An SF Writer’s Glossary of Alternative Aviation.


This glossary began as a series of posts for the  A to Z Challenge in April 2016, and a version of these articles can still be found in my main blog during that month.

I have compiled them here for alphabetical convenience, and updated them with photographs from the version of the glossary that I presented at When Words Collide in Calgary in August of 2016.


Autogyro: An autogyro, sometimes called a gyrocopter or gyroplane, is a flying machine that is neither an airplane nor a helicopter, although it is a rotorcraft. It is driven through the air by a propeller, like a plane, but has a passive rotor, more like a helicopter. The rotor is not connected to a power source, but twirls freely in the wind.


To make an autogyro take off, the pilot adds power until the propeller pulls (or pushes) the machine into motion, and as it gains airspeed, the rotor begins to turn. When it is providing enough lift, the aircraft takes to the skies. The take-off roll is usually very short, so autogyros are usually classed as STOL, Short Take-Off or Landing.


Tech Level: First flown in 1923 (just twenty years after the Wright Brothers) the main technological hurdle is a small engine, so I class the autogyro as Dieselpunk. In the seventies, ads for DIY kits appeared in magazines like Popular Mechanics.

Appeared In: In speculative fiction, you may remember autogyros from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, or the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. 


Also Doc Savage, Doctor Who and many others.

For Your Plot: The autogyro flies low and slow, so it’s good for reconnaissance or search. Long trips, not so much. Great potential for your hero to have a non-fatal accident due to engine failure, birdstrike or controlled flight into terrain. (Hit a tree, dude) An autogyro is small enough to store in a garage until after the apocalypse.

Aerostat: an aircraft that is inherently buoyant. Also referred to as Lighter Than Air, or LTA. Heavier than air machines, such as airplanes are classed as Aerodynes, a word more commonly seen in the form aerodynamic.


Balloon: One of the oldest forms of aviation pioneered by humans. There are two main kinds, the hot-air balloon popular at festivals, and the lifting-gas balloon, filled with helium or hydrogen. The former requires fuel, so duration is limited. The latter is more expensive, but better suited to longer flights such as ocean crossings. There are also hybrid designs. Balloons can be navigated by climbing and descending to take advantage of variations in the wind. This is as much art as science; balloon pilots relish the challenge.


A tethered balloon I rose in on the Kenora harbourfront, when I was an announcer at CJRL

Tech Level: The Montgolfier brothers famously flew a hot-air balloon in 1783. The principle requirement is a fine, nearly airtight fabric, such as silk or paper. The Montgolfiers used sackcloth lined with paper. I class the balloon as Clockpunk or lower.

Appeared In: Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873. You can’t ask for a finer pedigree than that.

For Your Plot: Wonderful potential to take your hero to the wrong place, and ample opportunity to mess him up with minor injuries from a bad landing, or worse trouble from an unplanned landing in the water, mountains, or orc territory.


Biplane: A fixed-wing airplane with two wings, one (approximately) above the other. In its heyday during World War I, it offered designers a strong yet compact design, as the two wings could be braced together with struts and flying wires. That creates drag, so the biplane tends to be slow, and the design is all but extinct these days. A fabulously quirky example was the Sopwith Camel. It had no brakes, no throttle, and a rotary engine: the designers chose to bolt the propeller to the engine block and fix the driveshaft to the airframe. The whole engine spun while the plane stood still. Great for cooling, but no muffler, so sneaking into enemy territory was not an option. See a wonderful eight minute video here.

Tech Level: Post-industrial, because a light powerplant such as a reciprocating engine is needed. I class it as Dieselpunk.

Appeared In: Storming, by K.M. Weiland.

For Your Plot: Many biplanes had open cockpits. Subject your hero to freezing wind, hypoxia and bugsplats. Get her lost when the map is blown overboard. A stylish goggle-tan makes her stand out in the crowd.


Cannon: a large hollow tube used to accelerate a projectile, usually by means of expanding gases. While not often thought of as a means of transporting people through the atmosphere, it can be done. Circuses have been showcasing “human cannonballs” for a century and a half, but their modest devices have very limited range. More is possible. Electro-magnetic cannons use a series of powerful magnets to accelerate a metal projectile, and a big enough one could launch a capsule with human occupants.

Tech Level: Low, if you do it with gunpowder or flammable gases. High, if you do it with fancy magnets and superconductors.

