Sniping the Cockpit

Protip: Evacuate target's ballistic trajectory before execution.

No matter how badass your Cool Tank, Cool Plane, or Humongous Mecha may be, its crew is still often made up of flesh-and-blood human beings who, once you get past the vehicle's armor plating, are just as vulnerable to damage as any other. Enemies who have armor-piercing weaponry may come to realize that they can stop your rampaging murder machines with just a few well-placed rounds to the cockpit. In the same manner that a well-placed shot to the head can instantly kill a human being, an attack that deliberately targets and kills the pilot can stop a vehicle without having to exert the time, energy, and resources to reduce it to scrap metal.

This is common in newer First-Person Shooter games, where killing the pilot or other crew can take the vehicle or some of its weapons out of action until those stations can be manned again. Sometimes, especially if the vehicle itself has a Crew of One, it can also be used so that the opposing force can hijack the vehicle and turn it against its owners.

Disposable Pilot often overlaps with this. Contrast In-Vehicle Invulnerability.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Inverted in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED: the Technical Pacifist Kira eventually trains himself to render any Humongous Mecha inoperable without any damage to the cockpit.
  • In an episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the pilot of an armed attack helicopter suffers from a (deliberately induced) heart attack, which causes the A.I. in his aircraft to malfunction and refuse to acknowledge stand-down orders since it believes the brain-dead pilot is still in control. Once Saito puts a round through the comatose pilot's head, the A.I. takes back full control and returns the aircraft back to base on its own.
  • In the Mazinger trilogyMazinger Z, Great Mazinger and UFO Robo Grendizer — aiming for the cockpit (clearly visible in the two first robots) is a common tactic constantly employed by Genre Savvy villains... and the army when the Government turns on the heroes (which also is an alarmingly common occurrence). In fact, it happened in the first Mazinger-Z manga chapter (Mazinger went on a rampage due to Kouji thinking Falling into the Cockpit was a good idea. Several tanks attacked Mazinger, deliberately aiming for the cockpit). And in a Great Mazinger manga episode, a Warbeast is holding Great Mazinger still as Marquis Janus orders to snipe the cockpit. However, the likewise Genre Savvy Humongous Mecha builders had the cockpits specially reinforced to protect the pilot.
  • Standard operating procedure for the mecha in Bokurano.
  • Subverted in Area 88, where a sniper who has managed to lock down the entire base doesn't try hitting the cockpit until the end of the episode, and fails.
  • The last episode of Mobile Suit Gundam features the ultimate example of this, when Char pulls this on a Zanzibar-class mobile cruiser as a side effect of executing a Boom, Headshot on Kycilia with a bazooka.
    • In the first episode, Amuro dispatches the second Zaku that attacked Side 7 by stabbing it through the cockpit with his beam saber - the first one he just cut in half, causing its reactor to go critical and subsequently punch a hole right through the side of the colony.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket similarly has its final battle end with the Alex's beam saber stabbed through the cockpit of Bernie's Zaku, though unlike Amuro's second kill in the original series it still blows up anyway.
  • The introduction of D.D. Ivanov, one of the primary antagonist in Macross Zero is this. Captain Roy Focker had just saved a newbie from getting Macross Missile Massacre'd to death, and said newbie gets sniped in the cockpit for Roy's trouble.
  • In Attack on Titan the weak spot at the base of a Titan's neck turns out to be where their human body, specifically the head, is located.

    Comic Books 
  • The Saint of Killers from Preacher pulls off several of these against a tank battalion. Of course, his magic guns (which were forged by Satan himself from the Angel of Death's sword) are guaranteed to never miss and always inflict fatal wounds no matter who or what they're aimed at, so really all he has to do is point, fire, and somehow someone is going to die. Whether it's by going through the tank's periscope, hitting and blowing up a round in the tank's gun, or simply by penetrating the armor, it's immaterial.
  • Referenced and averted in Sin City: To Hell And Back. One Mook tries this on Wallace. Wallace notes that it only works in the movies and that the mook should aim for the car, instead of the driver.
  • In the Commando story "Crackshot Craig", the eponymous Craig is an ex-SAS marksman who gets caught up in a civil war in an unnamed South American country. When the rebel stronghold is attacked by government forces, Craig manages to shoot down a light-attack aircraft by killing the pilot with an antique Lee-Enfield rifle.

