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Self-Sacrificing Pilot

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Autopilot? What's that??

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
Andyh on Dec 30th 2017 at 8:11:01 PM
Last Edited By:
Andyh on Jan 3rd 2018 at 6:32:38 PM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

The examples on this page contains unmarked spoilers. You Have Been Warned!

Our heroes are about to save the day, they just need to escape the ship that's about to blow! Except, it's right by an orphanage! Someone needs to steer this ship away from those poor kids, but there's no remote control and the bad guy has already jumped ship. The team look between each other, someone will have to pilot the ship, and one valiant hero steps forward.

A Sub-Trope of Heroic Sacrifice. This isn't the only situation, but any time in which to limit collateral damage a hero must stay behind with the belief they are going to die counts.

Sometimes a deadly cargo must be disposed of safely, other times people need to be evacuated from a ship that is in mortal danger with the hero waiting and escorting them, and, of course when someone has to pilot the ship away from causing great harm — and there's never a willing droid pilot when you need one.

See also Plot-Driven Breakdown, when there may have been an autopilot or some other function that wouldn't require a sacrifice but it's not working anymore. This may have a viable in-universe cause, such as damage to the ship's systems during a battle. Alternatively, the autopilot may function as a particularly inefficient piece of software, leading to it needing to be turned off in order for the life-saving efforts to be made possible, with a human pilot, of course. Highly likely to lead to a Dying Moment of Awesome.


Film — Live-Action

  • In Star Trek, Nero kills Captain Robau during interrogation and the Narada resumes its attack on the USS Kelvin. Now-Captain George Kirk orders evacuation and stays behind to pilot the Kelvin on a collision course with the Romulan ship. This sacrifice allows his wife and just-born child James Tiberius to escape, along with the remaining crew of the Kelvin.
  • In The Last Jedi, Vice-Admiral Holdo remains on the ship in an attempt to distract the First Order battle fleet while the Resistance escapes to an old Rebel Alliance base on the moon of Crait. However, DJ reveals the evacuation to the First Order and Holdo aligns her ship and accelerates to lightspeed, inflicting massive damage on the First Order fleet.
  • In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve finds himself alone on a bomber after defeating the HYDRA member onboard who was flying it to New York in order to destroy the city. In order to prevent his home city being destroyed, and the war likely being extended many years longer, Steve has to prevent the bomb being automatically deployed — but there is no override, so he chooses to crash the whole thing into an Arctic ice sheet.
  • In Wonder Woman (2017), Steve hijacks the bomber containing Maru's deadly new gas munitions destined for London, pilots it to a safe altitude and distance, and then detonates it, dying in the process. The explosion is seen by Diana, which reinforces her belief that humans have good in them, gaining her Heroic Second Wind to enable her to defeat Ares.
  • In the first The Avengers, a nuke gets launched by the Council at New York even after it had been disapproved because you can't turn off the Big Red Button. Iron Man decides to fly it into the wormhole to the other side of the universe, even though he's likely to die, doubling as being able to blow up the mothership to power-off all the Chitauri. He manages to fall back through, though.

Live-Action TV

  • The Black Mirror show "Black Mirror: USS Callister" has the heroes of Infinity moments away from escaping in a vortex, but a sidesweep from a fast-moving meteor gives the final piece of damage to cut out the power and engines. With the power, they could have turned the engine back on, but instead Walton volunteers to go down to the chamber and manually fix it before Daly catches them and/or the vortex closes, knowing that it'll come on immediately and he'll be incinerated as it flames. Even worse is the fact that they can't die, so he knows he'll suffer through deadly pain for a while rather than go quickly.

Feedback: 26 replies

Dec 31st 2017 at 3:38:21 AM

Needs A Better Description

^ they asked about it in TF; it's when someone has to stay behind to successfully fix something/pilot a ship/whatever as a Heroic Suicide. Not always autopilot failing, but needs a mention.

Suggest renaming it Piloting The Ship to match with Taking The Bullet and Jumping On A Grenade.

Dec 31st 2017 at 6:25:06 AM

I figured it might qualify as Plot Driven Breakdown but then I read the definition carefully, hence the qualifier. I didn't put it under Heroic Suicide for the same reason. Just read about No New Stock Phrases so lakingsif's Piloting The Ship would solve that problem, and it does go on the same level as Taking The Bullet etc., so I renamed it. Problem is that the shortened title itself doesn't really convey the sacrifice element in the way the the other sub-tropes do, so other suggestions are welcome. Unless it's OK to just let its existence as a sub-trope of Heroic Sacrifice be the main clue.

Dec 31st 2017 at 6:02:36 AM

Seems more like a vehicle for complaining than a trope; also I thought we were stopping doing type one and type two styles of tropes.

Dec 31st 2017 at 7:01:06 AM

Zero Context Examples have been marked as such. They need more information to show how they fit the trope. Please don't remove the marking unless you add enough context.

