Express Elevator to Hell: The Science Behind Dropships

Source: Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace

Since the 1980s, science fiction has featured many different kinds of "dropship" vehicles. But what is a dropship, how does it work, and how long until we can utilize one?

"We're on an express elevator to hell... going down!"

So exclaimed Private First Class (PFC) William Hudson in James Cameron's 1986 science fiction horror film, Aliens, as he and his fellow colonial marines hurtled into the atmosphere of planet LV-426. Instantly becoming an iconic vehicle, the dropship is now a popular concept in science fiction. But what is a dropship and how does it work?

What are Dropships?

While in some franchises the term seems to be interchangeable with "gunship," the dropship as a concept is a vehicle that is able to transport troops and equipment to a planetary surface directly from orbit. It can then return to its orbiting capital craft until needed for further transport or retrieval. More often than not, these craft are armed to the teeth, which is why they're sometimes called gunships. Usually, they are (or at least should be) supported by fighters and such, or volleys of fire from the mothership.

Aliens. Credit: Xenopedia
Aliens, 1986.

For a proper exploration of the dropship, we must turn to the aforementioned film Aliens, which is where the term seems to have originated from. The craft in the Alien universe is the UD-4L Cheyenne utility dropship, a workhorse of the United States Colonial Marines Corps (USCM). It is dropped from an underside compartment of an orbiting spaceship (in this case, the Conestoga-class USS Sulaco) directly into a planet's exosphere, from which the dropship can penetrate the atmosphere and approach its destination. While the UD-4L is armed with a nose-mounted Gatling gun and a variety of missiles and rockets, its mission was to deliver an M577 armored personnel carrier containing a squad of marines to a terraformed colony.

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Dropships in Action

On this mission, the dropship designated 01 (also named "Bug Stomper" according to nose art) was destroyed after a highly aggressive xenomorphic organism boarded the craft and murdered the crew. However, it's notable that the crew, either by choice or by orders, took a nearby landing position on the planet surface where it picked up the hostile organism. If it had returned to the Sulaco it probably would have survived and rescued a great many more survivors. Luckily, it is USCM policy to carry at least two UD-4Ls onboard, so the squad's artificial person was able to remote pilot dropship 02 (nose art: Smart Ass) to perform a rescue operation.

In order to return to the mothership, the UD-4L uses its twin TF-900 variable-cycle turbines to power the craft into the air, using the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) thrust nozzles on its aft section. The real-world design of the UD-4L was based around American military aircraft, notably the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopter, and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber, the latter two of which were heavily in use during the Vietnam war, which was a major thematic backbone for Cameron's film. Since then, the dropship has figured heavily in science fiction media, especially video games. For example, there's the D77-TC (troop carrier) Pelican as used by the United Nations Space Command in the popular game series, Halo.

Starship Troopers, 1997. Credit: IMDB
Starship Troopers, 1997.

In 1997's Starship Troopers, DR-4 Viking dropships ferried mobile infantry troops from orbiting corvettes down to the surface of the planet Klendathu where they would do battle with – or more accurately, be massacred by – vicious extra-terrestrial arachnids. Later, DR-8 Skyhook retrieval boats would rescue troops from a bad situation on Planet P. With the dropship scenes, Starship Troopers' director Paul Verhoeven deliberately evoked the scenes of World War II's Normandy landings on D-Day, with the DR-4s dropping off troops in the same way as the landing craft on Omaha Beach.

In the Star Wars universe, dropships and gunships were introduced in 2002's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, where they were heavily involved in the Grand Army of the Republic's attack against the battle droids and Geonosians in the Battle of Geonosis. One of the most infamous vehicles introduced in the conflict was the Low Altitude Assault Transport/infantry (LAAT/i), also known as the Republic Gunship. This craft used repulsor technology to transport Republic clone troopers to battles, and also had a fearsome attack capability with a set of chin-mounted laser cannons, removable spherical laser turrets, and rear-firing missiles. The LAAT/c (carrier) variant was used to carry the effective but slow All Terrain Tactical Enforcer walker (AT-TE) through a pair of magnetic clamps on its underside.

Real Life Dropships

Probably the closest thing the current militaries have in today's war theater is the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, an impressive VTOL and STOL (short take-off and landing) craft that has huge propellers that can either be positioned vertically or horizontally. The vertical position allows the Osprey to perform duties in the mode of a traditional helicopter, while the horizontal position gives it the benefit of a turboprop plane with the higher speeds normally afforded to those aircraft.

While there are no doubt many issues that would need to be ironed out before even the concept of a dropship could be approached by a contemporary military, the existence of this aircraft shows that we can at least view what could be the starting point of a new evolution. To that, we say… better get ready to hold on to something!

Contributing Editor

Charlie Brigden has been obsessed with spaceships, horror films, and film music since a young age and can usually be found across the internet writing about one of those three. He lives in South Wales UK with his family, cats, dogs, and tarantulas.