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The Ten Best Pilots in Science Fiction History
Science fiction is one of the world’s most beloved entertainment mediums. Most sci-fi stories have spaceships, and spaceships need pilots. In fact, pilots are typically one of the main characters in any sci-fi adventure (how else would they get anywhere?). Every space story contains a highly trained, extremely lucky, hotshot pilot, and as obnoxious as they are, we love them.
These asteroid-avoiding wingmen and women traverse the stars in everything from single-person starfighters to floating cities and everything in between. Some pilots have natural instincts for the skill, others grew up flying, and still others have years of training. Whatever route these flyboys and girls took to the cockpit, their maneuvers have become legendary. These are the ten best pilots in science fiction history.
10 Hikaru Sulu: Star Trek
It should come as no surprise to any sci-fi fan that a Starfleet pilot or two would make our list. Sulu, an original cast member of the now world-renowned Star Trek franchise, was the most consistent part of the 1960s series. Sulu was first assigned to the Enterprise in 2265 and began serving as a senior officer and regular helmsman in 2266. Sulu would often navigate the Enterprise through mysterious space.
Sulu’s piloting skills became even more important later in his career. He was at the helm when the Enterprise played its deadly game of cat and mouse with Khan aboard the hijacked Reliant. When the bridge staff was forced to hijack an unfamiliar Klingon ship to save Earth from the whale probe, Sulu was the one who piloted the ship through a time jump around the sun. His name is one of the first to come to mind when considering a space pilot.
9 Han Solo: Star Wars
Equally as expected, Star Wars pilot Han Solo is one of the first images conjured by sci-fi fans when they think “space pilot.” Han Solo is a natural-born pilot famous for evading an entire Imperial Fleet led by Darth Vader by successfully navigating through an asteroid belt. He grew up boosting speeders on the mean streets of Corellia, where he honed his piloting skills. Han then spent time in the lower ranks of the Imperial Navy.
As he transitioned to smuggler, he piloted the Millenium Falcon through the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, a feat never accomplished before or since. Along with his Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, Solo’s adventures and piloting skills are legendary in a galaxy far, far away.
8 Steven Hiller: Independence Day
Independence Day is a sci-fi classic and, for many years, a stand-alone film, a rarity within the genre. Among the menagerie of interesting characters, Independence Day introduces viewers to Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller. Hiller is a TopGun level fighter pilot who weaves in and out of the Grand Canyon’s twisting landscape with incomparable ability. Hiller’s skill level is unmatched; he’s a quick thinker and instinctive tactician. He uses his jet’s parachute to blind his pursuer and force it to crash land.
Later, Hiller becomes the first human to pilot one of the aliens’ ships. With only visual firsthand experience and one false start, Hiller successfully steers the alien ship into space and infiltrates the Mothership. Hiller has 30 seconds to escape the intricate architecture of the Mothership while being pursued as the ship tries to shut him in. Although Hiller dies before the sequel, his aerial efforts on Independence Day make him one of the best pilots in sci-fi history.
7 Rocket (Racoon): Guardians of the Galaxy
Long before Gamora, Drax, Groot, Star-Lord, Rocket, and Mantis hit the big screen, they were well-known comic-book characters. While the movie version famously depicts Star-Lord and Rocket fighting over control of their ship mid-flight while being pursued just to prove who was the better pilot, that would never happen in the comics. It would never happen because they all know Rocket is the better pilot.
In volume two of the movie series, he states that he was genetically engineered to fly the ship. Star-lord argues that he has more experience, which is true, but it’s not enough to tip the scales. Rocket’s programming includes skill sets such as piloting, and the genetic engineering involved in Rocket’s creation was done by the High Evolutionary, an inconceivable powerful alien dedicated to genetic manipulation. Not only is Rocket a better pilot than Quill (Star-Lord), but he is also ranked the best in the entire Marvel Universe.
6 Tom Paris: Star Trek (Voyager)
Possibly the most underrated pilot in the annuls of science fiction, Tom Paris piloted the Intrepid Class USS Voyager 70,000 light years from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant. As the Voyager’s main flight controller, he has had to get the ship and her crew out of some of the most harrowing predicaments any starship has ever faced. Tom Paris is perhaps the most skilled pilot in Starfleet. He led the Delta Force Task Force, comprised of the best pilots in the Alpha Quadrant; he built a trans-warp engine and has flown through time.
Paris had a distinguished Starfleet career despite early setbacks that landed him in a penal colony. Paris was also the first human pilot to reach warp ten safely and thus the transwarp threshold. However, despite success in the simulations without ill effect, the actual flight experience caused him to begin to mutate into an amphibious creature that could no longer process oxygen. Paris is simply one crack, hotshot pilot.
