The Art of Piloting

An examination of differences between military and civilian techniques.

To truly understand starship piloting, you have to know what the goal of the pilot is. If the goal is to haul freight from one end of the Hegemony to the other, the pilot'll have to employ different techniques than if he's running patrols between a world and a jumpgate, or if he actually gets in a combat.


Maximum performance vs. fuel-efficiency. Civilian pilots are far more concerned with saving fuel than military pilots, due to the nature of their missions. Most military craft are small fighters, rather than large battleships, and are used in fast-attack patterns which require a really fast takeoff. This means they often take off at maximum thrust, with afterburners, in order to get to the combat more quickly, since every second counts. This means in the ground acceleration segment, more thrust is applied, and in the takeoff-and-climb segment, the angle of climb is steeper.

Most civilian pilots fly commercial transports, either carrying people or freight. It's pretty rare for a civilian pilot to be in a situation where every second counts, so their takeoffs tend to be much slower. Also, most civilian craft aren't fitted with afterburners, so they don't have nearly so high of a power-to-weight ratio. This prevents them from achieving the top speeds necessary for military planes. Due to the lesser thrust, civilian pilots often require longer runways. Once off the ground, the takeoff-and-climb segment of flight tends to be much more shallow.

"The takeoff is a critical maneuver in any airplane. The airplane will usually be carrying a payload (passengers, cargo, weapons) and often a full load of fuel. The resulting heavy weight means that a high speed must be reached before the wings can generate sufficient lift, thus a long distance must be travelled on the runway before lift-off. After lift-off, the heavy weight will result in a relatively slow acceleration to the speed for best angle of climb. There are several other takeoff tests that will determine emergency procedures (Refused Takeoffs, Engine-Out Takeoffs, Minimum Engine-Out Control Speeds, Soft Field Takeoffs, etc.).

The Maximum Performance Takeoff test is a non-emergency test that will determine the best takeoff technique and the length of runway required to accomplish a successful takeoff at a specific takeoff weight. It is strongly influenced by piloting technique, field elevation and atmospheric temperature. The takeoff maneuver is divided into two segments; the ground acceleration segment, and the takeoff and climb segment.

Different techniques will be tried during portions of some takeoffs to determine the optimum technique for each segment. For example, one takeoff roll will be initiated with the pitch control held in the full aft position until after nosewheel lift-off. This test will determine the slowest speed that the nosewheel can be raised (best rotation speed). The actual technique for a maximum performance takeoff would be to hold the elevator at zero to minimize drag until the best rotation speed is reached. Then full elevator would be applied to raise the nose to the optimum attitude for takeoff. Various climb speeds and gear and flap retraction methods will also be tried to optimize the airborne segment of the climb to 50 feet altitude. These tests will determine a speed for best angle of climb (which is usually somewhat slower than the speed for best rate of climb). Once the best piloting techniques for the individual segments of the takeoff are defined, the complete maximum performance takeoff test will be performed."[1]

Another example of how military takeoff techniques differ from civilian piloting is the extreme conditions under which they take place. Civilian flights are more likely to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions than military flights, which might be assisting in combat or deterrence manuevers. Also, civilian spacecraft tend to be tried-and-true, while many military aircraft are new technology that has not had years of testing.

For instance, Major Mike Adams of the Riden StarGuard recounted one time when he had to take off in an experimental craft, called the X-15, during an intense thunderstorm, in order to fend off an attack from the Blue Hegemony.

Starting his climb under full power, he was soon passing through 85,000 feet. Then an electrical disturbance distracted him and slightly degraded the control of the aircraft; having adequate backup controls, Adams continued on. As the X-15 climbed, Adams started a planned wing-rocking maneuver so an on-board camera could scan the horizon for enemy craft. The wing rocking quickly became excessive, by a factor of two or three. At the conclusion of the wing-rocking portion of the climb, the X-15 began a slow drift in heading; 40 seconds later, when the aircraft reached its maximum altitude, it was off heading by 15 degrees. As Adams came over the top, the drift briefly halted, with the airplane yawed 15 degrees to the right. Then the drift began again; within 30 seconds, Adams was descending at right angles to the flight path. At 230,000 feet, encountering rapidly increasing dynamic pressures, the X-15 entered a Mach 5 spin.

