The P-44 Spieron Starfighter from Trestar Aerospace.
The Spieron was the largest mass produced starfighter during the middle of the Great War. It served in every theater of the war and was used by the Surface Army and the Stellar Fleet. After a rocky period of instability when it was first released to front line units, the Spieron quickly smoothed out and became the most popular allied starfighter in history. Pilots loved the speed and maneuverability of the fighter in nearly any environment it was deployed too. Compared to the other starfighters in the Alliance stable, the Spieron was clearly the most elegant design.
The Spieron seemed to get more adoration than the Tache and Arcon starfighters. It was sleeker and sexier than the other fighters and pilots just seemed to develop closer a bond with it. Perhaps it was the tiny wings of the Spieron that reminded pilots of aerofighters from the past. The stablemate of the Spieron was the Tieron fighter. Heavier and slower, despite having increased power from larger engines, the Tieron was a respected attack fighter, but not as well loved by the pilots. Both starfighters were built by Trestar Aerospace and were often deployed alongside each other as a complete pursuit and attack package.
The primary opponent of the Spieron was the Votainion Triak starfighter. Alliance pilots often referred to the menacing fighter as the Tri-Death, because there were three ways the fighter could beat you in combat. It could out turn you, out run you and usually, out shoot you. Pitted against the Spieron though, given equal pilot skill, more often than not the Spieron pilot would prevail.
The secondary threat that Spieron pilots faced was the Votainion KIV-9, Terror Diver. Not as fast as the venerable Triak, the KIV-9 was deployed nearly as much and was well respected by Spieron pilots. The huge, twin barreled canons that extended from the engine nacelles of the KIV-9 gave it an aggressive appearance. Many of the best Votainion pilots preferred the KIV-9 for its agility and firepower.
This is the Third part of a long, multi-post series on writing believable starfighters in Military SF and Space Opera. Part 1 | Part 2
6. Battle Damage
Every combat fighter sustains battle damage at some point. How does your starfighter defend itself? Does it have energy shields? Thick armor? What would it take to make it blow up in a glowing ball of energy like in Star Wars? Would it even blow up at all, or just break apart into pieces?
In WW2, projectile guns did plenty of damage to fighter planes. They had armor plating around the pilots and fuel tanks, but because of weight considerations, it needed to be sparse. Fuel tanks were lined with rubber to prevent leaks after being shot through. Usually airplanes sustained damage to their engines or pilot and then just augured into the ground from a great altitude. Rarely did they blow up like a TIE fighter.
If you watch gun camera footage from WW2, you will see pieces of metal and other debris flying from stricken planes before they fell apart. This debris would often pose a hazard to the attacking plane if it flew through the bits of broken metal and damaged its own engine or propeller.
Modern wars are fought with stand-off missiles and the two attacking fighters might never see each other, despite what you see in the movies. In the Vietnam war, guns were not included on fighter jets and as a result, the Americas suffered more casualties in air-to-air combat than in any previous war. As a result, guns were strapped to the bottom of jets like the Phantom F-4. The local Air Force base here in Idaho, Mountain Home AFB, are known as the Gunfighters for having flown F-4’s equipped with gun pods underneath their fuselages in Vietnam.
After the war, guns were designed back into fighter jets and pilots went to special schools to learn how to fight with them. Top Gun and Red Flag are the Navy and Air Force schools designed to teach air-to-air combat with guns and missiles.
In space your starfighter would probably use some kind of missile or maybe laser guns. Projectile weapons would perhaps be smarter, like little guided missiles. What kind of damage would a laser gun do? Would they even be practical?
Research how fighter pilots talk, gesture with their hands, the buzz words they use. Read about actual WW1 and WW2 air battles. The best are the non-fiction ones from autobiographies. They give you an intimate look at what it was like in day to day fighting. Some of my favorite books are the air war histories written by Martin Caiden.
If you can talk with actual pilots, that is another invaluable asset. Hang out at your local airport. Not the one where millions of people travel from, but the local civil aviation ones. Where private pilots park their Cessnas and Piper Cubs. Heck, the best thing you could do is take a few flying lessons. When I learned to fly I went up in a small plane with an instructor on the first day. He had me hands on with the controls the whole ride.
Talking to veteran pilots is also a great way to learn about the past through the eyes of someone who was there. Take notes, ask them questions. They are usually pretty open when they know you are truly interested in what they did defending the country. But if you ask a veteran and they say no, respect that privacy and thank them for their service.
I grew up on civil aviation. My dad was a pilot and my uncle was a pilot. My dad owned a Cessna 150 and I flew it while still in High School. So you could say that aviation is in my bones. I’ve spent many hours at air shows, air museums and sitting in hangars listening to pilots talk. It’s actually called hangar flying.