Appeared In: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. If you think that’s more spaceflight than air travel, a more modern example is a Canadian cartoon called The Boy. A clever kid and his muscular minder were launched to trouble-spots all over the earth in a fluid-filled spherical capsule fired from an underground (steam?) cannon.

For Your Plot: Physically draining, I would imagine. Also, what if you miss the target? I hate when that happens.


Cluster Balloon: the proper name for a bunch of weather balloons tied to a lawn chair. This is aviation at its most basic, and it’s blinding in its simplicity. You just need balloons, a generous supply of helium, and nerves of steel. Kids, don’t try this at home. But lest you think this is the stuff of suicidal scofflaws, here’s a link to where you can read about record-breaking flights in an American registered aircraft of this type.

Minolta DSC

Tech Level: Low. Although the modern practitioners prefer latex weather balloons and helium, it could be done with hot air. I class it as suitable for post-apocalyptic, alternative history or time-travel. Hydrogen filled dinosaur bladders, anyone?

Appeared In: The Disney/Pixar movie Up. Trailers here. They get bonus points for using party balloons.

For Your Plot: Even more difficult to steer than a hot-air balloon, because climbing and descending are limited by how much ballast you can drop and how many individual balloons you can afford to pop. Your hero could end up anywhere. Unconsciousness and even death by hypoxia is a risk if you fly too high, and baby, it’s cold up there!


Dirigible: Also known as airships, these are essentially streamlined balloons with a propulsion system. Dirigibles come three flavours: rigid, like the Hindenburg and its rivals, which had full airframes; semi-rigid, which have a keel or other partial structure; and non-rigid, which hold their shape by gas pressure alone, like the Goodyear blimps. Dirigible use peaked between the World Wars, but they may yet make a comeback on the strength of their ability to haul massive loads by air. While hot-air dirigibles are possible, helium or hydrogen-filled ones are more common.dirigible-zpg-3w_blimp_us_navy_1960

Tech Level: The first powered flight was in 1852, and it was—drum roll, please—a steam powered dirigible. Go Steampunk! Airships are a defining trait of this genre.

Appeared In: My favourite Spec Fic anime: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and other wonderful Hayao Miyazaki projects such as Castle in the Sky. Kenneth Oppel‘s Airborn and its sequels Skybreaker and Starclimber are all on the shelf at my right hand as I write this. Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond by Jayne Barnard is nominated in the YA Novel category for an Aurora this year.

For Your Plot: I’m biased here. Airships play a major role in my own work, where they provide trade between isolated communities on a lost colony planet. And impose trade sanctions, but that’s another story. You go write your own.

Dynastat: This term gets my award for Worst Greek Ever, because it leaves out the essential aero part. It refers to an airship that derives lift from both aerostatic and aerodynamic means; a dirigible with a lifting body shape.


Electric Aircraft: any flying machine that is propelled by an electric motor. Naturally, the first example was a dirigible (in 1883) because the lifting gas took care of the battery weight and speed wasn’t a requirement. There were some experimental conversions of airplanes in the 1970’s, mainly led by sailplanes employing electric power as a supplement, and leading to some commercially available small aircraft, but it was 21st century before solar power, improved battery chemistry and fuel cell technology began to make serious inroads. At the time of this writing, electric aircraft are still on the fringes. A small electric helicopter flew in 2011. Records are being set, but the prospect of buying a ticket on an electric airliner is decades away.


Tech Level: Steampunk, if you include dirigibles. Solarpunk could make use of either solar-powered airships or airplanes.

Appeared In: I have yet to find a definitive example. Comment if you know a good one.

For Your Plot: Electric aircraft could be anything from a reliable means of transport that lends flavour to your solarpunk world-building, to an edgy, cobbled-together means of moving about in a post-apocalyptic world.


Floatplane: A type of seaplane that has (usually two) buoyant floats to allow for take-off from and landing (alighting, if you insist) on a body of water. Believe it or not, the first racing planes were on floats. There were no long runways back in the day, so starting in 1913 the Schneiders Trophy planes were flown from the water. One notable example was the Supermarine S.6B, a floatplane forerunner of the Spitfire, and the last trophy winner in 1931. Floatplane floats are not crude pontoons, but are shaped like a boat hull on the bottom so that they can plane on the surface of the water as the airplane approaches flying speed. In some cases, floats are integral to the design of the airplane, but are nowadays more often in the form of a kit used to modify a suitable land-plane. Amphibious designs incorporating retractable wheels into the floats are possible, but the weight penalty is severe. I flew float planes for years, and in my part of Canada, bush planes are a common sight.


