Strafing is the act of attacking surface targets from the air with something other than bombs, guided missiles or a long, continuous energy blast. One might think that a bullet fired from an aircraft at a target on the ground, if it misses (which would likely be the case, unless the pilot was a good shot, the target was rather large, etc.), would likely strike the ground well beyond the target.
In Real Life, it's not so simple, as the type of target, the aircraft type, the pilot's experience, and nearby defenses or other targets (such as civilians) in the area, can all come into play. And if the aircraft is fast enough you won't even realize it's attacking until it's done and gone.
In Hollywood, it does not work that way. The Rule of Cool and the Rule of Drama dictate a more theatrical methodology:
- The aircraft turns until it is lined up with the road, beach, dock, etc.
- The aircraft descends slowly and menacingly while its engine gets very loud and high in pitch, resembling a Stuka dive bomber, giving its victims plenty of time to realize they are the target.
- You may see muzzle flashes and hear machine gun noises.
- A pattern of bullets hits the ground between the target and the strafing aircraft and moves toward the target.
- If the aircraft has dual machine guns, the bullet pattern will be two parallel lines, usually wide enough to be on each side of a road.
- If the aircraft does not have dual machine guns, the bullet pattern may still be two parallel lines, usually wide enough to be on each side of a road, just to give the good guys a sporting chance.
- The bullet impact will either cause puffs of dirt to erupt from the ground or cause ricochets off solid objects.
- In a war drama, lighthearted action movie, etc:
- More intelligent characters abandon vehicles and throw themselves in a ditch or into foliage alongside the road.
- Less intelligent vehicle drivers try to dodge the bullets.
- Easily replacable Red Shirts and Mooks freeze in horror or run about randomly and are cut down.
- In a comedy, characters try to outrun the bullets or dodge them by dancing.
Historically movies portrayed strafing unrealistically because it was safe and easy. Set off a couple of lines of small charges in the sand running toward the target, far enough apart to not endanger the stunt crew, and the audience cannot fail to get the point. It's simple, cheap, straightforward, and the inexorably approaching danger significantly raises the dramatic tension. Also, some of this is Truth in Television, as 'walking' shots up to the target helps to ensure you actually get a hit, though in reality (as seen in the Real Life Examples below) the strike pattern is usually less a steady progression than a cloud of "shorts" and "overs"—firing from an inherently unstable platform means aircraft guns aren't particularly steady or accurate.
Showing the path of devastation wrought by the likes of the P-47D's eight .50 cal machine guns would be much more difficult, expensive, dangerous and confusing, and the likely results would not be suitable for most audiences. The guns were individually aimed at a single point of intersection a certain distance in front of the plane (think about it - if the guns weren't turned slightly inward so that the shots converged, planes would have trouble with air combat as they'd end up missing targets to both the left and right at the same time). They were also far too powerful to waste on a single individual. These planes were said to be capable of sawing fully grown trees in half on a strafing run. Pilots described train cars being pushed over and horses being thrown 30 feet by the sheer kinetic impact. Not that a pilot would be likely to see a single person on the ground in any case. Without spotters on the ground in radio contact, pilots would strafe vehicles, roads, trains, or large obvious targets.
One last thing: if the strafers are Eeeeeevil, the probability of one of the strafees being an adorable little tyke who drops a teddy bear approaches 100%.
Subtrope of Near Misses, Sister Trope to Hollywood Tactics. Compare Buzzing the Deck.
- Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi uses this trope straight for purposes of parody. Sashi ends up getting strafed by a bi-plane in an episode where he's trapped in a world filled with nothing but Hollywood movie references and cliches.
- In Sound of the Sky, Filicia is targeted by a tank's secondary gunner; the shots describe the standard 'bullet line' toward her.
- In Zipang, a traitorous Manchukuo Imperial Air Force pilot performs a strafing run during a parade in an attempt to assassinate the Manchukuo Emperor Pu Yi.
- In The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #20, Indy is strafed by a crop duster in a cane field in Cuba in a scene straight out of North by Northwest.
- The Adventures of Tintin (2011): Occurs as a plane from the Big Bad's ship finds Tintin and Captain Haddock adrift at sea in a lifeboat.
