillery. She and her father even get to square off again in a mini-mecha battle.
15. CAPTAIN STEVEN HILLER – INDEPENDENCE DAY
U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot Captain Steven Hiller (“-loser”) was already an ace pilot before the aliens arrived on Earth. Humanity seemed woefully outmatched after the saucers decimated cities across the globe and all their aircraft shields proved impenetrable. The Black Knights’ aerial counterattack was a catastrophe. Only Captain Hiller managed to escape the battle by leading his pursuer on a chase through the Grand Canyon, then forcing the alien craft to crash by deploying his parachute.
In the third act of Independence Day, Hiller volunteers to fly the captured alien craft so that they can execute David’s long shot-plan to sabotage the alien shields. With nothing but visual firsthand experience and one false start, Hiller successfully pilots the alien ship into space and infiltrates the Mothership. And then they deliver the timed nuclear warhead. Hiller has 30 seconds to escape the intricate architecture of the Mothership while being pursued as the ship tries to shut him in. Unfortunately, his commitment to piloting lost him his life in a test flight of an alien hybrid fighter before the sequel.
14. NIOBE – THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS
The Machines were moving to crush the human resistance once and for all with a 250,000-strong army of sentinels digging right down to Zion. Thanks to Agent Smith seizing control of Bane’s body in the real world, all of Zion’s hovercraft were sabotaged and destroyed.
Only the ships Logos and Mjolnir, their crew, and the surviving crew of the Nebuchadnezzar remain. Niobe, the captain and pilot of the Logos, lets Neo take the Logos on his mission to the machine city while she pilots the Mjolnir to come to Zion’s aide.
It’s basically a suicide mission. The Mjolnir is many times bigger and bulkier than Niobe’s Logos and she has to pilot the ship down a narrow mechanical line. Most of the others in the resistance think the route is impossible. When the sentinels detect their approach, Niobe has to maneuver the ship through tight, winding tunnels at full speed with thousands of sentinels trying to rip the ship apart as they fly. She manages to deliver the ship through the gates of Zion and buys time for the city to regroup with a decisive EMP.
13. STAR LORD – GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
It’s a tough gig when you get whisked away into the far reaches of space with nothing but the clothes on your back and your cassette Walkman from the ’80s. In Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Jason Quill had to quickly develop the technical, combat, and piloting skills necessary to survive as the only one of his kind. Despite the hardships, or perhaps because of them, he never lost his sense of Earth pop culture humor.
The self-styled Star-Lord has his own starship that he stole from the Ravagers, which he’s used to evade the gang and the authorities plenty of times. When he’s caught up in the hunt for the Orb, he and the Guardians get chased through the architectural maze of Knowhere. They use these industrial flying pods, but Star Lord is the only one who busts a hole in one of the pursuing fighters, then uses the pod’s remote arms to take the controls of the fighter and shoot down his attackers. Flying a ship within a ship! It’s ship-ception! He also manages to fly through a puncture hole in Ronan’s ship at breakneck speed and land the Guardians of safely inside.
12. HOBAN WASHBURNE – FIREFLY
Hoban Washburne wanted to become a pilot from an early age, partially because his home world was so polluted that the stars were not visible in the night sky. He actually placed first in flight school but was denied the top honor by “Mr. Universe” cheating the records.
Decorated or not, Wash improved his flying skills and earned quite a reputation. Multiple captains were offering him positions by the time Malcolm Reynolds asked Wash to join his crew. Throughout their illicit career, Wash piloted the Serenity in and out of several tight spots. He held the ship level with a moving train when Mal’s crew conducted a train job. He also managed to execute a “Crazy Ivan” maneuver, swiftly reversing the arrangement of the Serenity’s engines to escape a pursuing Reaver vessel.
His crowning achievement would have to be successfully landing the Serenity on Mr. Universe’s moon. Wash navigated the ship through a pitch, chaotic battle between the Reavers and the Alliance Fleet, landing the crew in once piece despite taking disabling damage. “I’m a leaf on the wind… Watch how I soar.”
11. JOSEPH “COOP” COOPER – INTERSTELLAR
Interstellar sees Mathew McConaughey as Cooper, a family man trying to eke out an existence in what looked like the dusty dusk of Humanity. Cooper never imagined using his space flight skills again. He had test flown spacecraft, but the world had grown suspicious of science and technology. Everyone was preoccupied with keeping their lot on Earth as long as possible.