Me, circa 1980, with a DeHavilland Beaver

Tech Level: A reciprocating engine (or turbine) is a must, so Dieselpunk.

Appeared In: A friend has written a lovely dieselpunk example, but I cannot share it with you because A) it would be a spoiler, and B) the book isn’t out yet. Alternatively, Waterworld.

For Your Plot: Take your hero off the beaten track. Avoid airports altogether. Flee the zombie hordes.



Flying Boat: The other kind of seaplane. A flying boat is an airplane with a hull designed to act as a watercraft, and propeller placement chosen to avoid spray. Amphibious variations have less of a weight penalty than the float planes. The golden age of flying boats may have been the years between WWI & WWII. This was the era of the Pan-Am Clippers, large flying boats that took wealthy passengers across the Atlantic and, in stages, the Pacific. This is also the era when my Uncle Leonard flew a Supermarine Walrus from a Royal Navy cruiser in the Mediterranean. Hard to believe that this ugly duckling, a biplane flying boat, came from the same company as the beautiful Spitfire. The only modern flying boats of any size are water-bombers such as the Bombardier 415.


My uncle Leonard flew these in the Mediterranean before WWII


Hughes Hercules H-4, better known as the Spruce Goose.

Tech Level: Same as above, Dieselpunk. Also ripe for Alternative History.

Appeared In: More than one Adventure Story. I think I remember a sort of airborne Murder on the Orient Express thing. In Spec Fic, Ian Sales set out to write an SF short story, with interesting but unconventional results.

For Your Plot: This harks to an amazing era, when the Pan-Am Clipper was the Concorde of its day. Millionaire passengers, autocratic Captains, eastern intrigue and typhoons. Do me.


Glider: an unpowered airplane, sometimes called a sailplane. Otto Lilienthal was gliding down slopes in wood and cloth contraptions long before the Wright Brothers built the Flyer. Later gliders were good enough to gain altitude in even mild updrafts, and long-distance flights became possible, if challenging. A surprising development was the discovery that towing a glider behind a powered plane is remarkably efficient, and gliders full of troopers were towed across the channel and released to glide into France during WWII.glider-dg1000glider-wooden-minimoa

Tech Level: Pre-industrial. Suitable for everything from Clockpunk to Post-Apocalyptic.

Appeared In: My debut SF novel, Avians, is all about gliders and the girls that fly them, but it won’t be out until 2017. So how about Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire? Aliens with gliders, and an imperative need for aviation.

For Your Plot: Your time-traveller can hook up with Leonardo and help him work the kinks out. No gasoline in your dystopia? Gliders are the way to go. Perils abound, many of them conveniently non-fatal.


Ground-Effect Vehicle: an aircraft designed for flight very close to the surface. (You’ll want to make that a relatively level surface, such as water or prairie.) Any airplane with wings experiences ground-effect when it flies lower than its own wingspan; efficiency increases as a bubble of air builds up between the wing and the ground. Tales abound of crippled WWII bombers limping home by skimming the waves. The Russians set out to deliberately exploit this quirk during the Cold War. They designed some planes with wings that were optimized for cupping air beneath the aircraft, and flying so low they were literally below the radar. Today, there are sport-craft versions like the Skimmer.


Tech Level: Usually Dieselpunk, because engines. However, the efficiency of ground-effect makes Steampunk a distinct possibility.

Appeared In: No clue. Maybe you can be the first.

For Your Plot: Bonus points if you tow your GEV behind a steamboat, like tubing, but in the air. Cut loose to skim over the waves and flip the bird at our alien jellyfish overlords.


Hang Glider: A simple frame and fabric glider with the pilot suspended in a harness so that the aircraft can be guided by shifting the pilot’s weight. Nowadays, hang gliders are made from aluminum tubing and nylon. Beginner flights are short and close to the ground, but experienced pilots can soar for hours.

Tech Level: Low. Could be made from wood and sailcloth, so Age of Sail. Could be made of bamboo and silk, so good potential in the Tang Dynasty. Conceivably, since metal is not a requirement, Stonepunk. Wonderful for Time Travel or Alternative History.

