While TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers get all the attention, Imperial transport vessels keep the Galactic Empire running. We take a close look at how they've evolved across movies and regimes.
Picture the scene. The lush green sanctuary moon of Endor sits among the stars while a strange spherical object orbits the planet above its northern hemisphere. Opposite the planet, a small fleet of gargantuan wedge-shaped starships approach the sphere with a trio of craft exiting the lead ship's docking bay. Two of the ships are standard escort craft, but the third is obviously one of some importance. It’s a sleek and dangerous-looking ship with three wings in an inverted-Y configuration.
From that first appearance in Return of the Jedi, the Imperial Shuttle became a beloved part of Star Wars lore and an icon of the film. Since then, we've seen a number of shuttles fly across a galaxy far, far away, but the most interesting designs usually belong to the Galactic Empire, alongside TIE fighters and Star Destroyers. So, let's take a look at these transports of evil, starting where evil starts out: on the side of good.
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In the days of the Old Republic, members of the Galactic Senate would use shuttles such as the Eta-class and the larger Theta-class T2c to carry out their diplomatic missions. The latter was very much a sign of things to come, with its two wings folding up to allow it a more compact profile upon landing and a central fin that controlled its shield generator.
The shuttle was also armed with nine laser cannons – two quad cannon arrays on either side of the main body, and one aft cannon – and was originally ordered by Senator Palpatine. But its use mainly came during the early days of the Empire, such as when the now-Emperor Palpatine ordered it be flown to the lava world of Mustafar in order to rescue the burned and broken body of Palpatine's apprentice, Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith.
As the Empire grew, it began to manufacture shuttles for different uses, creating personal executive shuttles in the fleet alongside cargo ships and troop transports. At the time the Empire's Death Star project was near to going online, Director Orson Krennic of the Advanced Weapons Research Division commanded a Delta-class T3c shuttle.
It was an unusual sight, with its darkened durasteel hull plating recalling the black armour of Krennic's Death Troopers. The shuttle was also well-armed with two pair of laser cannons at the top of its wings and a further pair at the top of the ventral wing. Curiously, there was no aft weapon, which was perhaps a key to the aggressive confidence of Krennic – although Grand Moff Tarkin may have called it arrogance.
Lambda to the Slaughter
Around the same time, Lord Darth Vader began commanding his own shuttle, which would become the face of the Empire's personal transport fleet. The Lambda-class T4a shuttle was a marvel of starship design and symmetry, with its ventral fin just larger than its wings, creating an instantly iconic silhouette. Armament included four sets of twin laser cannons; two either side of the cockpit with the other pair at the base of the wings in a foldable configuration. A further double laser cannon sat on the aft of the ship above its main thrusters.
The ship was used by both Vader and the Emperor in addition to transporting supplies and technical equipment. This allowed Vader to surprise naive Imperial officers who may have thought they would be just receiving spare parts, but got a dressing down by Vader instead. Vader also used the shuttle for combat, such as when he boarded the Rebel Mon Calamari starship Profundity after Director Krennic allowed the plans for the Death Star to fall into the hands of the Rebellion in Rogue One.
A similar model to the T4a was the Sentinel-class landing craft. It was a troop transport that had a similar profile to the Lambda-class but was able to carry up to 75 stormtroopers and had modular sections with specialized equipment. Similarly, the Zeta-class cargo shuttle could be used for the same purpose, although it was often used for ferrying vital equipment and materials such as Kyber crystals from the planet of Jedha. The crystals were needed to power the Death Star's enormous superlaser, which was later used against Jedha when Krennic made the world the target of the Death Star's first technical demonstration.
Carrying Kylo Ren
The insidious First Order rose to power years after the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of Emperor Palpatine. Modeled after the Galactic Empire, The First Order closely followed its design lineage. For example, the Xi-class light shuttle has a similar configuration as what came before, albeit with a flattened cockpit and an ignominious reputation. Its most famous use was when it was used as an escape vessel by an Imperial traitor.
However, the First Order also had incredibly malevolent-looking command ship shuttle belonging to Kylo Ren, who later became Supreme Commander Ren. Ren's Upsilon-class shuttle resembled his own fearsome visage, with a dark durasteel hull and a red cockpit window. The ship did not have a ventral fin, but had a pair of powerful twin heavy laser cannons at the base of its wings. Ren had no qualms about using the ship to lead the First Order battle fleets, and personally commanded it during the Battle of Crait in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
While the lineage suggests a number of vessels leading up to the Lambda-class, that ship was the first shuttle to appear in Star Wars, although a TIE Bomber had been used as a makeshift shuttlecraft for Imperial Captain Needa in The Empire Strikes Back. After Return of the Jedi, the ship would make a further appearance in the 1997 special edition of The Empire Strikes Back, showing Vader being ferried from Cloud City to the Super-class Star Destroyer Executor.
At the same time, the Sentinel-class landing craft was added to the special edition of A New Hope, briefly seen when the stormtroopers were searching Tatooine for the droids. Contrary to popular belief, all of these ships were known to have shot first.