If you can’t get to a museum many of the best ones have virtual tours like the Warhawk Museum near Boise. This way you can practically sit in the cockpits of all kinds of airplanes, jets and helicopters. This is a great way to get a pilot’s eye view of the inside of a rare warbird.
I hope this series of posts has been helpful. Writing about starfighters in a way that makes them seem real and compelling to a reader is no easy task. But if you do the research and take the time to think things through, you can wind up with some great world building and a really fun story.
This is the first part of a long, multi-post series on writing believable starfighters in Military SF and Space Opera. Too often writers don’t have an extensive knowledge of military vehicles and when they write Military SF that involves hardware, their stories lack credibility with readers. Many times stories about starfighters come off as a rehashing of Top Gun, Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. Readers see through such thinly disguised attempts and are turned off by your story before it even has a chance.
I’m not saying that you have to have served in the military to write about starfighters, but I am saying you should do some homework on real jet fighters and rocket ships before attempting a story using them. Just as any good Fantasy writer has a more than passing interest in ancient history, a good SF author should take the time to understand modern military hardware.
This means spending time reading books about pilots and studying real planes up-close. You should read first hand accounts of arial combat by pilots from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Biographies are especially important as most pilots love to describe in detail their experiences in combat. Take notes and then try to imagine what those same experiences would be like in space.
If you can get to an air show, that is the best way to experience combat aircraft up-close. Sometimes they will let you sit in an actual cockpit or walk up and touch the metal and fabric coverings of these aircraft. Smell the aviation gas and oil coming off the engines. Talk to actual pilots about what they liked or didn’t like about flying a particular airplane. Absorb this information and it will come out again in your starfighter story.
The masters of SF intuitively understood this research. When Heinlein writes about a spaceman coming down to a planet and wearing unstylish clothes and acting like he own’s the place, those details are extracted from observing real pilots. *Double Star opening paragraph. It resonates with readers even if it’s about imaginary things.
Pilots and ground crews have their own lingo and not all of it is technical. They abbreviate things and call other things by strange nick names. You don’t have to use what’s common now, but it should get you thinking about what your pilots would say about their starfighters.
Military aircraft all have official designators and those letters and numbers usually mean something. For instance, “F” usually means “fighter” but before that “P” was used which stood for “Pursuit”. The numbers are usually sequential to when the aircraft entered service. The F-15 entered active duty before the F-16.
Don’t just make up some random series of letters and numbers and expect your reader to be able to pronounce it in their heads. XRS55QB is probably not a good designator for a starfighter. Readers can’t relate to random strings of digits, it’s much better to pick a name and use that name instead. Fighter planes all have one official name and usually pilots who fly them give them appropriate nick names. For instance the P-47 from WWII was officially known as the Thunderbolt, but pilots called it the Jug because is was big and heavy, like a jug of whisky. Try not to confuse your reader by using more than one nick name or official designator.
In my novels I always try and use the starfighter’s official name. For instance in Starforgers, the Stellar Rangers flew Scramblers. I never mentioned that they were actually called Terra-Tyne SF-44 Gull Scramblers. That’s too much information and too hard to keep straight. But by shortening it to Scrambler, I was able to put the image of scrambling pilots into the reader’s head. The Rangers who flew them were like interstellar cops, so the name also brings to mind a police car.
Also in Starforgers, the enemy starfighters were called KIV-3 by the enemy pilots and a more descriptive name by the good guy pilots, Eight-fighters. The starfighters had wings that look like a figure eight. This harkens back to Star Wars with all the wing shaped fighter names, X-Wing, Y-Wing. I had originally called the KIV-3 an Eight-Wing but beta readers thought it was too much like Star Wars. How about them Beta Readers? Good on them.
2. Describing the Starfighter
The reader has to have a clear image of what your starfighter looks like while reading your story. If you leave too much to the reader’s imagination he’s going to think it looks like an X-Wing or a Viper. You should spend a sentence or two on describing its distinguishing features.
“… two silver winged Scramblers sat waiting for them. Steam from the liquid nitrogen fuel cells evaporated from the metal birds. The deck was bright with the reflected light from the suns glaring off the polished metal of the Scramblers… The shinny silver wings of the nimble Scramblers flashed with reflections from Ocherva’s twin suns as they broke free of the moon’s atmosphere and flitted into the blackness of space…”
Those are some random sentences where I described the Scramblers in Starforgers. I add minor details as I go, careful not to info-dump on the reader a whole paragraph of description.
Here’s another passage or two in which the hero is seeing the Eight-fighter for the first time.