Appeared In: Windhaven, by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle. In this book, the flyers have collapsible wings constructed of materials salvaged from their ancestors’ space ship. Fran Wilde’s Updraft and Cloudbound have hang gliders of silk and bone. Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series I admire for its complex characters, also featured a folding glider.

For Your Plot: Anything goes! The hang glider rivals the hot air balloon for any character that needs to go flying in a low-tech environment.


Hovercraft: A machine that uses powerful fans to float on a cushion of air. As a teenager, I crossed the English Channel in one. It was quick, but expensive. And noisy. With a ride height of a meter or more, they should have great potential for travelling over ice, water or desert terrain. They were used in Viet Nam by US marines to patrol river deltas. They seem to have fallen into decline without ever really taking off.


I crossed the English Channel in one of these as a teenager

Tech Level: High. Light powerful engines are a must. Probably most at home in SF or Military SF, where they can be used to travel alien landscapes. Might be good in climate-themed post-apocalypse tales.

Appeared In: Nope. Drawing a blank here.

For Your Plot: When global warming floods Manhattan and the starving stockbrokers turn all Waterworld on you, you could skim over the treetops of Central Park in your hovercraft. You’d be quick, but not stealthy. Watch out for currency traders on jet skis. Expect to hit stuff, hovercraft are notoriously hard to steer.


ICBM: A rocket that blasts into space and arcs back down into the atmosphere to arrive at your destination. Does it have potential as a passenger craft? Depends how tough your passengers are. The good news: it’s so fast you won’t have to worry about airline food. The bad news: you’re probably going to have to be encased in foam or liquid to survive the g-forces, so forget about asking for more pretzels. Tickets will be expensive, and insurance will be out of this world.


Haven’t got a ride in one of these yet.

Tech Level: High. The rocketry part became possible in the twentieth century. The human survivability part is still pending.

Appeared In: I’m still checking. Seems to me that one of the early SF authors proposed rocket travel between the continents, with Winnipeg as the North American terminal.

For Your Plot: Accident-wise, your human character will either make it, or she won’t. Robots and cyborgs might do better. Might actually be more fun on Mars, where the gravity is lower and the distances are less. Also, the atmosphere is much thinner, making it harder for discount airlines to compete. One drawback? No continents on Mars: we might have to call it an Inter-Colony Ballistic Missile.


Jet Pack: You strap a jet engine to your back and go screaming into the sky. Perk: no one hears your cowardly cries over the screech of the jet. You get maybe thirty minutes of fuel, so don’t waste time looking for a better parking spot. Companies that are developing and demonstrating them, such as Martin Jetpack, are focusing on the emergency response market to start with.jet-pack

Tech Level: High. These are just emerging now and I expect they’d be nearly impossible to fly without sophisticated computerized controls. Best genre fit: Near Future Military SF.

Appeared In: The Rocketeer. I know what you’re thinking: that wasn’t a jet pack, it was a rocket pack. However, it was fueled by alcohol only, and carried no oxygen supply. So, despite the name, it was a jet pack, and it even had a compressor stage. Dig into the TV Tropes website for more on both Jet Packs and The Rocketeer. Conversely, when I ransacked the internet looking for fictional jet packs, nearly everyone was actually using rockets. Go figure.

For Your Plot: The Martin Jetpack has a gas tank the size of a small car’s and burns through it in about half an hour, so giant plot holes destroy the space-time continuum if your hero gets two hours of flight time out of a fuel tank smaller than a motorcycle’s.


Kite: The oldest flying technology in this entire glossary. The Chinese were building elaborate kites 2300 years ago, and it didn’t take them long to launch the first aeronauts. The west caught up late in the nineteenth century, with manned kites used for military reconnaissance. With the right design, kite pilots can cut free from their tether to glide to a safe landing, and this can be seen as the origin of hang-gliding.kite-cody_manlifter

Tech Level: Low. Within reach of any culture with a tightly woven fabric or membrane. Well suited to Time Travel stories, Alternative History and every tech level up to Steampunk.

Appears In: AM Dellamonica’s Daughter of No Nation, as a way to launch Hang Gliders.