    Fan Works 
  • Bait and Switch (STO): In chapter six Tess hits the crew compartment of an Orion interceptor with one of the USS Bajor's aft phaser strips. The ship goes out of the fight on a ballistic course. A few minutes later she duplicates it with a quantum torpedo salvo to the bridge of an Orion corvette, although this is frankly overkill.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Return of the Jedi, this leads to the loss of the Super Star Destroyer Executor as a result of a Taking You with Me attack from a crippled Rebel starfighter plowing into the bridge. The massive ship was sent careening out of control and crashed into the Death Star.
  • In the World War I movie Flyboys, many of the pilots are killed in their cockpits. In the final fight the hero kills the German Ace with a well-placed shot from a revolver while they are flying side-by-side.
  • Used in Avatar when the natives couldn't destroy the tiltrotors or Powered Armor wholesale, but could throw spears with sufficient heft to pierce the cockpits.
  • Capt. Hale in Broken Arrow takes out the first helicopter by shooting the pilot through the cockpit glass. The pilot keels over the controls, the chopper turns over, crashes, and explodes.
  • This trope is brought up in Independence Day, where Dr. Okun is asked by the president if the alien invaders can be killed. He replies that "Their bodies are just as frail as ours ... You just have to get past their technology, which is, I'm sorry to say, far more advanced".
  • In the opening mission of Flight of the Intruder, the protagonist's navigator is shot through the throat by a carefully aimed shot fired by a VC armed with a bolt-action rifle, after surviving a hail of ack-ack fire. In the original book, it was a one-in-a-million accident from the VC firing into the air in the rough direction of their A-6.
  • Attempted by Lursa and B'etor in Star Trek: Generations when they order their gunner to target the Enterprise's bridge. Unfortunately for them, the Enterprise crew technobabbles their shields down first and puts a torpedo into their reactor.

  • Shooting the pilots is noted to be an effective tactic against Ork flyers in the Ciaphas Cain novel The Last Ditch. One of the 597th's troopers, the accident-prone "Jinxie" Penlan, once did it by accident when she used the butt of her lasgun as a mallet and it went off.
  • Tycho Celchu's trademark in the X-Wing Series is doing this with full-sized starfighter guns.
    • In the eighth book of the series, Isard's Revenge, Wedge lands a cockpit shot on an AT-AT.
    • In the tenth book, Friendly Sniper Wran Narcassan brings down a distant flying vehicle with a single shot through its pilot.
  • In Harry Turtledove's World War series, aliens invade in the middle of World War II. While the Lizards have technology and vehicles far superior to WWII era tanks and planes, they're still vulnerable to things like a tank commander getting his head blown off when he sticks his head out of the hatch.
  • Discussed in Neal Stephensonís Snow Crash: Hiro Protagonist threatens to shoot through the windshield of a Hind helicopter:
    L. Bob Rife: Itís bulletproof! Haw!
    Hiro: No it isnít, as the rebels in Afghanistan found out.

    Live-Action TV 

    Music Videos 
  • In the Gorillaz clip for "On Melancholy Hill", Noodle manages to hit the cockpit of one of the pirate planes attacking her cruise ship with her machine gun, sending it crashing into the sea.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Largely averted in BattleTech. While head hits will hurt a 'Mech's pilot and may knock him or her out (and the head is usually the weakest spot on the whole giant armored war machine, period), actually aiming for the head is almost impossible unless the pilot is already unconscious or the reactor has shut down.
  • Defied by the Tau in Warhammer40000. The heads of their Mini-Mecha are just redundancy camera pods, and the pilot's head is buried deep in the mech's chest.
    • Played straight for anyone who is not a Tau pilot. Tau railgun punches through the cockpit, and the momentum from it is such that the body of the pilot is sucked through the projectile's exit hole. The result is a long trail of gore and viscera which was the unfortunate pilot.

