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Disposable Pilot

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Painting by Federico Alain.

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.

Not to be confused with Failed Pilot Episode.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Subverted in Ghost Sweeper Mikami. When the plane carrying the heroes to Bloodeau Island is attacked by a swarm of bats in mid-air, the pilots are the first who decide to bail out via parachute. Naturally, the plane shortly after crashes into the sea, but everyone survives.
  • The fate of any unfortunate muggle that has to transport the good guys in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Notable examples include Mark from Part II, who drove Joseph and Caesar to where the Pillar Men were found and got semi-absorbed for his efforts; and the poor Speedwagon Foundation helicopter pilots who drove Iggy to join with the rest of the team and were drowned by N'Doul's water Stand.
  • 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.
  • Surprisingly averted in the Saint Seiya anime. After the plane the Saints are in crash down in an island and one of the enemy Saints can turn people into stone, one expected those two poor pilots would have either died in the crash or turned to stone. Instead, Seiya quickly tells them to go try call for help while they deal with the enemy.

    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.

    Films ó Animation 

    Films ó Live-Action 
  • 2012:
    • 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.
  • In Airplane!, the entire cockpit crew (plus many of the passengers) is taken out by food poisoning during the flight, setting up the main conflict of getting everyone safely back on the ground.
  • 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.
  • 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, totaling it.
  • Armageddon (1998): After the Independence shuttle suffers critical damage, both its pilots are blown out into space after the windshield is shattered by asteroid debris. On the other hand, both Freedom pilots survive the movie.
  • In The Black Cat, having delivered his Info Dump about Máramaros, the bus driver is immediately killed in the bus crash that strands the protagonists at Poelzig's house.
  • Deadtime Stories: Volume 1: In "Valley of the Shadow", the boat pilot is killed by the first volley of arrows fired by the hostile natives.
  • Die Hard 2 revolves around a South American general named General Esperanza, who was a US ally in the Cold War but outlived his usefulness once the Soviet Union fell, was deposed, and is now being flown to the US to stand trial for his crimes. When Esperanza breaks free and hijacks the plane, the pilot asks who is going to fly the plane if Esperanza shoots him. Esperanza replies not to worry about it, kills the pilot, and takes over the controls.
  • Near the end of Executive Decision, the terrorist leader Hassan is wounded and cornered by the protagonists. In desperation, he sweeps the cockpit with his submachinegun, killing the pilots, hoping that the crash sets off the bomb, filled with a deadly nerve gas. Hassan is killed moments later, and Dr. Grant (not that one) manages to land the plane successfully. Note that this is pre-9/11, before cockpit doors were made bulletproof.
  • 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 (as the poor pilot sensibly tried to explain, an engine was out), so he instead veers the plane off the runway... and into a hangar.
  • Fantasy Island (2020): Just as the plane is coming in to pick up the guests, the Malevolent Masked Men from JD and Brax's fantasy blow it up with an RPG: taking out the plane and the pilot.
  • In Flash Gordon, during Ming's initial attack on Earth, the pilots of the small plane Flash and Dale are flying in are killed by a meteorite, forcing Flash to try to land the plane. By sheer coincidence, he plows the plane right through Zarkov's lab.
  • Greenland: The pilots of the civilian plane that takes the Garrity family to Greenland die in a crash landing, although all of their passengers survive.
  • 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.
  • James Bond:
    • For Your Eyes Only: In The Teaser, the pilot of the helicopter Bond is in gets electrocuted in mid-flight.
      Blofeld: Don't concern yourself with the pilot. One of my less useful people.
      • He then hypocritically chastises Bond for displaying this trope himself when Bond throws the man's body out of the chopper in order to take over.
        "Really? Have you no respect for the dead?"
      • Later in the film, Melina Havelock (the Bond Girl) and Bond leave three crew members on her yacht while they go scuba diving. When they return, they're captured by the bad guys, who inform them that they've killed them.
    • Blofeld strikes again in Spectre, when he abandons his dead or injured helicopter pilots without even checking on them to escape. During the opening sequence, Bond himself kicks a pilot out of a helicopter (to be fair, he was one of the bad guys and it was essentially necessary.)
  • In The Hateful Eight coachman O.B. has the dubious honor to be the second on-screen victim.
  • The villains in The Lady Vanishes usually can't aim worth crap, but they take out the train engineers with one shot apiece, leaving the hero to try and run the train himself.
  • The Mummy (1999): Happens to the old war pilot who was suffering from ennui (an established Death Seeker who died with a smile because he went out in the cockpit), but not in the second.
  • In My Fellow Americans, the two former Presidents are traveling in a government-issue helicopter but end up arguing. They force the pilot to land the plane and walk away to argue some more. The pilot lifts off, and the chopper blows up seconds later. This is the first clue to the Presidents that someone wants them dead.
  • Murphy's War: Murphy wants to use the Mount Kyle's seaplane to bomb the U-boat that killed his friends, but the pilot (the only other survivor of their ship) is bedridden after being wounded in the massacre up until he's murdered by the Nazis long before he would have recovered enough to fly the plane. As the plane's former mechanic, Murphy is convinced that he knows enough about the plane to fly it himself, and after taking a few practice flights, he does go on the mission of revenge himself.
  • Road to Perdition: When Michael Sullivan goes to kill John Rooney, he kills the chauffeur first so he can't make a quick getaway.
  • 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.
  • 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 motorman is casually bumped off by the villain. 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.
    • Subverted with Sam the bus driver. Although he's shot, he survives, but it still provides the perfect excuse to get rid of him and have Annie take over the driving.
    • Happened to the first bus driver who apparently was a friend of Jack having fallen victim to the explosion by Payne to get Jack's attention.
  • Played for Laughs in Spy Hard, as the helicopter pilot is destroyed by the self-destructing tape that was left on board the chopper.
  • Star Wars:
    • Dak Ralter, Luke's snowspeeder copilot in The Empire Strikes Back. Instantly killed by blaster fire and crushed by an AT-AT's foot. Technically an inversion, actually, since Luke is the pilot, Dak is the gunner.
    • The ship that carried Obi-Wan Kenobi 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 three seconds of them being dropped off. All this after not doing a thing to shoot down either Dooku or the Geonosian fighters.
    • Obi-Wan's droid copilot in Revenge of the Sith, taken down by buzz droids, might count since R-series units have some personality on their own.
    • Expanded Universe and especially Legends material paint the average Imperial pilot as disposable, as the standard TIE Fighter lacks a hyperdrive, shields, and even an ejection seat. The few pilots who survive more than a handful of missions are to be feared in combat.
  • 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.
  • White Wolves: In both films where the kids end up trapped in the wilderness due to plane crashes, the pilot dies (although the one in the fourth film lasts a while after the crash before succumbing to his wounds). No other characters die in any of the movies.