For Your Plot: I have an unfinished short story with a boy-lifting kite in the Age of Sail. The Royal Navy of Hornblower’s time had everything they needed except the imagination.


Levitation: A means of floating above the earth without using aerodynamic lift or aerostatic buoyancy. This might mean magic, such as a flying carpet; it could mean anti-gravity, popular in far-future SF; or most pragmatically, it could mean magnetic levitation, popularly called mag-lev. This last is the only one we actually have working examples of, and engineering them requires not just special vehicles, but special rails to run them on, and vast amounts of power.levitation-tr06

Tech Level: High. We’re barely getting started in the 21st century. Best fit: Space Opera.

Appeared In: In the case of magical levitation, we can look all the way back to Arabian Nights. In Science Fiction circles, anti-gravity or null-grav has appeared in everything from Star Wars (Luke’s speeder) to David Weber’s (Honor Harrington) Military SF.

For Your Plot: Force fields, tractor beams, and artificial gravity exert an irresistible pull on Space Opera. Like faster than light travel, these technologies are as desirable as they are elusive. To write certain types of SF, they are just plain essential. Please keep in mind that the best magic and far-future tech have something in common: limitations. If your technology or magic is so powerful as to give your main character boundless abilities, it will be hard to pose challenges.


Motor Glider: A sailplane equipped with a small motor to allow it to take off unaided. The idea is to shut the motor down once you reach a safe altitude and proceed by soaring. The first designs date from the 1930s. The propeller usually folds away or feathers its blades to reduce drag, and fuel tanks tend to be modest in capacity. One or two models manage to stow the whole motor away. Electric versions exist, taking advantage of the need for only a few minutes of battery life. Small jet engines have also been tried.


Note the doors behind the mast to stow the whole drive-train away.

Tech Level: A wood and cloth glider with a gunpowder rocket could be pre-industrial, so it could fit Alternative History or Time Travel. I like the idea of a clockwork version, just so I can say Clockpunk. Motor gliders with electric motors or small gasoline engines need Steampunk or Dieselpunk levels of technology.

Appeared In: I’m sure I read a Post-Apocalyptic story with one of these. The hero appreciated it for its infrequent need for refueling. Sorry, I cannot remember the author or title. Search engines are frustratingly unhelpful; I wish I had the memory for books authors that Jo Walton does.

For Your Plot: A wood and fabric glider pushed to altitude by a gunpowder rocket would be huge fun, but (talk about your blaze of glory) highly flammable. A more modern version should be in every Omega Man’s toolkit. Just think of the grief Bill Masen could have avoided in Day of the Triffids if he could have just flown to the Isle of Man.


Nuclear Powered Aircraft: Just what it sounds like. The War in the Pacific made it abundantly clear to the American military that they needed a bomber with limitless range, and during the cold war, both sides tried to solve the problem with nuclear powered flight. Honest, I’m not making this up.  In the fifties, the Americans got as far as flying a converted B-36 bomber with a nuclear reactor on board. The reactor was not connected to the motors, the purpose of the test flights was to see if the lead-lined cockpit resulted in acceptable (read, survivable) levels of radiation for the crew. Jet engines powered by nuclear reactors were tested on the ground. This fascinating technology almost made it into production, but the ICBM offered an easier way to deliver nuclear weapons, and the program was shelved.


Tech Level: High. Cries out for Alternative History. Nuclear powered airship, anyone?

Appeared In: Nope, don’t think so.

For Your Plot: What if Werner Von Braun never gave the Nazi’s the V-2? Bombers would have remained at the forefront of military tech for at least a little longer. That’s all it would have taken. Imagine the civilian possibilities: non-stop flights from the US to Australia in the sixties. “Stewardesses” in lead-lined mini-skirts serving coffee laced with iodine to protect passengers against exposure. Come to think of it, airline coffee does taste funny…


Ornithopter: A machine that flies by flapping its wings. Seriously, it’s a thing. claims the first successful flight was made in 1942. To do it with mainstream technology such as drive-belts and cams is difficult. To really fly like a bird, you need muscles like a bird. Synthetic muscles are just emerging, although this Popular Mechanics article shows how they can be made from simple monofilament fishing line. We might get there yet.


See what those wingtips are doing? Think we’re ready to build a machine that can do that? Picture from a First Nations fishing camp, where this eagle was half tamed.