    Video Games 
  • From the Command & Conquer series:
    • In Command & Conquer: Generals, the GLA hero unit Jarmen Kell can snipe pilots out of vehicles, leaving behind the unoccupied vehicle that can then be captured by a friendly infantry grunt. In Zero Hour, the Chinese Nuke Cannon artillery does the same thing when equipped with neutron shells, only on a larger scale.
    • Similarly, Natasha Volkova from Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is able to snipe the operator of a vehicle, at which point any infantry unit can hop in.
  • Can be done in the MechWarrior games, which take place in the BattleTech universe (see above). Killing the pilot in MechWarrior Living Legends also allows you to steal the mech — in previous MechWarrior games, destroying the cockpit would simply "destroy" the mech.
    • Previous titles of the Mercenaries series, as well as the Mech Commander games, have the player managing his own battle group. Salvaging enemy Mechs is a pretty big deal, and the only way to get some heavies way before you can afford them during normal gameplay progression. Cockpit shots are by far the best way to salvage a Mech that will only require minimal repair, followed by disabling the legs - much easier, but also much more expensive to fix.
  • At one point in Modern Warfare you do this to an Mi-28 Havoc. Then Captain MacMillan does it to another Havoc, which almost crashes on top of him, breaking his leg.
  • Battlezone had a sniper rifle precisely to allow the player to do this. The sniper rifle returns in the sequel, Combat Commander, but it is more restrictive - only light hover tanks can be sniped, as the rifle lacks the power to penetrate the heavy reinforced cockpits of walkers or treaded tanks.
  • Killing the pilot is one way to score a victory in Red Baron. As in Real Life, the open cockpits of many planes provide relatively little protection to the crew.
  • Battlefield
    • In Battlefield 2, the M95 sniper rifle and (occasionally) rockets are capable of bypassing the bulletproof cockpit glass of helicopters and jets, and killing the pilot.
    • This also works in Battlefield 3, as beautifully demonstrated in this vid. Most helicopters' windshields are bulletproof though, so it can only be done with sniper rifles or vehicle mounted machine guns. The Scout Helicopter's windshield is not bulletproof however, so you can just spray at it hoping to kill the pilot.
  • Tanks in World of Tanks have a crew that can be killed in battle. If the entire crew is dead, then the tank is effectively out of the fight, even if the tank itself is still in one piece.
  • In Crysis, the only way to take an enemy vehicle is to kill its crew. A few well placed shots can net you an undamaged vehicle.
  • Silent Scope justifies this since the player only uses a sniper rifle. In one level you can take down a Harrier jet in one shot by scoring a headshot on either pilot - in another car chase level you can render everyone in a car ineffective by shooting the driver. This includes the boss, who attacks by trying to run you down with a hijacked semi. The helicopter miniboss in the same level is a subversion, as you take it down by shooting its rotor shaft rather than the cockpit.
  • In Mass Effect 3, Cerberus's giant Atlas mechs are somewhat vulnerable to this trope — while, as the codex entry suggests, their giant crystal canopies are less vulnerable than they ought to be, they can be broken. In singleplayer, Shepard can then Gundamjack the unit in question. (However, since its canopy has been shot out, he's now equally vulnerable...)
  • In Halo: Combat Evolved, the powerful Scorpion tank has the driver's head completely open to the air. Since the tank is so slow, a sniper can kill the driver quite easily. This bit of idiotic vehicle engineering was rectified in the later Halo games by adding a metal hatch to deflect sniper bullets. Still, if the tank takes enough damage, the cockpit hatch will fall off, allowing for an easy sniper kill once again.
  • In Borderlands 2, some bandit enemies will pilot airborne vehicles called Buzzards. Shooting the pilot will result in a critical hit. However, since Buzzards are almost constantly in motion, it's extremely difficult to get a good shot at the pilot unless you're very quick on the draw and it's coming right at you.
  • In Grand Theft Auto, it's possible to do this to NPC's since Vice City. In IV, you can also do this in multiplayer (and have it happen to you, so be careful). Rather difficult though, due to both players and NPCs actively avoiding this.
  • Done in Soldier of Fortune to helicopter pilots.
  • In the Assault Records section of Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (a record detailing every enemy Ace Pilot that you've shot down), one particular enemy ace was notorious for doing this. The Record goes on to state that he was shot and killed after bailing out.
  • Some Front Mission games allow you to do this, notably in Front Mission 3. Not only are there specific skills to do just this, but attaining hits to the torso region has a chance of damaging the pilot. Often, if the roll is particularly unlucky, a pilot can die from a single concentrated shotgun burst to the torso, leaving their Wanzer intact. Not only pragmatically useful (killing enemy pilots from otherwise strong Wanzers is one way to avoid prolonged combat), the fact that you can sell the captured Wanzers later makes for one heck of a Videogame Cruelty Potential.