Fortunately, Cooper’s adventurous daughter accidentally stumbles upon the headquarters of the now-clandestine NASA. They’ve been working on a mission to find a new habitable planet for humanity to colonize. As one of the only living people on Earth left with space flight skills, Cooper is uniquely qualified and vital to this mission for humanity’s survival.
As their mission aboard the Endurance continues, Cooper’s skills really shine. He manages to dock a shuttle onto the Endurance while it was spinning out of control due to an explosion, without losing consciousness from the G-forces. He also successfully slingshots around a black hole without getting pulled in.
10. STARBUCK – BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Kara Thrace was the daughter of a colonial marines noncommissioned officer who took her from colony to colony throughout her childhood. Her mother was repeatedly rejected from officer training and took her frustration out on Kara, slamming her fingers between doors and frames on several occasions. Kara ran away to join the military herself and became one of the last and best pilots on Galactica after the nuclear attack on the colonies.
Despite her flagrant disrespect for authority, among other personal issues, Kara gets the call sign “Starbuck” and rises to the rank of captain. Her skills save the colonial fleet from Cylon raids on numerous occasions. In one dog fight, she manages to head-shot the mechanical eye of a raider while both spacecraft are flying. Another time, she crash-lands on a moon with a downed raider and not only repairs it, but flies it back to Galactica without getting shot down on sight.
9. HERA SYNDULLA – STAR WARS REBELS
It helps, when founding a cell of the Rebellion, to have most of the skills you need yourself. The Twi’lek captain of the Ghost, Hera Syndulla was already a fine marksman, martial artist, and ace pilot before she met Kanan. During the events of A New Dawn and the Rebels series, Hera uses her flying skills to get the heroes out of many tight spots and plenty of imperial ships have fallen under her laser fire.
In the show, Hera was even picked to test-fly the new porotype B-wing fighter. Then she gets to pilot the awkward, but powerful fighter and successfully sets up Sabine to destroy an entire imperial cruiser.
Perhaps most impressive of all, Hera manages to outfly Darth Vader himself in his TIE advanced. In his efforts to quash these rebels, Vader laid a trap for their ship. But thanks to the slick maneuvers of Hera, Vader got his own ship snared in the trap that he intended for the Rebels. Impressive. Most impressive.
8. ALLIANCE FLIGHT LIEUTENANT JEFF “JOKER” MOREAU – MASS EFFECT
In the Mass Effect series, the Systems Alliance Space Vehicle Stealth and Reconnaissance-1, AKA the Normandy, was a prototype frigate jointly designed by the Turians and the Humans. Such a technologically and politically important ship needed a top notch pilot. It didn’t matter that Lieutenant “Joker” Moreau had severe Vrolik Syndrome, which makes his bones brittle. He would be the first to tell anyone that he was the best damn pilot in the Alliance and earned everyone his positions and commendations without pity or charity.
He proves his worth and skills throughout Commander Shepard’s adventures on multiple incarnations of the Normandy. He made an impossible drop that delivered the Mako vehicle onto Ilos and led the Alliance Fleet that dealt the killing bow to the Reaper Sovereign in ME1. And, in ME2, he got the Normandy Crew through the Omega-4 Mass Relay and to the Collector Base in one piece.
7. HIKARU SULU – STAR TREK
Who could forget most frequent Helmsman of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A? Born in San Francisco in the mid-23rd century, Hikaru Sulu was first assigned to the Enterprise in 2265 and began serving as a senior officer and regular helmsman in 2266. Sulu would often navigate the Enterprise through mysterious space. He frequently took temporary command when both Spock and Kirk were on away missions .
In the Star Trek movies, Sulu’s piloting skills took on even more dramatic importance. He was at the helm when the Enterprise played its deadly game of cat and mouse with Khan aboard the hijacked Reliant. When the bridge staff was forced to commandeer an unfamiliar Klingon ship to save Earth from the whale probe, Sulu was the one who piloted the ship through a time jump around the sun.
The alternate continuity kept Sulu’s prodigious piloting skills intact. In Star Trek Beyond, he was able to improvise a takeoff into orbit with the USS Franklin after it had been encased in a mountainside for decades.
6. FOX MCCLOUD – STAR FOX
The aerial prodigy of James McCloud, Fox exhibited an aptitude for space combat from an early age. He was already enlisted in the Cornerian Defense Army Academy Flight School when he heard news of his father’s death. James McCould was betrayed by his wingman and left to die in a trap set by the powerful mad scientist Andross. Peppy Hare, the last surviving member of McCloud Sr.’s Star Fox team, urged Fox McCloud to reform and lead the famous group of flying aces.