- The Ur-Example is probably found in the 1942 Hollywood propaganda film Air Force, complete with the "two lines of bullet strikes" cliche, when a Japanese Zero strafes the protagonist's B-17 bomber crew in the Philippines. This scene probably inspired most subsequent examples and is somewhat defensible as most early war Japanese fighters actually did carry two cowl-mounted machine guns (in the Zero's case, two cowl and two wing guns) and the Zero's cowl and wing guns had wildly divergent ballistics and consequently required different aiming points so they frequently weren't fired at the same time.
- In The Avengers (1998), the flying insect robots sent by Sir August strafe Steed and Mrs. Peel as they're driving in a car.
- In Batman (1989), the Joker stands still and lets the Batwing take a long strafing run at him, but not one bullet touches him. They all go to both sides of him instead.
- A vehicular version in Condorman. Condorman is driving a Bond-type Weaponized Car when five black sports cars of the elite KGB Pursuit Squad start chasing him. He pushes a button and a laser gun fires from the rear of the vehicle, but the cars smoothly dodge to either side of the road. He then deploys more lasers that do the standard either-side-of-the-road strafing trope, but the drivers anticipate this and move to the centre of the road.
- In The Final Countdown, Japanese Zeros make repeated strafing runs against a civilian boat. After destroying it, they turn and strafe the survivors in the water, the bullets again making parallel impacts in the water. And one of the civilians.
- In The Guns of Navarone, a Stuka dive bomber tries to strafe the fleeing heroes. On YouTube starting at 0:35.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A Nazi fighter plane strafes Indy and his father as they're escaping by car.
- James Bond
- In You Only Live Twice the female Japanese Secret Service agent Kissy Suzuki is strafed by a SPECTRE helicopter while she's swimming back to the village to notify Tiger Tanaka about the SPECTRE base in the volcano.
- In Live and Let Die he's strafed by a helicopter while hiding in the poppy fields under the net.
- In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is strafed by a pursuing helicopter while driving his Lotus Esprit. On YouTube at 1:25.
- Two Luftwaffe fighters strafe the beaches of Normandy in The Longest Day. Like most scenes in the movie, this was something that actually happened, when both planes the Germans were able to scramble against the invasion flew the entire length of Omaha Beach and emptied their magazines in one long trigger-pull before quickly escaping before they could be shot down by the considerable number of Allied aircraft and warships in the area.
- Lions for Lambs deserves a mention as an aversion. The battle scenes feature some strafing runs by A-10s, but instead of neat ordered lines of puffs, the result, from the point of view of those on the ground, is of several large grouped explosions, approximating very well the power of a 30mm shell and the disordered pattern in which the shells hit the ground in reality.
- North by Northwest, though it's not an attack plane but a regular plane with a passenger wielding a gun.
- During the attack on Patton's headquarters by the Nazi bombers, the machine gunners in the planes' nose turrets strafe the ground, sending the American forces into confusion.
- During the ambush of Rommel's attacking force, another pair of bombers strafes the location of General Bradley's command post.
- The invasion of Sicily:
- While Patton is driving along an obstructed roadway, a German bomber flies along the road strafing the column of vehicles.
- While trying to cross a bridge that's blocked by a donkey cart that refuses to budge, Patton's troops get strafed by another pair of bombers, causing an enraged Patton to shoot both donkeys and have their bodies and the cart they were pulling thrown off the bridge.
- Twice in Red Tails:
- Towards the beginning of the film, a quartet of P-40 Warhawks spots a German train, and dive in to strafe it. One of the pilots actually protests that they should attack the train from head-on instead, to give the defensive gunners on the train less of a chance to shoot them back. After three of the planes strafe the train in classic Hollywood fashion to little productive effect, the fourth pilot comes at the train low and head-on, focusing all of his fire into the locomotive, trashing the train.
- Later on, the same four pilots strafe a German airfield. While they use Hollywood strafing tactics, it seems to work because there is just a lot of things on the airfield to shoot at and blow up.
- In the Action Prologue of Resident Evil: Retribution, our heroine hits an Umbrella tilt-rotor gunship with Guns Akimbo Sawn-Off Shotgun pistols, while the twin bullet streams from the gunship spark off the deck on either side of her.
