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Disposable Pilot
Ellis: "Nick, what the hell, you shot the pilot!"
Nick: "Well he wasn't doing a very good job once he became a zombie, now, was he?"

One of the most likely casualties in an action or disaster story is the nameless extra who operates a vehicle for the heroes. Whether it's pilots dying in plane crashes (which the main characters miraculously survive), chauffeurs getting shot or blown up, boats' pilots drowning, or Sword And Sandal chariot-drivers being trampled to paste by galloping hooves, a character whose role is purely one of providing transportation is many writers' first choice to bite the dust.

This trope is, in part, a way to weed out superfluous minor characters once they've served their purpose, as well as an easy excuse to show off how deadly the heroes' situation is, while also cutting off a potential escape route. Can lead to a Crash Course Landing if the death happens before the journey's end. If a Disposable Pilot actually has lines, or even a name, then expect some form of Retirony to accompany their dramatically-convenient demise. If they survive their brush with death to return as a recurring character, they'll evolve into The Driver instead.

Actual pilots encountering the Big Bad while flying the plane have a tendency to try asking "If you kill me, who's going to fly the plane?" This usually prompts the villain to reveal they can in fact fly a plane, and the pilot is dead meat.

Occasionally applied to characters who actually matter to the plot, so sometimes rates as a Death Trope. If the vehicle's operator is killed while the vehicle is in motion, causing the vehicle to go out of control at speed and ramping up the tension, that's Dead Foot Leadfoot.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  
  • In the Mazinkaiser Movie: Kouji and Sayaka are shown flying in a plane when the movie starts. After the intro scenes, they show that the plane has crashed, killing one of the two pilots.

     Comic Books 
  • In one of the Gears of War comics, Delta's Raven pilot gets blown up in his cockpit, prompting Jace Stratton to take the controls and sort-of land the chopper.
  • In Reign of the Supermen, a newscopter carrying Superboy's reporter love interest is hit by a super villain due to Superboy's recklessness. He manages to save her, but the pilot is toast. Later on Steel chews out Superboy for not being more careful and causing the death of an innocent bystander, something Superboy takes to heart.

     Fan Works 

    Film 
  • The helicopter pilot in Cloverfield.
  • Star Wars:
    • Luke's snowspeeder copilot in The Empire Strikes Back. Instantly killed by blaster fire and crushed by an AT-AT's foot.
    • The ship that carried Obi-Wan and Qui Gon Jinn to the Trade Federation's mothership in The Phantom Menace gets blasted, with its two pilots inside.
    • In Attack of the Clones, when Obi-Wan and Anakin take a clone-piloted gunship in pursuit of Dooku, said gunship is blasted into flaming scrap within ten seconds of them being dropped off.
    • Obi-Wan's droid copilot in Revenge of the Sith might count since R units have some personality on their own.
  • Twenty Twelve: This was the fate of the step-dad. For Bonus Points, he was also a Romantic False Lead. Dude was doubly hosed.
    • Also, the Russian who stays behind on the plane while everyone else bails out. He safely lands, but an ice shelf gives way under him.
  • The Incredibles: This was going to happen in an earlier version to Snug, who was the pilot that flew Helen, Dash, and Violet to Nomanisan Island and going down with the plane. In the end, they wrote him out entirely except as a voice on the other end of a phone, and had Helen fly the plane herself, because they felt there wasn't time to develop Snug into someone the audience would care about. This is why Helen looks down as the plane is falling in the final cut.
  • Happens in the first movie of The Mummy Trilogy, to the old war pilot who was suffering from ennui, but not in the second.
  • Possibly qualifies in the first Final Destination, although I don't think we ever see the pilots.
  • The "who's gonna fly the plane?" thingy is subverted by Castor Troy in Face/Off. When Archer shoots the plane's engines, they short out and set off the engine fire alarm. Castor promptly executes the pilot....but it turns out he can't get the bird in the air either, so he instead veers the plane off the runway...and into a hangar.
  • Averted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which the superfluous pilots duck out of the story by bailing out of the plane rather than getting killed.
  • In No Country for Old Men, Moss hitches a ride with a bystander. Said bystander is killed at the wheel as Moss watches. Later, he hitches another ride with an entirely different man, who is also killed for his trouble, but that happens long after he was separated from Moss.
  • Ferro, the dropship pilot from Aliens, who is surprised and killed by aliens mid-flight. Co-pilot Spunkmeyer also counts, although his death is never shown. The aliens are either incompetent pilots or secretly very clever, as the dropship immediately smashes into the marines' only other means of transport, totalling it.
  • In The Rocketeer, as Neville Sinclair is making his escape aboard a Nazi zeppelin, the captain tells Sinclair that their pilot is the best in Germany, when Lothar's unconscious body knocks the pilot out of the zeppelin.
  • For Your Eyes Only: In The Teaser the pilot of the helicopter Bond is in gets electrocuted in mid-flight.
  • The Jeep driver in The Happening. Bizarrely, he was played by Brian O'Halloran, whom you may remember as Dante Hicks.
  • The villains in The Lady Vanishes usually can't aim worth crap, but they take out the train conductors with one shot apiece, leaving the hero to try and run the train himself.
  • In 1953's Safari Drums, a two-man canoe is flipped by a crocodile during filming of a big-game-hunting movie. The cameraman's narrow escape is shown in all its adventurous detail, but the rower becomes reptile chow in an immediate Gory Discretion Shot and is apparently forgotten about by all the witnesses.
  • Speed: A train conductor is casually bumped off by the villian. Taken to its most extreme when a group of post-crash onlookers are cooing over Jack and Annie making out, and nobody even notices his dead body just a few feet away.
  • In Terminator Salvation, in-between John Connor disembarking the helicopter and his return to report in only five minutes later, the pilot of the chopper somehow ended up dead. It's the second clue that something is seriously wrong with the mission, which he realises seconds after take-off, when a nuke goes off in the underground bunker he had just been inside.
  • In Tarzan (2013), the pilots of both Greystoke's and Clayton's choppers perish with their respective crafts (and employers).
  • In Airport 1975, the pilot of a private plane suffers a fatal heart attack. This causes him to crash into the cockpit of the airliner, killing the first officer and flight engineer and blinding the captain who then falls unconscious. This puts the chief stewardess in a Crash Course Landing situation.