Tech Level: This is tricky. Flapping wings have been tried for centuries, and they’re only just beginning to work now. Not an easy fit for Near Future SF or Dieselpunk, they might be more at home in something with more of an Alien Worlds vibe.

Appeared In: Dune, by Frank Herbert. Ornithopters were in the book but not the movie, because even if you get the computer animation right, it still looks so weird that people won’t believe it. Jayne Barnard’s Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond.

For Your Plot: I think Mr. Herbert did it because he wanted Arrakis to look regressive and technologically divergent. For something completely different, we could go back in time and build a fake fire-breathing dragon and take over some nice castles. Better yet, let’s have a woman do it, and stand all that damsel in a tower stuff on its head.


Parachute: A lightweight fabric canopy intended to slow the descent of a falling human enough for safe(ish) landing. Originally conceived as an aerodynamic device that offered only drag, the parachute soon evolved. The addition of slits or vents to a simple dome allowed for steering and some forward speed. A revolution in design in the seventies saw the round parachute replaced by the square: this was a true airfoil–with a wing shape inflated by airflow– that offered much better control of the descent and landing.


Five-cell and seven-cell square parachutes

Tech Level: Ludicrously low. You need silk. Parachutes could have been sewn in the old Chinese dynasties. Then again, you need something to jump from. Balloons or kites would be the best technological match. Fits easily into anything from Stonepunk to Military SF.

Appeared In: The Perilous Descent by Bruce Carter. This was an adventure story about an airman who parachutes onto a deserted island and finds a passage to an underground civilization. [I read it as a child. I remember learning the word fortress. What is that, a girl fort? …good times.] Amazon lists used copies of the Puffin paperback starting at a penny, and look: there’s a parachute right on the cover!

For Your Plot: Not underground adventures, it’s been done. How about Sky Ninjas, or Mulan as a paratrooper? Lovely potential for having your main character drift off course, crash land or both.



Powered Paraglider: The paraglider was an evolution of the square parachute, with a higher aspect ratio (longer wing) to improve performance. It wasn’t long before some backyard inventor attached a lawn-mower engine and a small propeller to make it ground-launchable, and the powered paraglider, umm, took off. Probably the most portable flying machine ever.


Tech Level: Although this is a recent invention, and draws on fairly sophisticated aerodynamics, the construction of a paraglider could have been done during the Chinese dynasties. They didn’t have Rotax engines or propellers, but they did have rockets. Whee! File it under Time Travel, or use a modern version in your Post-Apocalyptic zombie vampire thing.

Appeared In: Sounds like Clive Cussler’s cup of tea. Anybody know of anything more definitively Spec Fic?

For Your Plot: Somewhat radar-stealthy, (“you can ignore that target, lieutenant, it’s just a 250 pound pelican”) but not quiet. On second thoughts, maybe don’t do the Post-Apocalyptic zombie vampire thing- Julie Kagawa got there first with her Blood of Eden series. She missed out on paragliders, but she got everything else!


Quadcopter or Quadrotor: More formally known as the quad-rotor helicopter, this kind of machine is best known in the form of those little camera-toting drones. Full-size quadcopters with human pilots on board can trace their roots back to around 1907. Regular single rotor helicopters have two basic problems: they want to spin around, and they want to tip over when they go forwards. The first comes from torque, and can be corrected with a tail rotor. The second comes from the advancing blade producing more lift than the retreating blade, and fancy moving parts offset this by varying the angle of the blade as it swings. Both problems go away if you use four rotors and rotate two of them in the opposite direction. I’d call it an elegant solution, but the machines usually look pretty ungainly. The Achilles’ heel of this design is the need to keep all four rotors precisely powered; a loss of lift in one corner would be disastrous.


Tech Level: Once again, the need for lightweight engines puts us at twentieth-century levels. Dieselpunk it is, with one magnificent exception: the Atlas Human-Powered Helicopter that took the AHS Sikorsky Prize was a quadcopter. It had four featherweight rotors the size of glider wings that turned very slowly. My favourite factoid about it? After the incredibly athletic pilot secured the prize with a flight of just over one minute, even his nerdiest teammates were able to get it airborne for a few seconds each.

Appeared In: Drawing a blank here. I thought I might find a quadcopter in my anime collection, because some of those artists like crazy aircraft as much as I do, but no such luck.