5 Hoban “Wash” Washburne: Firefly
One of the greatest disappointments sci-fi fans have ever suffered was the cancelation of Firefly after just one season. Fortunately for Firefly fans, the TV series was followed up by a feature film titled Serenity for the ship in which the characters traveled. The ship’s motley crew is comprised of officers and passengers, including the pilot, Wash.
Throughout their illicit careers, Wash piloted the Serenity in and out of several tight spots. He held the ship level with a moving train when the crew conducted a training job. He also managed to execute a “Crazy Ivan” maneuver, swiftly reversing the arrangement of the Serenity’s engines to escape a pursuing Reaver vessel. Wash navigated the ship through a pitch, chaotic battle between the Reavers and the Alliance Fleet, landing the crew in one piece despite taking disabling damage. “I’m a leaf on the wind… Watch how I soar,” were his last words during Serenity’s saddest moment—that moment solidified Wash’s place among the most excellent sci-fi pilots.
4 Hera Syndulla: Star Wars (Rebels/Ahsoka)
Although chronologically, she first appeared in The Bad Batch, Syndulla is best known for her role as Spectre One, leader of Ghost Team and Phoenix Squadron in Rebels and most recently, Ahsoka. Hera’s piloting skills cannot be overstated. It could be said that she is too good at her job. Her piloting prowess gained the attention of Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the Star Wars universe’s most ruthless and deadly villains.
Hera was picked to test pilot the B-Wing fighter prototype, the blockade buster, and she is the only person to outfly Darth Vader, one on one in his TIE advanced. Vader laid a trap for their ship to squash the Spectres. However, Hera’s slick maneuvers caused Vader to get his fighter snared in the trap he intended for the Rebels. Impressive. Most impressive.
3 Kara “Starbuck” Thrace: Battlestar Galactica
The reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004) was the most extensive in TV history. The early 2000s sci-fi drama delved deep into the origins and traumas of its characters. However, the character of Starbuck had a gender swap for the newer series and was given the name of Kara Thrace—Starbuck simply being her call sign. Thrace manages to keep two of three nuclear missiles from striking Galactica in their first Cylon sortie and saves Lee (call sign Apollo) from doom in an innovative maneuver in the Battle of Ragnar Anchorage.
Thrace (nursing a damaged knee) repairs a downed Cylon Raider found on an inhabitable moon and returns it to Galactica, giving the Fleet a vital piece of Cylon fighter technology for study and use. Thrace shows off the impressive stealth abilities of the new Blackbird fighter in her maiden flight.
Returning from her successful mission, she transmits her recon photos to Pegasus. Admiral Cain is very impressed with Thrace’s performance and promotes her to Captain and Pegasus CAG. Toward the end of the colonists’ journey to Earth, Starbuck seems to perish in her Viper, intentionally. However, she seemingly returns from the dead several months later, giving her “Angel” status within the colonists’ mythos and legends.
2 Alex Rogan: The Last Starfighter
The Last Starfighter is a 1980s sci-fi gem based around an arcade-obsessed teenager named Alex Rogan. In the film, “The Last Starfighter” refers to a cabinet-style video arcade game, and Alex has broken the top score on the cabinet in his home trailer park. It turns out the game is actually a recruiting tool for capable interstellar pilots, and Alex is quickly recruited by an alien dressed as a man dressed in a suit.
However, Rogan is initially way in over his head as a mere Earthling. He wants nothing to do with an alien conflict where people risk their lives. But then he realizes Earth itself and his hometown are threatened as well. Alex turns out to be a natural Gunstar pilot. He and his co-pilot successfully repel the entire Ko-Dan Armada single-handedly, using Death-Blossom, a “Hail Mary” type maneuver. Rogan’s natural-born skill as a starfighter is evident from the start. While The Last Starfighter is a coming-of-age story, the core theme is Alex’s ability to pilot, and he doesn’t disappoint.
1 Leela: Futurama
Turanga Leela is the only character ever to pilot the Planetary Express delivery ship in Futurama. Her strong desire to fly is evident from the first episode when she quits her job as a Fate Assignment Officer. Despite her significant lack of depth perception due to only having one eye, Leela has proven herself against the best pilots in the galaxy time and time again. With a “no rain or sleet” attitude and a “kick-your-ass” grace, this delivery captain is a refreshing source of professionalism to counterpoint the rest of the crew.
She has flown through asteroid belts and around black holes. There is no interstellar phenomenon too dangerous for this unflappable captain and pilot. Despite Futurama being a comedy, there is no shortage of potentially lethal situations that Leela and the Planetary Express crew have narrowly escaped. In addition, being a crack pilot, she’s also the most proficient melee combatant in the team and even has her signature “Hi-Ya!” kicks. While many may find it hard to believe, Leela has proven herself the best pilot in sci-fi history.