- Robot Jox does the parallel lines version with giant robots .
- In Sheena, the soldiers' helicopter repeatedly tries to strafe a grazing herd of antelope, but apparently fails to hit anything.
- In Star Trek: Insurrection the Son'a do a number on the peaceful Ba'ku village using this trope in combination with teleporting drones. All that's missing is a dropped teddy bear.
- In Star Wars: The Force Awakens the Resistance make strafing runs against the First Order's ground forces attacking Maz's castle. Poe Dameron is skilled enough to take out individual Stormtroopers with pinpoint accuracy, and leaving the good guys unscathed.
- In John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), for some unknown reason the assault rifle-armed Norwegians use their helicopter to do strafing runs on the Thing!dog, instead of just hovering in the air and sniping at it (which would have made for more accurate shooting). Of course, the real reason they did so was for dramatic purposes.
- For Transformers, Michael Bay, famous for his love of U.S. military hardware and blowin' stuff up, strangely chose the less-awesome Hollywood version of an A-10 strafing run, with their Avenger guns making the "lines of little thwippy poofs" effect and sounding like machine guns. Compare the link under "Real Life", where an Avenger burst makes it look like you and everything within a few dozen yards got blasted by God's shotgun, followed by the sound of Him farting in your general direction.note
- We Were Soldiers: American A-1 "Sandy" attack planes and UH-1 Huey helicopters are both shown attacking North Vietnamese forces in this manner (in addition to laying in devastating heavy rocket and bomb attacks). Contrast with the book where Hal Moore described the Sandies as concentrating their cannon fire to chew up the terrain in a swath of destruction, and the Hueys' tendency to buzz around like bees, using the helicopters' hovering abilities to keep the door gunners oriented on their targets while moving about to prevent the enemy from taking cover behind anything.
- In Derek Robinson's WWII black comedy, A Piece of Cake, an RAF pilot spots a German aircraft methodically strafing a road choked with French refugees. The effects of the Me110's cannon shells are graphically described. The RAF plane descends to ground level and tries to shoot down the German. It doesn't help that the British pilot is in an unfamiliar American plane, and he discovers he has to angle his guns downwards so as to hit the German. As the German plane is right above a road choked with people, the British pilot's over-shooting adds to the civilian casualties... the unlucky French are being strafed by two aircraft simultaneously.
- In his (embellished and partly fictional)war memoirs, Spike Milligan described what it was to be a British Army recruit in the summer of 1940, when a German invasion was expected daily. His unit was based in Sussex, on the invasion coast; Milligan describes how one day on parade, a German aircraft arrived and found an entire British regiment on parade. The German then overflew the assembled soldiers and strafed them. Milligan, like most of the recruits, didn't wait for the RSM to dismiss the parade, but ran for whatever cover they could find. He reports that incredibly, the German pilot had failed to hit any of the seven hundred men on parade. Even more incredibly, the Commanding Officer had refused to run for cover but had remained standing out there, lighting a cigarette and daring the German. As his men sheepishly emerged from cover, he reformed the parade and addressed them all.
Well done, gentlemen. You realise you did the right thing and I the wrong?
- Airwolf uses this trope, occasionally in bizarre situations such as when the eponymous helicopter is actually sitting on the ground. Apparently they still have to start out with a dramatic grass trimming and waste of ammunition before proceeding to pulverize their target.
- Cannon: In "A Flight of Hawks", Cannon attempts to stop a fighter plane from taking off. The pilot attempts to strafe Cannon while both of them are still on the ground. The twin streams of bullets pass either side of Cannon.
- MacGyver (1985), in a sequence from the episode "The Golden Triangle" that also appeared in the title sequence.
- Happens frequently in Stargate SG-1, often as the team race for the gate pursued by Death Gliders. Laying down fire ahead of the fleeing team would seem more sensible. Occasionally the Gliders manage to hit someone unimportant (as in "Summit"). The Gliders don't appear to have any targeting systems, so all shots are eyeballed.