Dec 31st 2017 at 7:21:41 AM

Live Action TV

  • Star Trek The Original Series episode "The Doomsday Machine". Captain Kirk realizes that the only way to stop the title opponent is to pilot the U.S.S. Constellation into its mouth and hope that the resulting detonation will deactivate it. Kirk sends the repair team back to the Enterprise and takes the helm himself, accepting the risk that he won't be beamed away in time.

Note: this is different from the two types listed in the Description. I don't think you really need to split up the examples by specific type.

Dec 31st 2017 at 7:34:18 AM

This needs work, but the trope is solid

Dec 31st 2017 at 11:59:39 AM

Current title is extremely undescriptive. Maybe Sacrifice Yourself With The Ship?

Dec 31st 2017 at 2:13:31 PM

Rewrote description, added examples, so it reads more like a trope. votes on the name?

Jan 1st 2018 at 9:07:13 AM

  • In the X-Men comics, Jean Grey volunteered to pilot a space shuttle back to Earth from a damaged cockpit that would be exposed to the heat of reentry while her teammates were in a shielded compartment, expecting not to survive. She did come very close to dying, but was saved by the Phoenix Force.

Dec 31st 2017 at 4:29:48 PM

going to re-suggest Staying Behind Sacrifice as it's buried a ways up in the comments

Dec 31st 2017 at 7:00:18 PM

@eroock: Well, that was kind of the point. The concepts are related but in this trope the person is going down with the ship by ramming it into another ship.

@lakingsif: That's not bad, per se, but it might be confused with somebody pulling You Shall Not Pass.

Jan 1st 2018 at 6:36:00 AM

I've been scratching my head about this, in between New Year's and accommodating relatives. Staying Behind Sacrifice does broaden things a bit re. the original vehicular notion. That's OK, of course, if it doesn't overlap too much with other tropes. Sacrificial Vehicle Driver is an option. Maybe Doomed Vessel Pilot or somesuch?

Jan 1st 2018 at 7:27:27 AM

Doomed Vessel Pilot doesn't quite fit, because it could apply to a pilot death scene without any self-sacrifice.

Jan 1st 2018 at 8:09:37 AM

Sacrificial Vehicle Driver (or Pilot, or some similar synonym) sounds good

Jan 1st 2018 at 8:37:53 AM

Sacrificial Pilot, or possibly Self-Sacrificing Pilot, to more clearly distinguish it from Disposable Pilot?

I think some of the current examples are problematic:

1. I don't think the The Avengers example fits this trope. Stark thought he was performing a suicide mission, but that mission really had nothing inherently to do with his "vehicle" (i.e., his suit, which is already stretching the definition a bit). His suit is just his normal tool for performing heroics—storywise, it's no different from a Flying Brick who can't survive in space doing the exact same thing without any "vehicle." If this is broadened to any instance where a vehicle is used to perform a Heroic Sacrifice, I think it's going to become so broad that it's meaningless.

2. I'm not familiar with the Black Mirror example, but from the write-up, it sounds like the sacrificial character is (A) not the pilot, just some other member of the crew and (B) unable to die (I think? Description says unable to die, but confusingly implies he'll "go" eventually.), plus (C) his sacrifice is so that the ship survives. The last point about the ship surviving doesn't explicitly violate the current description, but it seems to run directly counter to most of the example scenarios.

Whether or not to use spoiler-tagging really should be consistent before launch, too. I suspect this trope is almost always a resolution to a major plot dilemma or climax, so putting an un-marked spoiler warning up front and not spoiler-tagging may be the way to go. Otherwise, all of the examples should have any major plot spoilers tagged, not just a few.

Jan 3rd 2018 at 12:16:11 PM

Self-Sacrificing Pilot is probably the closest yet, although Sacrificial Vehicle Pilot is certainly in the ballpark. I did a few minor edits on the page and changed the title, reordering the examples. The Star Trek and Star Wars examples are the ones I originally had in mind when I made my initial inquiries that led to this potential trope - both of those involve folks sneaking off the main vessel, but [of course] someone has to stay behind and pilot the craft, with thereabouts inevitable fatal consequences for themselves. I'm fairly confident that the two Steve examples work, i.e. don't broaden it too much. I guess the The Avengers example does push things towards straightforward Heroic Sacrifice, so maybe that should be deleted. Similarly, the USS Callister example reminds me of Spock's "...needs of the few, or the one" moment, which is straight Heroic Sacrifice, I think.

Jan 3rd 2018 at 1:13:37 PM

I agree with you for the Black Mirror one, but I guess the missile in The Avengers is still something that Tony has to physically pilot, it's dubious.

Jan 3rd 2018 at 7:42:18 PM

Anyone feel uncomfortable with adding "Last Jedi" spoilers?

Jan 3rd 2018 at 6:36:59 PM

^ yes. I mean, obviously[edited to remove reference spoiler]. I suggest you also edit your comment given that mentioning it is a spoiler in itself.