  • Time Crisis 3's Stage 1 Area 3 has you riding in an ATV while shooting other enemies also in ATVs. Killing the driver of a vehicle causes the entire vehicle to spin out and crash, killing everyone else on it. It's faster than eliminating individual enemies or shooting the ATV itself, but if you're playing for score, you miss out on points gained from chain-shooting enemies.
  • In FTL: Faster Than Light, hitting a ship's room with non-ion weapons not only damages the ship's hull (unless it's a bomb) and systems, but also whatever crew happens to be inside. It is thus possible to kill off the crew of a ship with just your weapons rather than sending a Boarding Party, although in most cases the enemy ship will crumble from hull failure before the crew's lifebars are depleted. The Anti-Bio Beam is designed specifically for destroying enemy crew without damaging the hull, so a crew-kill, no-teleport victory is most feasible with it, but if the enemy ship has a medbay, it'll be useless unless you destroy the medbay.
  • In War Thunder, hitting the cockpit is a good way to take out enemy planes, especially heavily armored bombers. The US B-17 can lose 3 out of 4 engines and still fly, for starters, but if the pilot takes a bullet it's done for (maybe two if the pilots vitality stat is upgraded high enough).
    • Even more important with the ground forces part. If an ammo rack hit is not avaible, then aiming for a weak spot to take out the crew (ideally the gunner) is the best course of action. A ground unit is also considered dead if you kill all but one of the crew.
  • Operation Flashpoint and ARMA allow this, depending on the vehicle and the size of your gun. It's very difficult to pull off, of course; thankfully, you can also take out the engine or some other critical part instead, if you don't plan on hijacking that vehicle.
  • PlanetSide 1 had complete pilot protection against normal weapons - even, bizzarely, the completely exposed ATV riders - but a special Ancient Vanu weapon, the Radiator, lobbed out "grenades" that would create a ~5m wide bubble of lingering radiation that would go through walls and could kill vehicle occupants. Though the vehicle occupants had to be either an idiot or already wounded, as the Radiator was a Gradual Grinder and did very little damage per tick. Planetside 2 doesn't let players be killed while in enclosed cockpits, though you're free to shoot people off of their Flash, Harasser pickup bed, or Valkyrie rumble seats.
  • In Space Engineers, blasting off enemy cockpits is one the most effective ways to to kill enemy SpaceFighters; only the most hardcore armored fighters have enclosed cockpits, while everything else generally has the cockpit on the very front of the ship, ready to be blown off. Generally less viable against large ships, as players often mount multiple redundant control rooms and have it buried deep within the ship; it's generally more effective to target their reactor rooms or thrusters.
  • UberSoldier 2 has vehicle sections where you man a fixed gun, and are followed by enemy vehicles. You can blow them up with sustained firepower, or you can fire a few bullets at the driver and see the otherwise undamaged vehicle careen off and explode.
  • Robocraft has this as the main means of removing robots. Your machine can be as well-armoured as you can afford, but if the pilot seat or the block that it's attached to is damaged, you're done for.
  • Games in the Saints Row series have this as a means of getting rid of aircraft. You could shoot helicopters so full of bullets that they catch fire and plunge to the ground in a big fireball, you could create a firework in the sky with some kind of explosive, but its also possible to get one well-aimed shot in on the cockpit to achieve the same effect as the first method. The same thing can be done with airports in the second game. Shoot the pilot dead and watch the plane coast to a stop in front of you... or drop to the ground and explode.
  • In Elite Dangerous, the canopy on all starships can be shot out if the ship's shields are down. The canopy will crack before dramatically exploding outwards, causing your spacesuit helmet to automatically close and engage a limited duration life support system, giving you between 5 and 30 minutes depending on the upgrade level to land and repair. Of particular note is losing your canopy also causes you to lose most of your heads up display, forcing pilots to eyeball their shots and guess their weapons ammo or Over Heating status.
  • James Bond: Agent Under Fire uses this as a Bond Move several times. Later games abandoned it for two reasons: first, the game's control scheme makes it really hard to do well; second, the game used it over and over through the last five or six levels.
  • Discussed in one between-mission cutscene in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, where two members of the squad overhear Navy men in the messdeck talking about a sniper who shot down an enemy gunship by nailing the pilot through the canopy with one shot and promptly destroyed everything else under it when it came crashing down. Said squad members then imply that at least one of them (the sniper of the group) was there and responsible for that, with one noting that he remembers the "one shot" being with an RPG rather than a sniper rifle; they choose not to correct the story because "their version's better".