As the leader of Star Fox, Fox defended Corneria and the Lylat System from numerous menacing threats. Fox’s team may technically be freelance pilots, but they have always come to Corneria’s defense when the need was dire. In the cockpit of the nimble and powerful Arwing, Fox McCloud is without peer. He’s dodged and taken out enemies beyond count, including the rival Star Wolf group, and gotten the chance to confront Andross himself.
5. HAN SOLO – STAR WARS
This is the one you’ve been waiting for. The one and only captain of the Millennium Falcon, notorious smuggler, and scoundrel pilot from Star Wars. Han Solo already had several major piloting accomplishments under his belt by the time we’re first introduced to him in Episode IV, including completing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Then, when the Empire sets upon Luke and Obi-Wan on Tatooine, Han manages to calculate an escape to light speed while under fire from two Star Destroyers.
Han’s pilot skills are put to the test while on the run again during Episode V. After the Battle of Hoth, the Millennium Falcon’s only option for evading capture is to fly right through an asteroid field. All the TIE fighters in pursuit get pulverized and several Star Destroyers take severe damage in the subsequent search. But that’s Han Solo for you:
“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to one!”
4. CAPTAIN BILL OWENS – FANTASTIC VOYAGE
In the Cold War-era sci-fi adventure Fantastic Voyage, Dr. Jan Benes, a Soviet defector, is attacked while trying to escape and suffers a blood clot in his brain. The surgery is inoperable from the exterior. Thankfully, Dr. Benes is carrying technology that could shrink people down to microscopic sizes. With his knowledge too vital to lose, the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces assemble a team to pilot a shrunken sub into Dr. Benes’s body and remove the clot from the inside.
Captain Bill Owens navigates the sub through Benes’s blood stream and brain, fending off antibodies and white blood cells. Not only is Benes’s body throwing obstacles at them at every turn, but there is almost certainly a spy from “The Other Side” among the crew, waiting to make off the with shrinking tech. Not to mention the crew only have an hour to complete the surgery before they start returning to normal size.
3. POE DAMERON – STAR WARS
It’s a good thing Oscar Isaac convinced J.J. Abrams not to kill off Poe Dameron in the first act of The Force Awakens. Otherwise, among many missed great opportunities, Poe Dameron’s status as the best star pilot in the resistance would have never been demonstrated onscreen.
Not that we didn’t get to see his skills before crashing on Jakku. When the disaffected Stormtrooper FN-2187 broke Poe out, the two of them escaped in a TIE Fighter, which Poe had never flown before. He was still able to fly the fighter well enough to give Finn shots at the Star Destroyer’s close-range canons so that they had a chance of escape.
And then we see him back in his preferred X-wing. When the Resistance arrives at the planet Takodana, Poe takes out more than 10 TIE Fighters in 20 seconds and nails individual Stormtroopers on the ground. Never mind womp rat bullseyes. Then in the attack on the Starkiller Base, Poe successfully navigates the trench and blows up the oscillator to complete the base’s destruction.
2. AMURO RAY – MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM
The original Gundam pilot ace, Amuro Ray is the son of the original Gundam designer and grew up much more interested in and relating to machines than other people. When fate had him climb into the cockpit of the RX-78-2 to keep it from being stolen, Amuro found his calling. Without any formal training he was able to read through the manual once and repel the attack on Side 7.
Afterward, he quickly became the most notorious Gundam pilot in the Earth Federation. He nearly single-handedly turned the tide of the One Year War between the EF and the Principality of Zeon. He scored more than a hundred onscreen kills just over the course of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series.
1. ANAKIN SKYWALKER – STAR WARS
Even as a slave on Tatooine, Anakin Skywalker developed incredible piloting skills. At the age of 9, he was able to compete in and win the Boonta Eve pod race, even with his pod racer sabotaged by Sebulba at the starting line. Not long after Qui-Gon Jinn freed him, Anakin found himself in the cockpit of a Naboo Starfighter. Despite never even flying a spacecraft before, Anakin managed to avoid being destroyed in space and sabotaged the Droid Control Ship from within, with a little luck.
Anakin’s piloting skills grew throughout his training as a Jedi. He flew a Jedi Starfighter in the battle over Coruscant, right into General Grievous’s Flagship, outmaneuvering and shooting down plenty of droid Starfighters. Then he managed to safely crash-land half of that flagship onto the densely populated planet.
Even after being forced to live in his augmented body armor, Darth Vader was a terror in space from his customized TIE Advance. He shot down most of the Rebellion’s strike force in the Battle of Yavin-4.
Are there any other stellar pilots deserving recognition that you cheer for? Let us know in the comments!