“The cylindrical fuselage ended in a conical shape that was black and impenetrable. There were markings on the side that reminded her again of the war planes from antiquity. This ship was obviously a military fighter… there were two rectangular cut outs in the squared off main wing. It reminded her of the number eight…”
Another thing you could indicate is how the starfighter handles, but only if it applies to how it’s used in the story. In my short story Red Allen, I describe key internal systems as they relate to how the fighter handles or does not handle as in this case. The story was about a test pilot who had to isolate why a certain model of starfighter was always crashing. So this story was a technical mystery of sorts.
As in all Sci-Fi the level of technology in your story must be consistent. You really have to give this more than just a passing thought or you’ll end up regretting it later. Does your starfighter have shields? What kinds of things can get through the shields? How much power does it take to run the shields? Does the starfighter shoot projectile weapons or use laser weapons. Does it make unusual sounds inside the cockpit? If it does make sounds don’t tell us by using words that describe. “The crash avoidance computer whined in protest,” is always better than using beep or bop words.
What kind of life support is there? Do the pilots wear masks? Enclosed suit with helmets? What if battle damage causes the air to leak out? Does the ship have an AI that runs itself or is it strictly human or alien controlled? What kind of scanners does it have and how powerful are they?
In my novel Tyrmia, I have a starfighter that uses a retractable scanner sled that unfortunately for the crew, gets damaged and starts to spin while its scanning. This causes the fighter to be hit with an EM burst which of course shuts down all the electronics in the fighter, causing it to crash. The same fighter had an AI that helped the pilot without getting in her way in times of crisis. If I hadn’t taken the time to think out these things, the events of the plot would not have happened.
I’m going to wrap this post up and save the rest of my topics for Part 2, Part 3.
At the start of the Great War, the newly minted Alliance military had very few operational starfighters. Since the deep space fleet concept was still new, only two such warships were built and of those two, only the SS Sokol had an operational squadron of starfighters. The second squadron stationed on the Sokol was composed of experimental starfighters and most of those were unreliable and unarmed.
This is a sketch of an Alliance pilot wearing the considerably low-tech flight suit of the day. The suit was pressurized, but offered little in the way of life support once the pilot was forced to eject. An emergency air supply would only last for about thirty minutes. Long enough to be rescued by a shuttle crew.
The primary operational fighter of the day was the Vickers Starling. It was a gull-winged design that handled very nicely in space and in atmospheric flight. The glass cockpit offered great visibility for close-in combat.
This is a cardboard model I built of the Vickers fighter. The scale was 1/48, the same as many of the model airplane kits I built as a kid.
The Starling was a direct descendant of the Vickers Gull Scrambler starfighter used by the Stellar Rangers. That fighter is pictured below in a poor quality sketch.
One of the starfighters being tested by the Federation before it became the Alliance, was the A-22 Trogen starfighter. The Trogen starfighter became the front line starfighter for the Alliance fleet and served longer than any other design in the early years of the war.
This color painting was done with mixed mediums in acrylic and colored pencil.
Primary starfighter of the Votainion Armadas at the start of the Great War. The Eight-wing earned it’s name from the shape of the cut outs on it’s wing. The wing is a cooling surface for the ion engine as well as a lifting surface for atmospheric flight. The reason for the cut outs is to reduce the overall mass of the fighter. Communications antennas are strung over the gaps in the wings and appear as fine wires that cross the openings.
The Votainions call this fighter v’tak, which is a large, carnivorous bat-winged mammal found in the caves of Voton. Strangely, the Votainions have a similar expression to our “bat out of hell”, “V’tak dar a kholm”. The fighter reminded pilots of the attacks by v’tak deep in the cave dwellings of their ancestors. The Engineers refereed to the fighter as v-066-909, or simply the 909 variant.
The Eight-wings are highly maneuverable in the vacuum of space but not so much in the heavier atmospheres of planets. They have very little protective armor. A well placed shot can split open an Eight-wing like a seed. The weapons pods are on the tips of the wings and are usually explosive canons. Some variants are know to have projectile firing guns mounted under the nose.
A typical Eight-wing pilot is shown wearing an environmental suit and breath mask. All pilots are officers and thus are allowed to wear their kastra or family falchion.
Top view of the Eight-wing starfighter. The yellow stripes on the fuselage and wing tips mark this fighter as a squadron leader.
The Eight-wing fighter design was one of the earliest things my two best friends and I came up with when we first dreamed up the story that would become Starstrikers. Back then it was called Galaxy Collision. This would have been the mid to late 1970’s. Yeah, I’m that old. The batches of drawings that Ed and Jay and I drew during this time frame looked silly to us by the time we got into High School, so we wound up drawing newer designs.
Much later, when I realized the story would be set in three distinct time frames with three different levels of technology, the old drawings made for a perfect fit for the tech of the First Generation. This would be the time frame that Starforgers and Tales From Ocherva are set in.