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Real Life 
  • World War I, being the first major conflict to feature air-to-air conflict, notably had many instances of this. Before someone figured out how to mount a machine gun on a plane, pilots and observers were required to take firearms along with them in the cockpit in case an opportunity to attack an enemy craft presented itself. Generally, the plane's engines had more protection than the cockpit so often enough a plane would be shot up but still flyable but the pilot was dead or wounded. Manfred von Richthofen, THE Red Baron himself, was fatally wounded by an anti-aircraft machine gun but still managed to land his relatively unharmed plane before dying. Some early plane designs also had an unfortunate habit of showering their pilots in boiling hot oil or radiator coolant if the engines were shot up by enemy fire, indirectly leading to this.
  • During the Spanish Civil War, partisan snipers learned to shoot down low-flying fighter planes by targeting the cockpit.
  • This has gotten more difficult as technology has advanced, but we have yet to come up with a material that is both transparent and as strong as high-grade steel, much less more exotic stuff like depleted-uranium or Chobham armour. Some types of bulletproof glass note  also have an unfortunate tendency to deteriorate over time from exposure to direct sunlight and have to be replaced periodically; if the maintenance people goof the paperwork or replacements don't turn up on time, there's a problem.
  • During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was a confirmed case of a Mujaheddin downing a Hind attack helicopter by killing the pilot with a Martini-Henry rifle left over from the British invasion in the previous century.
  • Generally averted during World War II, as better shielding for the pilot made it more efficient to destroy the plane's vital systems instead. However, the Japanese A6M Zero had an unarmored cockpit (make that an unarmored everything), which did wonders for its maneuverability and made it very successful early in the war, but got many pilots killed when they went up against later American fighter planes that combined heavy armor with similar maneuverability. About the only Zero pilots that survived to the end of the war were those who ordered armor plating added around the cockpit.
  • Neutron bombs are designed to do this. Depleted uranium tank armor can withstand a tactical nuclear weapon detonated as close as a quarter-mile (400 meters). Depleted uranium will block blast, heat, gamma rays, poison gas, and pathogens. It is, however, worse than useless at shielding the crew from fusion neutrons, which instead of being captured or moderated by the armor, fast fission it, creating MORE radiation. Result: the tank is left intact, but the crew receives a fatal dose of radiation, and ideally at least 5-10 times the fatal dose (radiation poisoning kills slowly if you receive only one fatal dose, leaving the crew able to fight in the interim, but 5-10 fatal doses at once quickly cripple the victim and leads to a swift death). For this reason, Soviet tanks usually have fuel tanks near doors and other sections as well as water layers to trap neutrons. Still doesn't help against gamma radiation though.
  • Visibility from within an armoured vehicle is a lot better than it was fifty years ago, but CCTV systems only go so far, and can also get damaged. Sometimes you just have to stick your head out the hatch to use the Mk 1 eyeball and take your chances.
    • It is also possible for snipers to disable the advanced optics and force the crew to do this. Shooting out thermal sights is a primary role of snipers when going up against tanks.
    • During World War II, experience showed that tank commanders or gunners who stuck their heads out of an open hatch to see what was going on were much more likely to be killed, either from a sharpshooter or just from getting caught by the blast of anti-tank weapons. On the other hand, the same experience showed that the entire tank crew was more likely to die if nobody stuck their head out to see what possible threats were approaching in a blind spot.
    • Most major armies pre-World War II had anti-tank rifles in their arsenals. The technology was first adopted in 1918 during World War I as a counter to the newly introduced tanks and was fairly effective against the early, light armored, tanks. They were still mildly effective in the early years of World War II but increased armor on later tank models made them obsolete. Most were converted into anti-material weapons and used for disabling trucks and shooting through pillboxes.
  • Going with the theme of "disabling the vehicle by killing the crew", some modern antitank weapons are not designed to actually destroy the vehicle or even penetrate the armor, but just send a shockwave through the armor that causes pieces of it to break off and ricochet around inside the vehicle. This is known as "spalling" and tends to cause the tank's crew compartment to resemble a charnel house afterward.