Adams radioed to the control tower that the aircraft "seems squirrelly." Adams then called out, "I'm in a spin." As best they could, the ground controllers sought to get the X-15 straightened out. There was no recommended spin recovery technique for the X-15, and engineers knew nothing about the aircraft's supersonic spin tendencies. The chase pilots, realizing that the X-15 would never make Rogers Dry Lake, went into afterburner and raced for the emergency lakes; Ballarat and Cuddeback. Adams held the X-15's controls against the spin, using both the aerodynamic control surfaces and the reaction controls. Through some combination of pilot technique and basic aerodynamic stability, the airplane recovered from the spin at 118,000 feet and went into an inverted Mach 4.7 dive at an angle between 40 and 45 degrees. Adams was in a relatively high altitude dive and had a good chance of rolling upright, pulling out, and setting up a landing. But now came a technical problem; the MH-96 began a limit-cycle oscillation just as the airplane came out of the spin, preventing the gain changer from reducing pitch as dynamic pressure increased. The X-15 began a rapid pitching motion of increasing severity, still in a dive at 160,000 feet per minute, dynamic pressure increasing intolerably. As the X-15 neared 65,000 feet, it was diving at Mach 3.93 and experiencing over 15-g vertically, both positive and negative, and 8-g laterally. The aircraft broke up northeast of the town of Johannesburg 10 minutes and 35 seconds after launch. A chase pilot spotted dust on Cuddeback, but it was not the X-15. Then an Air Force pilot, who had been up on a delayed chase mission and had tagged along on the X-15 flight to see if he could fill in for an errant chase plane, spotted the main wreckage northwest of Cuddeback. Fortunately, Lieutenant Adams was able to eject to safety, but the X-15-3 was destroyed. [2]

In contrast, pilot Moore Ajani of Stannis' Law says that he ensured that his contract with the Trans-World Shipping Company, Inc. specified that he would only pilot freighter models that had a proven track record, and that he could choose to not attempt takeoff when any Yellow or Red hazard conditions were present, without losing pay. Such latitude is the luxury of the civilian pilot.


Landings are another area where the techniques used are highly dependent on the craft you are flying, which varies a lot if it's military or civilian. In civilian freighters, a large percentage of the ship's mass is in cargo, and therefore the momentum of the craft can be quite high when coming in for a landing. If an emergency happens, however, it could be possible to jettison the cargo, thus radically changing the flightpath of the craft.

Ace, the pilot of the Exotic Dancer, a retrofitted Nyssa Yards Model 3C Yacht, was once trying to make the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs. In order to do that, he'd made some cool manuevers that had him coming into the port at a really tight angle and at high speed. Which would have been fine, except one of his retrothrusters "decided now would be a great time to take a five minute break", and he didn't have enough fuel for a main burn. So what does he do? He spins the ship around using manuevering thrusters, sets one of the spare compressed air cannisters in his cargo to a constant leak, and fires the explosive bolts holding the cargo to his ship. The cargo goes flying off the back of the ship, slowing him down to a manageable speed while keeping the cargo safe in orbit. With his remaining thruster, he slows down and docks, refuels, and then recovers his jettisoned cargo.

An example of a military landing is described by Ivan Dzazh in his book Coming of Age in a Brave New World. In this situation, Dzazh is piloting a single-engine Mark VI corvette, and he describes how corvettes often need to be brought down at a lower speed than other craft in atmosphere. This is due to their tendency to be buffeted by winds, given their shape.


In conclusion, it's easy to see some of the differences between takeoff and landing techniques that are used by military and civilian pilots. Largely these are due to the purposes of their different missions, and the differences in the spaceships that the pilots are flying.

[Out of Game]

This essay is longer in-game than the text here. It's actually a bit over 5000 words.

[1] This material from NASA Informational Summaries IS-97/08-DFRC-T1, "Maximum Performance Takeoff". Available here.

[1] This "story" was lifted straight from the real-life incident of Major Mike Adams' piloting of the NASA X-15 plane on November 15th, 1966. The text used was largely copied from NASA's biography of Major Adams, and his test flights on the X-15. The flight described actually resulted in Major Adams' death. That information is available here.

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