    Literature 
  • Hatchet features a pilot whose primary purpose in the story is to have a heart attack, leading to Brian crash-landing in the Canadian wilderness.
  • The chauffeur in The Wizard of Whitechapel gets killed off.
  • A darkly amusing example in Ciaphas Cain: Warmaster Varan's ( Brainwashed and Crazy, like all his minions) pilot is eventually revealed to have starved to death as he had been told to stay there until Varan's return. After Varan dies and Decapitated Army is noticeably averted, he continues to wait for orders that never come. The rest of the novels tend to avert this, with no other pilots dying (while Cain's riding with them anyway). Although they tend to be very minor characters anyway, when they're not Badass Driver Jurgen.
  • In Halo: The Fall Of Reach, Red Team's pilot gets a few throwaway lines before getting blown up in his cockpit, prompting Joshua to take over from inside the troop bay.
  • In the novelization of Robotech during a recon mission, an explosion rips through a spacecraft with Lisa Hayes, conveniently only affects the pilot's side of the spacecraft.
  • In Stephen King's The Langoliers, the original pilot and co-pilot were conscious when the plane went through the rift in time and space so they were both vaporized.
  • Lampshaded in Dream Park, in which the pilot's "death" in the opening act of the South Seas Treasure Game is dismissed as a "freebie" — i.e. something written into the Game's plotline from the outset, rather than a casualty counted against the adventurers — by the leader of the Gamers.
  • Used repeatedly in Reamde.
  • Being a charioteer in The Iliad gives you the approximate life expectancy of a fruit fly. A fruit fly with severe cardiac problems, if you're the driver for a major character.
  • Derek Robinson's books about British military flyers are full of these. Goshawk Squadron is full of them: usually novice pilots with too little experience, rushed to the Western Front in WW1 to replace horrendous losses, who manage to crash and burn long before any German can claim them. Quite often even before Major Wooley bothers to learn their names; in fact, the cynical CO considers this is only worth the effort if the new pilot manages to last a fortnight. The roster of disposable pilots continues in WW2 in A Piece Of Cake.
    • This also happens to an over-confident American army major who claims to be able to fly, to whom Wooley loans an old plane, just in case...
  • Averted by Biggles, who is absolutely sure his naive cousin Algernon Lacey is going to die on his first flight. But Algy proves him wrong and surprises everyone...

