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"Your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space, but at this moment, they are on the ground."
Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

What do the Cool Ship, Cool Starship, and Cool Plane all have in common? They are all at their most vulnerable when docked in port or while parked on the ground. This is a state of vulnerability that pretty much everyone and everything has to accept at some point, as personnel needs food and sleep, ships need maintenance, and nobody has found a way to keep a plane in the sky indefinitely yet. A savvy enemy can use the element of surprise to sucker punch an enemy, even a numerically or technically superior enemy, before they can bring their forces into play. Methods for this can range from Fireships to attack planes or a long-range missile attack.

Of course, it's also possible to be placed in this position because your ship was badly damaged in a previous fight, and the enemy is coming back to finish you off before you can finish your repairs.

The Trope name comes from a hunting phrase referring to ducks sitting on the water, often considered to be off-limits until they take flight. Due to its applicability, the phrase was adopted in the military aviation community to refer to airplanes that had been caught on the ground, although of course very few pilots have a problem with destroying an enemy plane before it can get airborne.

Historically, a combat pilot would get no credit for destroying an enemy plane while it was still on the ground, until the Americans began to grant credit for such kills during World War IInote . It was theoretically possible to become an ace by only destroying planes on the ground, although German airfields tended to be very heavily defended by anti-aircraft batteries that could do wonders for shortening your flying career.

Exploiting this trope is a favored tactic of the Combat Pragmatist, and a favored method of preventing the Fighter-Launching Sequence.

Compare with Coup de Grâce, Sickbed Slaying, and Slain in Their Sleep.

Not to Be Confused with Sitting Ducks, which was inspired by the same idiom that this Trope draws its name from.


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    Anime And Manga 
  • In Martian Successor Nadesico, the Jovian Lizards hit the Nadesico while it's landed to pick up survivors of the invasion of Mars, giving Yurika the Sadistic Choice of turning on the ships' Deflector Shields - crushing the refugees beneath it - or letting the attack destroy the Nadesico (likely killing most of the refugees when it crashed in flames). She chooses the former, but not without some angsting.
  • The Wolf Pack arc of Area 88 focuses on a mercenary group who destroy most of the planes at Area 88 while they're on the ground.
  • In the second episode of Yukikaze, the titular plane suddenly and inexplicably opens fire on an entire row of FAF planes parked at Tactical Air Base 15, causing the FAF top brass to recall Yukikaze and have it brought in for system checks. Turns out it was a good thing it did, as those planes had been sabotaged by enemy infiltrators, and Yukikaze was also attempting to kill the infiltrators that were present on the airstrip.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing the original Deathsycthe was not destroyed in battle. It was captured by OZ and then used as a target for a training mission, where it was destroyed on live TV.

    Comic Books 
  • G.I. Joe Special Missions #3: The Joes bomb the planes of a Qurac style nation while they are still on the ground. This mission also serves as cover for another Joe team to steal a new Russian fighter from the base.
  • In Wonder Woman (1987) some of the revolutionaries are shown attacking a Sangtee Empire spaceport and blowing up kreel ships while they're docked.

  • Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!, obviously. In Tora! Tora! Tora!, one of the American commanders is Genre Savvy enough to have some of his planes dispersed to various auxiliary airstrips to avoid keeping all of his eggs in one basket. Otherwise, he is bound by his orders to gather the planes together in the middle of the airfields to protect them from saboteurs, which plays directly into the Japanese attack plan.
  • Red Tails: The German aircraft when Easy, Lightning, Joker, and Junior follow Pretty Boy back to his base.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Dr. Totenkopf's robot aircraft catch Sky Captain's planes on the ground (and in their hangers), almost completely wiping them out. Only Sky Captain's plane manages to get off the ground.
  • Das Boot. The U-boat survives every attempt to sink it, until it reaches harbour at the end of the movie, only to get sunk by an Allied air raid where it cannot dive to safety.
  • Operation Petticoat: Sea Tiger is caught in port when the Japanese attack in the beginning. She is eventually re-floated and repaired, but she suffers from that damage for the rest of the film. Later, they see a Japanese tanker that is moored and sitting low in the water, meaning it hasn't unloaded yet. They are preparing a torpedo attack, when Nurse Crandall comes into the conn and accidentally fires it, hitting a truck.
  • U571: Tyler attempts to invoke this by creating a debris field that will make the German destroyer hunting them stop its engines for a sonar search, which will enable them to make an attack on a stationary target with their stern torpedo tubes. By the time they make it to the surface, the tube is non-functional and they have to make a run for it before it's fixed.
  • The Last Jedi: Kylo Ren launches a pair of torpedoes into the Resistance cruiser's fighter bay, destroying all of their remaining fighter craft. This also kills all of the pilots who were preparing to launch, with Poe surviving because he was just entering the bay.
  • In Independence Day, while Black Knight Squadron is systematically shot down by swathes of Invader defender craft over the city destroyer hovering atop the ruins of Los Angeles, another large swarm of defender craft are dispatched to El Toro, where they strafe the base and destroy any aircraft on the tarmac and any attempt at a second wave of the counterattack.
    Radio newscaster: Reports are coming in that this air battle has repeated itself all over the globe, with the exact same results.

  • Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt Adventures novel The Mediterranean Caper. A World War I biplane strafes a U.S. Air Force base and destroys a number of F-105 Starfire jet fighters and C-133 Cargomasters while they're helpless on the ground.
  • Horatio Hornblower: In Flying Colours, Admiral Leighton launches a raid on a the Spanish harbor of Rosas, in order to attack and sink a squadron of damaged French warships while they attempted to make repairs.
  • Honor Harrington had several examples of this trope, typically against complacent pickets in systems that were considered unlikely to be attacked. Generally speaking, the ships on the receiving end had to be drifting with cold nodes, preventing them from getting a wedge or sidewalls up in time to defend themselves.
  • One of Wedge Antilles's favored tricks during the X-Wing Series is to take out an enemy's air force while it's still on the ground. In Wraith Squadron, he orders a commando strike that destroys the launch tubes for the enemy's underground hangars, keeping a third of their fighters from participating in the final battle. In Starfighters of Adumar, he performs the same feat on a much larger scale during the invasion of Cartaan; knowing his enemy will attempt a noon-time bombing run, he attacks at dawn; while the enemy's fighters can get in the air, their multiple-crew vehicles, including their Meteor-class point defense heavy gunships are still on the ground when his bombers arrive. His proteges in Wraith Squadron use the trick again in Mercy Kill, destroying six out of the enemy's eight ready fighters (they have plans for the other two) as the first act of their final plan.

    Live Action TV 
  • Black Sheep Squadron: Lampshaded by the narrator in one episode to show how a particular new pilot was both very foolish and very good. He attempted to take off while being strafed by Japanese Zeroes, and somehow managed to get up in the air AND get behind the planes that had just been flying behind him trying to shoot him up. He still gets chewed out for trying that to begin with.
  • Babylon 5:
    • Londo's big achievement was when he invoked this trope on the Shadow base on Centauri Prime.
    • Prior to his arriving on Babylon 5, Captain Sheridan's own crowning moment was his defeat of the Minbari warship Black Star, despite his ship being a Sitting Duck (having been crippled by the Black Star in a previous attack), via some previously placed nuclear bombs in an Asteroid Thicket.
    • Later on, Captain Sheridan attempted to invoke this trope on a Shadow Battlecrab on the Jovian moon of Ganymede, but arrived just in time to see the ship launch and destroy the facilities there.
    • In the backstory, this is how EarthForce successfully destroyed a Centauri base in 2175: many times EarthForce squadrons had chased Centauri privateers (employed by House Jaddo's rivals to "protest" Jaddo's monopoly of Earth-Centauri trade) to Centauri Royal Navy base but had not attacked, but one day the human ships suddenly fired a volley of nukes, with the Centauri caught by surprise because, in their complete technological and military superiority, they didn't expect them to be so suicidally stupid.
  • In Crusade, the heroes had to be mindful of the fact that using the Excalibur's Wave-Motion Gun rendered the ship helpless for a short period of time, due to the power drain required to use the weapon.
  • In the pilot for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, by Dressing as the Enemy, Buck is able to put bombs in the tailpipes of almost all of the Draconian attack fighters while they are preparing to launch.
  • Used in both series of Battlestar Galactica, in a few different ways:
    • In the original series, the story starts with a Cylon armada launching a surprise attack on the Colonial fleet, which had been preparing to welcome the Cylons for a celebration of the recently-agreed upon peace treaty. Most of the battlestars are destroyed before they can launch their fighters, and a full attack on the Colonies soon follows.
    • Shortly after, the Cylons planned to attack the Galactica while all of her pilots were being honored at a party on the planet Carillon. Fortunately, Commander Adama was far too Genre Savvy to let that happen, and came up with a Batman Gambit of his own.
    • In the reboot series, the Cylons were able to invoke this trope via a computer virus that remotely shut down all of the Colonial fleet's systems, leaving their ships adrift in space at the worst possible moment. The Galactica and its surviving fighters were immune because their computers were so obsolete, the virus couldn't do anything to them.
    • In season two the Cylons plant a new virus in Galactica's systems. Sharon Agathon is able to turn it back on the Cylons and render an entire squadron of Raiders immobile. The Viper pilots gleefully take the opportunity to mete out some payback against the helpless ships.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Task Force Games
    • Several Star Fleet Battles scenarios involved ships being caught by surprise attacks while in orbit or docked to a space station. The scenario usually had rules for "powering up" ship systems so the ships could fight.
    • Starfire scenario "The Paurl Harbor Raid". Rigellian carriers smashed Khanate battleships "at anchor" in Paurl Harbor, an obvious Shout-Out to "Pearl Harbor".
  • Battletech: The setting's Drop Ships typically avoid "hot drops" (dropping troops near or on top of enemy forces) and stay on the ground for as short period of time as possible for this exact reason: While on the ground, Drop Ships are very easy to spot and attack with aircraft, artillery and 'mechs. In-game a grounded Drop Ship can be deployed as a set piece for a battle, where they represent as much Battle Value as a trio of assault 'mechs. While armed to the teeth, Drop Ships are relatively easy to destroy with focused fire because they're so easy to hit.

