Art by John Nadeau from the "X-Wing: Rogue Squadron Handbook" originally published by Dark Horse Comics
Ten novels, thirty-five comic book issues, four best-selling PC games, three system-selling Rogue Squadron console games, and a popular miniatures game are testament to how much fans of Star Wars love starfighter pilots. Yet for all of this, pilots rarely get the substantial, quantitative screen time that Jedi, Sith, smugglers, or even senators do. Luke spends very little of his time in the cockpit; Wedge Antilles’s presence in the saga is short on screen time but long on page count; Hera often finds herself waiting in the cockpit of the Ghost while the other Rebels embark on missions; and Poe Dameron finds himself following the Antilles's model of success, parlaying his moderate film time into a new Marvel comic. Why are pilots so popular with fans? Part of it could be that they present another counterpart to the Jedi. While the Jedi forbid attachment, pilots form them with their droids and each other. While the Jedi try to remain neutral in conflicts, stick jockeys choose a side and stick to it, using their skills to bring justice or order depending on their affiliation. While the Jedi practice and work to maintain an aura of discipline, pilots hoot and holler and recount their fantastic flights to their squads mates while sharing drinks in the local cantina. While Jedi represent a spiritual ideal of what we may hope we can be, those men and women sitting in the cockpits are closer to who we are: a person who is just trying to find friends and family who accept and support us, a job or task that nourishes and fulfills us, and a little happiness along the way.
We like to form attachments. While the Jedi are very cautious and spend countless hours worrying about how being too attached to someone can pervert their code, we form dozens if not hundreds of attachments in the course of our lives. We are born with attachments between us and our family, and some of us gain more cherished attachments as we experience new births that provide us with children. We choose to attach ourselves to friends and form second families among them. We adopt or buy pets and form attachments with those little bundles as we provide for and train them. We form attachments; hopefully, we recognize when we have formed an unhealthy one, but we like to bond ourselves to another. We see this same desire in the brave men and women who choose to sit behind the stick of a starfighter. They bond with their astromechs, their starships, and with each other.
One type of friendship we see frequently throughout the films, novels, and television shows is between a pilot and their droid. Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker form close attachments to R2-D2. In The Clone Wars episode “Downfall of a Droid,” Anakin disobeys direct orders from the Jedi Council and searches for R2-D2 when he is lost during a battle. Part of the reasoning is that Artoo has not had his memory wiped like other droids, so he contains Republic secrets that would be dangerous if recovered by the wrong hands. Doesn’t the fact that Anakin never completed the commonplace task of wiping his droid’s memory show his connection to Artoo? That bond is only made more evident when Anakin does find his droid friend. He doesn’t just say, “Whew. Glad to get that nag Obi-Wan off my back.” He kneels down and calls R2-D2 “Buddy.” Luke shows a similar connection to Artoo right before the Battle of Yavin when he refuses a replacement droid from a X-wing technician. When the technician asks Luke if he wants a new droid, Luke respond, “Not on your life. That little droid and I have been through a lot together.” Other pilots maintain similar relationships with their droids. Poe rejoices in being reunited with BB-8 on D-Qar, and Hera Syndulla spends more time and credits maintaining the outdated Chopper than her father, Cham, believes she should in the Rebels episode “Homecoming.” Just as many of us form close relationships with our own diminutive companions, pilots form them with their astromechs. By seeing this, we can relate to them more. When we see Luke checking R2-D2 to see if he’s hurt, we see ourselves looking over our own pets after they are attacked by another animal. When BB-8 rushes to Poe, we can imagine our own animal rushing over to greet us after a long day of work or school.
Soldiers often refer to each other using familial terms like “brother” and “sister.” While I have never served in the military, I would imagine you form tight bonds quickly when that person is responsible for watching your back and keeping you alive. In Star Wars, we see pilots forming similar friendships within their squadrons. In the Rogue Squadron comic series originally published by Dark Horse Comics, we see Wedge Antilles, Tycho Celchu, Wes Janson, and Derek “Hobbie” Klivian watch each other's six to ensure they survive to fly another day; afterwards, they occasionally drink, work out, fly simulations, or pull practical jokes on each other because they aren’t just Rogue Leader and Rogues Squadron; they’re friends. Even if we haven’t pulled our buddies fat out of the fire for anything more violent than a heated match of Star Wars Battlefront, we can relate to the idea of forming close-knit bonds between groups of friends. We join groups of friends, form parties to play games, and follow people on social media, so we can connect with others. We need to attach to others, and pilots are big on attachment because attachments between you and your astromech and you and the rest of your squadron keeps you alive. In our world, attachments just help us to feel more alive.
Many of us find ourselves searching for something bigger than ourselves to dedicate our lives to at some point in our time on this planet. For some, it’s religion, work, family, or a combination of all of these. For the pilots of the Rebellion, Resistance, and Empire, they have committed their lives to the service of an organization that they believe will make the galaxy right, and they remain unswervingly, unflinchingly dedicated to that cause. In the novel, X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, by Michael Stackpole, Tycho Celchu puts up with unreasonable restrictions upon his activity because by doing so he can still fight against the Empire that destroyed his family and his planet just to demonstrate their power. If we take a second to see the situation from the opposite side of the conflict, we see some Imperial pilots with similar dedication. In the Rogue Squadron comic book series, Soontir Fel is a TIE Fighter pilot possessing enough raw, exceptional skill to earn the title of Baron. In many ways, Fel is the anti-Wedge: an Imperial who flies mission after mission and refuses promotions because he wants to protect the citizens of the Empire from those insurgents that threaten their peace of mind. While both these men serve opposite sides in the Galactic Civil War, they both hold true to their values. Even when the organization they have dedicated their lives to starts to act in ways that blatantly ignore what they know in their heart is right, they choose to stick true to their beliefs.
Our world would be better off if we all had a little more Tycho or Soontir Fel in us. If we could dedicate ourselves to our various religious groups or political parties but be confident enough in our own moral beliefs to stand against them and call them out if they begin to act immorally, we might be able to help ensure that more people feel like they could impact the world in a way that brings about positive change.
In our society, we often judge our professional success based on how much money we bring in, but as we get older (or perhaps just wiser), we learn that happiness and enjoying what we’re doing is much more important than any monetary compensation. Our pilots don’t have this problem. They get paid peanuts, but they love starting their engines and flying out into the depths of space. In the Rebels episode, “Wings of the Master,” Hera explains to the B-wing builder, Quarrie, why she flies. She states that, “It’s all rooted in a need to be up there because even when there are explosions all around me and things are at their worst, I feel like I’m at my best.” She felt compelled to take to the skies by the sight of the Republic warships that flew over Ryloth. They inspired in her a desire and hunger to fly, and in the heavens, she found an enjoyment that she learned to use to help liberate others. In the X-Wing series of novels, Wedge Antilles discusses multiple times how he refused numerous promotions because he loved to fly. He wasn’t willing to trade his cockpit for a holographic battle display. The feeling of the stars whipping by him was something he just didn’t want to give up. He loved flying too much. In the novel, Before the Awakening, Poe reminisces on the feeling of flying with his mother. He describes how he “would stare up through the canopy and lose track of the stars and feel the freedom and the potential, that he could go anywhere, that he could do anything” (132-133). It sounds similar to Hera’s declaration. Poe fell in love with flight, and that love brought out the best in him. It’s that adoration of flight that has made the GIF of him arriving on Takodana in his X-wing become a go-to expression for expressing exhilaration, excitement, and happiness on Twitter. We want to practice our Poe and find ourselves meeting each challenge and trial of our everyday life with a resounding “Woo Hoo!”
We like pilots because they remind us of our own lives, but they also remind us of what we could be if we work at it. We all practice our “piloting” when we attend a class or training. We dedicate ourselves to our own Rebellions when we work through hardships and tragedies to provide for our families, comfort a friend, or entertain others with our talents in film, games, television, and podcasting. We gather together in squadrons of our own design when we form communities, fandoms, and teams. We form these squadrons because we have seen that a group of rogues can accomplish more together than apart. At its core, Star Wars fandom is a squadron. We have all joined together to celebrate its heroes, stories, and plots, and through that celebration and collaboration, we know that we can topple any Death Stars we encounter.
Who's your favorite pilot and why? Share you answer with me on Twitter at @mapplebee7567!