     Live Action Television  
  • LOST: In the pilot episode, the co-pilot dies on impact and the pilot is killed off soon after being found. And then inverted in later seasons, with pilot Frank Lapidus being one of few characters to survive until the end, precisely because he was required by the plot.
    • Originally however, it was meant to be Jack who was killed by the smoke monster halfway through the pilot episode. The pilot was only written in after they realised that the audience would have reacted badly to Jack being nothing more than a Decoy Protagonist, since he was the most proactive character thus-far.
  • No Ordinary Family: The Powells get their powers after a plane crash in the jungle of Brazil. The pilot of their plane is never seen, implying this is what happened to them.
  • On Warehouse 13, Mrs. Frederic's driver(/bodyguard?) is the person killed when Artie survives an explosion by using the phoenix.
  • Referenced in Blackadder Goes Forth. The Royal Flying Corps is nicknamed "The Twenty Minuters", as that's their life expectancy.

     Tabletop Games  
  • The first tagline used for BattleTech was "In the 31st Century, life is cheap... but Battlemechs aren't!". For the first couple years of its existence the setting was portrayed as being largely a Mad Max In Space type universe where mechs were practically impossible to build and therefore considered to be quite a bit more valuable than their pilots. This eventually ended as the game designers realized that they couldn't really go anywhere with that idea and changed it so that everyone still could produce mechs, they just couldn't produce the superior equipment that the Star League had used and therefore everyone was driving a bunch of inferior knockoffs (and the methods of producing all that equipment was eventually rediscovered, as well).

     Video Games  
  • In The Force Unleashed, Galen mentions that there were seven pilots before Juno.
  • Mass Effect:
  • Jock from Deus Ex fits this trope, but you can subvert it by revealing the mechanic as an impostor and telling him to check his fuel tank.
  • In the opening scene of Return To Mysterious Island 2, the rescue chopper from the previous game's final scene crashes into the sea, killing its pilot.
  • When your helicopter goes down in the Modern Warfare mission "Hunted", both pilots are always killed though most of your squad survives.
    • When Shepherd starts killing off TF 141 in Modern Warfare 2, Soap's driver gets shot in their escape to join up with Price and Nikolai, forcing Soap to drive the car they're in one-handed to get up the ramp of the plane picking them up.
  • In Hopkins FBI, early on, the player calls a helicopter for some bank robbers. They kill the pilot.
  • Happens repeatedly in the Resident Evil game series, as so far we've lost Brad and Kevin in part 1, two unnamed pilots in parts 2 and 3, another anonymous pilot and Mike in part 4, Kirk and Doug in part 5, and a couple more nameless pilots in part 6. Main character Chris Redfield is a notable aversion, as his backstory has him as a former Air Force pilot.
  • The Valkyrie Player Character Captain Titus rides on one mission in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine goes down with him escaping by hanging off one of its landing skids and jumping off to hit the ground with a roll (Warhammer 40,000's Space Marines are Bad Ass SuperSoldiers). The game was consistent and didn't use the protagonist's ride going down for a easy, singular expression that the situation is dangerous; since you saw other Valkyries exploding around you while you were flying and the Imperial Guard Lieutenant expressively says they've lost too many Valkyries and have to fall back and conserve.
  • In Carrier, elderly chopper pilot Leonard is killed by a mutant in the opening cutscene. Since this was also supposed to be his last mission before retirement, nobody gets a gold star for guessing that he wouldn't make it.
  • In the first FEAR game, late in the game your helicopter is shot down and both pilots die in the crash. FEAR 2 averts this, as Manny is the only member of Dark Signal to survive the whole game besides Beckett. In FEAR 3, the pilot of the helicopter gets tossed overboard by the Point Man, but his copilot survives until they return to Fairport, only to get murdered by cultists immediately following the inevitable crash landing.
  • Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 involve many pilots being zombified by the Player Party (carriers of the virus) and summarily killed, though these deaths are always offscreen. The only exception is in Dead Air, in which a passenger jet crashes into the ground in front of the Player Party, with appropriate reactions from each character.
  • Halo:
  • Averted in the second intro to Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where Chun Li is shown saving the pilot of her helicopter when Super-Skrull brings it down.
  • At one point in Batman: Arkham City, Vicki Vale manages to fly a news copter into Arkham City, which is promptly shot down by the Joker's men. Vicki walks out of the crash unscathed, but her pilot is dead.
  • During an exfil in Crysis the VTOL that Nomad is riding in takes a hit to the cockpit that kills the pilot. Nomad is forced to take over.

    Real Life 
  • On average, a Sopwith Camel pilot in World War One died within two weeks.

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