    Video Games 
  • In Aero Fighters Assault, one of the bonus mission has you protecting your Airborne Aircraft Carrier from enemy attacks while it's refueling.
  • Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe:
    • One hypothetical German mission is attacking an Allied bomber base in Britain and destroying the B-17's on the ground before they can take off.
    • Another mission involved taking off while your airbase was under attack and fighting off the enemy planes.
  • The first German campaign mission in Red Baron was being on the receiving end of one of these. You had to get your plane into the air while your airbase was being strafed by attacking Allied planes.
  • An available tactic in a few missions of Rogue Squadron.
  • If you get into a Japanese harbor in Silent Hunter 4, you can often find a lot of enemy ships that are this.
  • Ace Combat:
    • The player takes out bombers or other aircraft on the ground from time to time. Attacking ships at anchor also shows up occasionally.
    • The player becomes the subject of this trope a few times, with you being the sitting duck after being on the receiving end of a surprise attack on your base or needing to refuel mid-combat. Slowly taxiing to the runway while fuel trucks and hangars are bombed to oblivion around you is one of the most intense scenes in the game.
  • In the Virmire mission of Mass Effect, one way you can help your allies against Saren's base is destroying his fighters when they come in to rearm.
    • It features heavily in the Reapers' plan to Take Over The Galaxy Again. By attacking the Citadel first through its built-in mass relay, they can make sitting ducks out of both the Fleet and the Council with one fell swoop.
    • In Mass Effect 2, the Normandy is disabled by a computer virus and then boarded by the Collectors.
  • In several Civilization games and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, ships in port in a city/base under attack receive a negative modifier to their defense, reflecting this trope.
  • In the Halo series, all Covenant spacecraft have Deflector Shields that reduce humanity's Archer missiles into a Worf Barrage. Once they go down for whatever reason, those same missiles prove to be quite effective. In particular, the first mission in Halo 4 has the player shred an entire cruiser with a measly two missile pods.
  • In Xenonauts, approaching a landed UFO is a very tricky and dangerous business, but if it works out, its as good as yours.
  • As GDI in Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars, you are told to infiltrate and then attack a Nod Weapons depot before they can deploy their tanks against you. Which is a good thing, as the sheer mass of tanks takes up a quarter of the map. However, They aren't crewed, so you get some satisfying target practice after the pain it is to infiltrate the base in the first place.
  • StarCraft: Brood War has a level where Kerrigan turns against her allies, the Dominions led by General Duke (to most players' glee) and the Protoss led by Fenix (to their consternation). You start with a time limit during which neither base produces units or attack waves, letting you take out one faction's base.
    Terran Marine: Kerrigan caught us with our pants down, but it's time to start givin' some back!
  • Command & Conquer: Generals annoyingly uses this along with Artificial Stupidity: your units will often be more than happy to let an enemy shoot them without reacting, unless they're told to guard the terrain, in which case they'll chase after the attacker and get themselves killed.
  • Warcraft III has a similar level in the expansion where Sylvanas sneaks her way into a city controlled by the Dreadlord Detheroc and the humans he's mind-controlled (led by Grand Marshal Garithos). As in Brood War, the timer is usually enough to take out a single side's base (with the game itself recommending you use banshees to possess powerful enemy units along the way).
  • In the opening cinematic of MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, the Steiner forces' sudden attack catches the Dresari House Guard unprepared, and while they rush into combat as swiftly as they can, an errant missile strike on the primary mech hangar causes a detonation that takes out everyone except 2 mechwarriors (a third mech is engulfed by the fireball just short of escaping the hangar), who don't last much longer against the odds they're facing.

     Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Since the early days of military aviation, many decisive air campaigns came basically down to one side being able to hit airfield fast enough to destroy the enemy planes before they could take off to respond.
  • The Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, catching the American Pacific Fleet and the hundreds of planes based on Oahu (bunched together to prevent sabotage) flat-footed as big easy targets for the Japanese to destroy, is quite possibly the Trope Codifier. Although the Imperial Japanese Navy failed in their primary objective, the destruction of the American carriers, and contributed to the US entering the war, it was a punishing blow for the unprepared American forces. It would be six months before the Allies could regain the initiative and start pushing the Japanese back.
    • One of the main reasons why the Americans were sitting ducks in Pearl Harbor was partially due to surprise, and partially due to being Genre Savvy in the wrong department. In Hawaii, while no one was prepared for an aerial attack, the top brass at Oahu were more concerned with possible saboteurs, since the appearance of Hawaii's natives made it hard to tell a native apart from a Japanese spy. For this reason, the fighters were organized in large, clustered groups which made them easier to guard and watch over, but also made quick takeoffs in an emergency—such as, say, an aerial attack—all but impossible… On top of this, all the ammunition for the planes was kept stored in locked bunkers that only a few officers had the key for, making the process of getting the planes ready to fight even harder. And giving the Japanese pilots some big targets that were Made of Explodium.
    • The Japanese attack on the Philippine Islands had similar results, for a slightly different reason: The Americans scrambled their planes upon hearing about the attack on Oahu, but the expected Japanese air attack didn't arrive until many of the American planes landed to refuel.
    • The US Navy got its revenge at the Battle of Midway, where American bombers caught the Japanese carriers right as they were getting ready to launch the next wave of their own attack aircraft. All four of these carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and all four were sunk during the battle (at the cost of the USS Yorktown).
    • The German Luftwaffe's victories over the Polish, French, and Soviet air forces early in WWII were mostly from destroying enemy planes on the ground, rather than in the air. The initial successes in the Battle of Britain came from the Luftwaffe targeting RAF airfields; though most British planes often made it into the air for each engagement, the Germans would bomb runways to ensure that landing was more difficult.
  • Earlier in World War II, HMS Royal Oak was lying at anchor in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939 when it was torpedoed by a U-Boat.
    • On the other hand, this happened when the Germans tried protecting U-Boats by using mounted anti-aircraft guns to shoot at Allied warplanes. Unfortunately for the U-Boats, those pilots quickly got over their surprise by realizing that in order to use those guns have to stay stationary and surfaced, and thus a sitting duck target worth facing the firepower.
  • Operation Focus was the opening airstrike by Israel at the start of the Six-Day War of 1967. At 07:45 on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force launched a massive airstrike, using very nearly every airworthy plane they had, which destroyed the majority of the Egyptian air force on the ground. By noon, the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Air Forces, with about 450 aircraft, were destroyed, allowing the Israelis to enjoy air supremacy for the entire war. The war only lasted six days.
  • The Peloponnesian War ended when the Spartans found the whole Athenian fleet beached and their crew ashore foraging.
  • The Night of Taranto, in which British carrier-launched bombers disabled three (out of six) of the Italian Navy's battleships (one, the Cavour, was never repaired), plus two cruisers and two planes, with the original plan of finishing the job the following night being scrapped due bad weather. Notably, this inspired the attack on Pearl Harbor: Pearl Harbor, like Taranto, was a very shallow harbour (hence why the Americans didn't bother to deploy torpedo nets. The Italians, being more Genre Savvy, were deploying their own, but just hadn't made enough nets yet), and the Japanese, who were already studying how to pull it off, used the data from the attack to perfect their own plans.
  • The first carrier-launched air raid exploited this trope during World War I. HMS Furious, a battlecruiser which had her forward and aft guns replaced with launch and recovery decks, launched seven Sopwith Camels which attacked the German airship base at Tondern, which had previously been considered beyond the range of air attack. In return for one British pilot lost, the Germans lost two zeppelins and a balloon. The zeppelins in particular would have been very difficult to engage if they were airborne.


Video Example(s):


The TBDs are slaughtered

In this scene, the USS "Enterprise's" squadron of TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, which are slow, sluggish, and lightly armed bombers, are easily dealt with by Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Among the deaths include Lt. Commander Eugene Lindsey, commander of VT-6.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / SittingDuck

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