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Shore Leave". While on a planet where anything you think of becomes real, a crewman thinks about a fighter plane on a strafing run, and one appears and attacks him by strafing him. Later on, the plane appears again and strafes Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
- In the premiere of UFO (1970), the motor convoy carrying General Henderson and Commander Straker is attacked by a Flying Saucer which strafes the nature strips on either side of the road; somehow this crashes their car. The saucer's distinctive high-pitched whine substitutes for the Stuka dive-bombing sound.
- Played with in Battletech, where a strafing run has the capacity to damage everything, foe and friend, that's in the path of a strafing run. Coupled with a fairly high to-hit modifier, it may well be that nothing or everything gets tagged. On top of that, the aerospace fighter making the strafing run is far more vulnerable to return fire from ground units that it would be if it were making a single-target airstrike or bombing attack, which combined with the high risk of crashing as a result of taking any damage at that altitude means that strafing is more likely to result in the destruction of the aircraft making the attack than what it's trying to shoot at.
- Two instances at Disney's Hollywood Studios:
- During the Indiana Jones stunt show's recreation of the Cairo marketplace fight and truck destruction of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy shoots a thug on a rooftop, allowing him to fall from his perch, and takes his MP-40 to blow up the oncoming truck. As the trope suggests, the bullet hits travel up the ground toward the truck, suggesting that Indy started his gunfire at the ground a few feet in front of him.
- The "Harbor Attack" sequence that begins the Backlot Tour features a trio of guests chosen to stand on a mockup of a PT boat and look terrified (often failing miserably) as a series of Japanese dive bombers bomb and strafe them, the bullet hits represented by air cannons in the water and bombs and torpedoes from large water cannons. The two machine gun sequences are represented by two rows of air cannons indicating bullets hitting in parallel lines from one end of the boat to the other, doing little more than getting the extras slightly damp.
- Command & Conquer:
- Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn: In most GDI campaign missions, taking out all the initial SAM sites unlocks the Airstrike power, which dispatches a pair of A-10s to napalm-bomb an area.
- Soviet Yak fighters in Command & Conquer: Red Alert attacked like this. Players eventually learned to just target a spot right behind the target, so the Yak did more damage while "walking" its shots at it. Against massed infantry, though, the nickname "Infantry Eraser" is well earned, and it also chews up buildings and light vehicles with ease.
- The Empathy Doll Shot happens in the first Soviet mission victory cinematic, which primarily consists of sending Yak fighters to take out vehicles and buildings so paratroopers can mop up the rest.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3:
- The Imperial Final Squadron Support Power summons a group of Sunburst drones some distance from the target. As they approach, they fire bursts of lasers at any targets along the way, and then deliberately crash into the target area.
- The Harbinger gunship uses a circle-strafe tactic instead, as its BFG is mounted on its left side.
- Command & Conquer: Generals gives the USA general the ability to call in an A-10 Thunderbolt strike. The plane (or planes, as higher ranks mean more Thunderbolts) saturate the target area with their Avengers and fire a missile barrage once they're close enough. A wing of three is enough to cut down any lone air defense installation.
- Wings: Strafing is road-aligned, has muzzle-flashes and MG noises, can have a pattern of bullets approaching the target, only direct hits cause damage, and some missions require strafing infantry. Infantry may take cover or dodge, while vehicles make no reaction (other than AA-guns counter-firing). There's also only one pass of the plane.
- The Hire: Ticker, opens with the Driver and his passenger in a BMW roadster being persued by a helicopter, complete with obligatory strings of bullet shots striking the road on either side of the car (in some mild defense of the gunner's marksmanship, the Driver was dodging wildly back and forth to avoid getting shot.)
- The Jonny Quest TOS episode, "Calcutta Adventure". An enemy Mook makes multiple strafing runs against the Quests, who are riding in a vehicle at the time.
- Spoofed in The Simpsons episode "Fear of Flying", where Marge remembers all the incidents that made her hate flying; one memory consists of her mother showing her a cornfield, followed by them getting strafed by a random airplane a'la North by Northwest.
- Star Wars Rebels. In "Fighter Flight", Ezra is about to be shot by stormtroopers when Zeb (flying a stolen TIE fighter he's never flown before) strafes on either side of him to kill the stormtroopers and leave him unharmed. Good thing the guns on that TIE were more accurate than the ones the stormtroopers use!
- Actual footage of WWII strafing attacks: