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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), gangsters' chauffeurs getting shot, 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. 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.
In case of actual pilots encountering whatever enemy while in the plane have a tendency to try asking "If you kill me, who's going to fly the plane?" If the villain can in fact fly a plane, that pilot is dead meat.
Occasionally applied to characters who actually matter to the plot, so sometimes rates as a Death Trope.
Anime and Manga
- In Mazinkaiser SKL, Captain Scarlet pilots the Mazinkaiser's supporting unit, Wingle, but also pilots the plane transporting her crew behind Gravity Wall. The plane crashes, she dies and her role as Wingle pilot is taken by Yuki Tsubasa.
- 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.
- Eliza Ingrid's driver in Halo: A Fistful of Arrows
- The helicopter pilot in Cloverfield.
- Star Wars:
- Luke's snowspeeder copilot in The Empire Strikes Back. Instantly killed by blaster fire and crushed by an AT-AT's foot.
- The ship that carried Obi-Wan 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 ten seconds of them being dropped off.
- Obi-Wan's droid copilot in Revenge of the Sith might count since R units have some personality on their own.
- 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.
- The Incredibles: This was going to happen in an earlier version, with the pilot who flies the Incredibles to Nomanisan Island going down with the plane. In the end, they wrote him out entirely except as a voice on the other end of a phone, and had Helen fly the plane herself.
- Happens in the first movie of The Mummy Trilogy, to the old war pilot who was suffering from ennui, but not in the second.
- Possibly qualifies in the first Final Destination, although I don't think we ever see the pilots.
- The "who's gonna fly the plane?" thingy is done by Castor Troy in Face/Off, but it proves to be a subversion in that he murders the pilot, but it turns out Troy can't get the bird in the air either and he crashes it on the runway.
- 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.
- In No Country for Old Men, Moss hitches a ride with a bystander. Said bystander is killed at the wheel as Moss watches. Later, he hitches another ride with an entirely different man, who is also killed for his trouble, but that happens long after he was separated from Moss.
- The gunship pilot from Aliens.
- 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.
- For Your Eyes Only: In The Teaser the pilot of the helicopter Bond is in gets electrocuted in mid-flight.
- The Jeep driver in The Happening. Bizarrely, he was played by Brian O'Halloran, whom you may remember as Dante Hicks.
- The villains in The Lady Vanishes usually can't aim worth crap, but they take out the train conductors with one shot apiece, leaving the hero to try and run the train himself.
- 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 conductor is casually bumped off by the villian.
- For an example of a plot-critical character, Serenity has Wash gored by the Reavers just as the ship crash-lands otherwise-safely.
- 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.
- The chauffeur in The Wizard of Whitechapel gets killed off.
- Subverted with Hans Richter in 1633. He is made a German national hero after he crashed his plane into a Danish warship, after he had been mortally wounded in his first attack.
- A darkly amusing example in Ciaphas Cain: 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.
- In Halo: The Fall of Reach, Red Team's pilot gets a few throwaway lines before getting blown up in his cockpit, prompting Joshua to take over from inside the troop bay.
- In the novelization of Robotech during a recon mission, an explosion rips through a spacecraft with Lisa Hayes, conveniently only affects the pilot's side of the spacecraft.
- 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.
- 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.
Live Action Television
- Lost: In the pilot episode, the co-pilot dies on impact and the pilot is killed off soon after being found. 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.
- 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 Warehouse 13, Mrs. Frederic's driver(/bodyguard?) is the person killed when Artie survives an explosion by using the phoenix.
- In Early BattleTech there was a tag line "Mechwarrior's are cheap the Mechs they pilot are not" during the game timelines were getting new battlemechs were pretty much only in the ability of well off mercenary company's and Main Inner Sphere House armys especially for the house army's which tend to go thru mechwarrior's like copy paper and frequently the only time someone got a mech is that the previous user/owner died.
- In The Force Unleashed, Galen mentions that there were seven pilots before Juno.
- Mass Effect 2: Inverted Trope: No matter if you get the Golden Ending or the Downer Ending (or anything in between), it is impossible for Joker or EDI to die while still completing the game, although it is possible to get literally every other member of the crew killed (including the Player Character).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Hopkins FBI, early on, the player calls a helicopter for some bank robbers. They kill the pilot.
- Happens repeatedly in the Resident Evil game series, as so far we've lost Brad and Kevin in part 1, two unnamed pilots in parts 2 and 3, another anonymous pilot and Mike in part 4, and finally Kirk and Doug in part 5. Main character Chris Redfield is a notable aversion, as his backstory has him as a former Air Force pilot.
- The Valkyrie 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 (Warhammer40000's Space Marines are Badass SuperSoldiers). The game was consistent and didn'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.
- Leonard, the elderly chopper pilot from the so-so Dreamcast game Carrier, is killed by a mutant in the opening cutscene. Since this was also supposed to be his last mission before retirement, nobody got a gold star for guessing that he wouldn't make it, as those combined circumstances practically count as Quad Damage.
- In the first F.E.A.R. 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.
- 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.
- Halo: Combat Evolved plays it straight with the pilot (and the rest of the passengers) of the escape pod in which you leave the Pillar of Autumn. It then averts it with "Foehammer", a Pelican pilot who actually survives until the final level.