  • 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...
    • Played rather straighter in Biggles Learns To Fly, when two veteran pilots who seemed to be on their way to becoming main characters are unceremoniously killed off in his first combat engagement to establish just how dangerous this posting is. Later in the same volume Biggles is flying with a young lad fresh out of training while his regular Guy in Backnote  is grounded with a minor injury, and the poor kid gets shot and killed before he'd even had time to unpack his kit. Biggles, who's usually a level-headed sort of chap, takes this rather badly.
  • Ciaphas Cain:
    • A darkly amusing example in "Cain's Last Stand" 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.
    • This trope is finally played straight in "The Last Ditch", when the pilot of the ship that's carrying Cain et al to the planet's surface crash lands. Cain wonders if he wants to congratulate the captain or give him a summary execution (as the crash was his fault for cheaping out on repairs), but realises he's dead anyway. This ends up being a plot point since their ship landed in just the right place to wake up some sleeping Tyranids.
    • In "The Greater Good", part way through, Cain visits the command ship. Inevitably the shuttle taking him back down crashes. Cain's pilot either died on crash landing, or was killed by the tyranid that starts eating him before Cain can get to him. He's forced to trek back to base with the help of some Krieg deathkorps outriders.
  • 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.
  • In Halo: First Strike, Red Team's non-Spartan pilot gets a few throwaway lines before getting blown up in his cockpit, prompting Joshua to take over from inside the troop bay.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • In the novelization of Robotech, an explosion rips through the spacecraft Lisa Hayes is in during a recon mission, conveniently only affecting the pilot's side of the spacecraft.
  • In Splinter Cell, Lambert sends Sam on a mission involving flying as a passenger on an old Soviet cargo plane. The plane is attacked by surface-to-air missiles, and the two pilots and Sam are forced to jump. However, the altitude is too low, and the pilots' standard-issue umbrella-type parachutes don't have time to open, so they plummet to their deaths. Meanwhile, Sam survives by using a DARPA-designed flat foil that can be used at low altitudes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of Baywatch, Hobie, his mother, and her fiancé are in a plane crash. Sure enough, they survive while the pilot is killed.
  • Referenced in Blackadder Goes Forth. The Royal Flying Corps is nicknamed "The Twenty Minuters", as that's their life expectancy.
  • Doctor Who: In "Midnight", the driver and mechanic are Killed Offscreen when the entity rips off the vehicle's cockpit with the least development of all of the characters.
  • In an episode of The Librarians, the Librarians board a plane that is supposed to pass through The Bermuda Triangle. They manage to get everyone off through a portable Backdoor, as the plane is disintegrating around them, except for the pilots, who are disintegrated earlier. No one mentions the pilots, and everyone congratulates the Librarians for saving the passengers.
  • 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 realized 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.
  • The NCIS episode "Twenty Klicks" starts with Gibbs and McGee escorting the Properly Paranoid IT administrator Kevin Hussein out of Russia with help from a navy chopper. When they get shot down by a missile, Gibbs, McGee, and Kevin survive more-or-less okay, while the chopper pilot and crew go the way of the Red Shirt.
  • 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 Star Trek: The Next Generation, especially after Wesley Crusher departs halfway through the series, the flight controller position on the bridge is held by a rotating roster of Red Shirts. As the only major station on the bridge not operated by a series regular with Plot Armor, they're the most likely of the bridge crew to get the Red Shirt treatment.
  • In a Walker, Texas Ranger episode in which a hitman hijacks the plane taking Walker and Alex on their honeymoon. He kills both pilots, forcing the duo to land the plane themselves.
    • Subverted in another episode, where the pilots are merely knocked unconscious rather than killed, but they're out of commission just the same.
  • Subverted in Stargate Atlantis. The helmeted pilot is trying to evade an alien missile as the star of Stargate himself is in the passenger seat. Both survive and the pilot is revealed to be the spin-off series' main character.
  • On Warehouse 13, Mrs. Frederic's driver(/bodyguard?) is the person killed when Artie survives an explosion by using the phoenix.
  • The Without a Trace episode "Bait" features a wealthy man's family being abducted from his yacht. The captain, of course, is murdered during the hijacking.
  • On Yellowjackets, the team takes a charter flight to the national championship. The plane crashes somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. Almost all the passengers survive. Neither the pilots nor the flight attendant do, however.

