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"Your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space, but at this moment, they are on the ground."
Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

What do the Cool Ship, Cool Starship, and Cool Plane all have in common? They are all at their most vulnerable when in docked in port or while parked on the ground. This is a state of vulnerability that pretty much everyone and everything has to accept at some point, as personnel need food and sleep, ships need maintenance, and nobody has found a way to keep a plane in the sky indefinitely yet. A savvy enemy can use the element of surprise to sucker punch an enemy, even a numerically or technically superior enemy, before they can bring their forces into play. Methods for this can range from Fireships to attack planes or a long range missile attack.

Of course, it's also possible to be placed in this position because your ship was badly damaged in a previous fight, and the enemy is coming back to finish you off before you can finish your repairs.

The Trope name comes from a hunting phrase referring to ducks sitting on the water, often considered to be off limits until they take flight. Due to its applicability, the phrase was adopted in the military aviation community to refer to airplanes that had been caught on the ground, although of course very few pilots have a problem with destroying an enemy plane before it can get airborne.

Historically, a combat pilot would get no credit for destroying an enemy plane while it was still on the ground, until the Americans began to grant credit for such kills during World War II[1]. It was theoretically possible to become an ace by only destroying planes on the ground, although German airfields tended to be very heavily defended by anti-aircraft batteries that could do wonders for shortening your flying career.

Exploiting this trope is a favored tactic of the Combat Pragmatist, and a favored method of preventing the Fighter Launching Sequence.

Not to Be Confused With Sitting Ducks, which was inspired by the same idiom that this Trope draws its name from.

Examples of Sitting Duck include:


Anime and Manga

  • In Martian Successor Nadesico, the Jovian Lizards hit the Nadesico while it's landed to pick up survivors of the invasion of Mars, giving Yurika the Sadistic Choice of turning on the ships' Deflector Shields - crushing the refugees beneath it - or letting the attack destroy the Nadesico (likely killing most of the refugees when it crashed in flames). She chooses the former, but not without some angsting.
  • The Wolf Pack arc of Area 88 focuses on a mercenary group who destroy most of the planes at Area 88 while they're on the ground.

Comic Books

  • G.I. Joe Special Missions #3: The Joes bomb the planes of a Qurac style nation while they are still on the ground. This mission also serves as cover for another Joe team to steal a new Russian fighter from the base.

Film

Literature

  • Clive Cussler's The Mediterranean Caper. A World War I biplane strafes a U.S. Air Force base and destroys a number of F-105 Starfire jet fighters and C-133 Cargomasters while they're helpless on the ground.
  • Admiral Leighton launches a raid on a the Spanish harbor of Rosas, in order to attack and sink a squadron of damaged French warships while they attempted to make repairs in the Horatio Hornblower novel Flying Colours.
  • Honor Harrington had several examples of this trope, typically against complacent pickets in systems that were considered unlikely to be attacked. Generally speaking, the ships on the receiving end had to be drifting with cold nodes, preventing them from getting a wedge or sidewalls up in time to defend themselves.

Live Action Television

  • Black Sheep Squadron: Lampshaded by the narrator in one episode to show how a particular new pilot was both very foolish and very good. He attempted to take off while being strafed by Japanese Zeroes, and somehow managed to get up in the air AND get behind the planes that had just been flying behind him trying to shoot him up. He still gets chewed out for trying that to begin with.
  • Babylon 5: Londo's Crowning Moment of Awesome was when he invoked this trope on The Shadow base on Centauri Prime.
    • Prior to his arriving on Babylon 5, Captain Sheridan's own crowning moment was his defeat of the Minbari warship Black Star, despite his ship being a Sitting Duck (having been crippled by the Black Star in a previous attack), via some previously placed nuclear bombs in an Asteroid Thicket.
    • Later on, Captain Sheridan attempted to invoke this trope on a Shadow Battlecrab on the Jovian moon of Ganymede, but arrived just in time to see the ship launch and destroy the facilities there.
    • And in Crusade, the heroes had to be mindful of the fact that using the Excalibur's Wave Motion Gun rendered the ship helpless for a short period of time, due to the power drain required to use the weapon.
  • Used in both series of Battlestar Galactica, in different ways. In the original series, the Cylons planned to attack the Galactica while all of her pilots were being honored at a party on the planet Carillon. Fortunately, Commander Adama was far too Genre Savvy to let that happen, and came up with a Batman Gambit of his own.

Tabletop Games

  • Task Force Games
    • Several Star Fleet Battles scenarios involved ships being caught by surprise attacks while in orbit or docked to a space station. The scenario usually had rules for "powering up" ship systems so the ships could fight.
    • Starfire scenario "The Paurl Harbor Raid". Rigellian carriers smashed Khanate battleships "at anchor" in Paurl Harbor, an obvious Shout-Out to "Pearl Harbor".

Video Games

  • In Aero Fighters Assault, one of the bonus mission has you protecting your Airborne Aircraft Carrier from enemy attacks while it's refueling.
  • Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe
    • One hypothetical German mission is attacking an Allied bomber base in Britain and destroying the B-17's on the ground before they can take off.
    • Another mission involved taking off while your airbase was under attack and fighting off the enemy planes.
  • The first German campaign mission in Red Baron was being on the receiving end of one of these. You had to get your plane into the air while your airbase was being strafed by attacking Allied planes.
  • An available tactic in a few missions of Rogue Squadron.
  • If you get into a Japanese harbor in Silent Hunter 4 you can often find a lot of enemy ships that are this.
  • Ace Combat has the player take out bombers or other aircraft on the ground from time to time. Attacking ships at anchor also shows up occasionally.
  • In the Virmire mission of Mass Effect, one way you can help your allies against Saren's base is destroying his fighters when they come in to rearm.
    • It features heavily in the Reapers' plan to Take Over The Galaxy Again. By attacking the Citadel first through its built-in mass relay, they can make sitting ducks out of both the Fleet and the Council with one fell swoop.
  • In several Civilization games and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, ships in port in a city/base under attack receive a negative modifier to their defense, reflecting this trope.

Real Life

  • The Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, catching the American Pacific Fleet and the hundreds of planes, bunched together to prevent sabotage, based on Oahu flat-footed as big easy targets for the Japanese to destroy, is quite possibly the Trope Codifier. Although the Imperial Japanese Navy failed in their primary objective, the destruction of the American carriers, and contributed to the US entering the war, it was a punishing blow for the unprepared American forces. It would be six months before the Allies could regain the initiative and start pushing the Japanese back.
    • The US Navy got its revenge at the Battle of Midway, where American bombers caught the Japanese carriers right as they were getting ready to launch the next wave of their own attack aircraft. All four of these carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and all four were sunk during the battle (at the cost of the USS Yorktown).
  • Earlier in World War II, HMS Royal Oak was lying at anchor in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939 when it was torpedoed by a U-Boat.
  • Operation Focus was the opening airstrike by Israel at the start of the Six-Day War of 1967. At 07:45 on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force launched a massive airstrike that destroyed the majority of the Egyptian air force on the ground. By noon, the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Air Forces, with about 450 aircraft, were destroyed.
  • The Peloponnesian War ended when the Spartans found the whole Athenian fleet beached and their crew ashore foraging.

Notes

  1. It was decided that it was better to destroy a German fighter on the ground rather than risk letting it take down an American bomber or two in the air later.
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