    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 
  • 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.
  • In Carrier, elderly chopper pilot Leonard is killed by a mutant in the opening cutscene. Nobody gets a gold star for guessing that he wouldn't make it, as the poor guy suffers from the character mortality equivalent of an Alpha Strike: It was also supposed to be his last mission before retirement.
  • Command & Conquer: Generals: Jarman Kell's has a Sniping the Cockpit ability that works on any ground vehicle. However, the vehicle can then be re-comandeered by any infantry unit who then becomes the pilot.
  • 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.
  • Dawn of War: On emerging from a Rhino transport, Khorne Berserkers will sometimes proudly exclaim that "We need a new pilot, this one is dead!"
  • 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.
  • EXTRAPOWER: Attack of Darkforce: The pilot of the airplane that carries the heroes early in the game, unceremoniously killed with a Spy Fly stinger through the back and chest after getting the plane high enough for a mid-air battle.
  • 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.
  • In The Force Unleashed, Galen mentions that there were seven pilots before Juno. At least one of them was personally killed by Vader for displeasing him.
  • In Grand Theft Auto V, Michael and Franklin can opt to use a helicopter in "The Bureau Raid" mission to infiltrate the FIB headquarters from above. In the ensuing gunfight, the helicopter gets shot down and crashes into the side of the building. To add insult to injury, the two find the wreckage of the helicopter with the pilot inside, seconds before it falls out of the building to keep the trope fully enforced.
    Michael: Well, he didn't make it.
    Franklin: You sure, man? 'Cause he might still be ali... Whoa!
    (The helicopter falls out of the building)
    Michael: Nope, he didn't make it.
    Franklin: Oh, you funny, huh, motherfucker?
  • Halo:
  • In Hopkins FBI, early on, the player calls a helicopter for some bank robbers. They kill the pilot.
  • In Kerbal Space Program, Kerbals tend to end up as these, especially in the early stages of the game.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mass Effect:
  • 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.
  • Perfect Dark has a mission taking place on Air Force One, so this trope is almost obligatory; after their deaths, you have to turn on the autopilot to avert a mission-ending plane crash. However, if you're fast enough, you can actually save the pilots, and they'll stabilize the plane themselves.
  • Happens repeatedly in the Resident Evil game series, as so far we've lost Kevin in part 1, two unnamed pilots in parts 2 and 3 (along with Brad from part 1, although he's not behind a cockpit when he bites it), another anonymous pilotnote  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.
  • 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.
  • In an FMV in Tomb Raider III, the pilot who brought Lara to Antarctica barely manages to land in the blizzard, only to drown seconds later when ice suddenly breaks under the helicopter.
  • The Valkyrie that 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 Super Soldiers). The game is consistent and doesn'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.

    Web Animation 
  • A deleted scene on the season 5 DVD of Red vs. Blue shows an inversion with the pilot of the ship Sister came in being the only other person to make the trip to Blood Gulch due to either surviving or not catching whatever STD Sister was obliviously spreading. The only reason he didn't fly them out is because he was "in the union" and not required to do anything.

    Western Animation 
  • Clone Pilots get hit with this HARD in Star Wars: The Clone Wars due to the overwhelming number of gunships and starfighters we see get shot down over the course of the show. The only pilots lucky enough to avert this and make multiple appearances are Oddball, Hawk, and Warthog. The first has Plot Armor, thanks to being Obi-Wanís wingman in the opening of Revenge of the Sith, and itís completely possible the other two died off screen during the later seasons, as Warthog notably isnít Plo Koonís wingman in the same film, with Jag being the one to shoot the Jedi down during Order 66. Hawk for what itís worth is more ambiguous, as heís not seen at all in the final season, but if he was sent with the 332nd company to Mandalore, his death is almost certain with the rest of the company being killed when Maul causes their Star Destroyer to crash during Order 66.