For Your Plot: One of those pizza-sized drones equipped with a tiny seat would be the perfect vehicle for Stuart Little. As for human-sized quadrotors, the machine has essentially the same strengths and weaknesses as a normal helicopter, so apart from a geek-chic vibe, I don’t know what it brings to your story.


Rotastat: A combination of rotary wing (helicopter) and aerostat (balloon). A conventional helicopter uses most of its power just to lift its own airframe, fuel and pilot. Not much is left for payload. What if we bolt a bunch of helicopters to an airship? The helium could support the weight of not just the airship, but the helicopter parts as well. Then 100% of the rotor thrust could go into hauling payload, and the whole craft could lower itself without the need for fooling around with ballast or venting gas. It’s been tried, but a 1986 attempt called Helistat failed when one of the altered helicopters broke free of the framework, and the whole contraption tore itself to pieces.


The Helistat used four Sikorski S58 helicopters, each with an empty weight 7900lbs, and a max gross of 14000. They were lightened by removing the tails. Also one ZPN-2 navy blimp: 1,000,000 cu ft. It had a crew of fourteen for navy use.

Cyclo-Crane. Flying football with four stalks from a central axle, and a control cab slung from the axle ends. Motors and propellers spin the whole gas-bag, with the stalks acting like a giant propeller to provide thrust, and the wings at the end of the stalks doubling the static lift when loaded, or negating it when empty.


Tech Level: Lower than you might think. The lifting power of helium (or hydrogen, for the fearless) can support a lot of weight if the airship is big enough. Power to weight ratio is less important than in other forms of powered flight. I say it’s Steampunk, or perhaps Solarpunk.

Appeared In: Well, not exactly, but Jules Verne wrote Robur the Conqueror and its sequel, Master of the World. Both books featured a multi-rotor flying machine that did not use any lifting gases.

For Your Plot: If you’d like to steal something large and heavy, like the Statue of Liberty, (225 tons) you’re going to want a Rotastat. Just don’t count on a speedy getaway.


Ski Plane: An ordinary airplane equipped with skis to land on snow or ice. Still fairly common in Canada, where I flew a few hundred hours in small bush plane variants, they must be somewhat exotic in Australia or Brazil. Nowadays, wheel-skis are more common than “straight boards,” because they offer the option of landing on dry runways with the skis raised, or on frozen lakes with the skis lowered. Kenn Borek Air, a Calgary based company that flies extensively in Antarctica has nice pictures of Twin Otters and Turbine DC-3s on skis. Even larger aircraft can be converted, up to and including the C-130 Hercules.

Tech Level: Depends more on the plane than the skis. Let’s say Dieselpunk.

Appeared In: I know I read a fictional account about a woman flying a Herc on skis on a rescue mission that involved landing and taking off in deep snow. It wasn’t really Spec Fic, but if anyone remembers the title or author, I’d love to know.

For Your Plot: Getting stuck in slush is every ski plane pilot’s nightmare. Daylight doesn’t last long in the winter, and the situation will worsen as temperatures fall overnight. It is also possible to break through the ice of a frozen lake or river if the current has worn the ice thin. Other hazards include blizzards and whiteouts.



Steam powered aircraft: The first powered aircraft to fly successfully was a steam-powered dirigible: Giffard, 1852. As mentioned before, lighter-than-air craft can carry a heavier powerplant than an airplane or helicopter, because power to weight ratios are not critical. However, a steam powered airplane is (just barely) feasible.


Tech Level: Steampunk, duh!

Appeared In: Sean McMullen’s “Steamgothic,” a short story in his Ghosts of Engines Past anthology. If you’ve been enjoying this glossary, you should check it out. An award winning Australian author, Sean was one of the first in the Steampunk field.

For Your Plot: All the hazards of fringe aviation with the added benefit of lightweight boilers. I have to say I’m drawn in by the potential for a romance between a stoker on an airship’s soot-covered “black gang” and a bridge officer striving to become the first female airship captain.


Tiltrotor: An aircraft that takes off vertically like a helicopter, then rotates its two giant propellers to fly horizontally like an airplane. The concept dates from the 1930s, but the first successful prototypes didn’t fly until the 1950s. Here’s a link to a YouTube clip promoting the military Bell V-22 Osprey, because a video is worth a thousand words.


Tiltwing: Same idea, but on this variant, the entire wing rotates, not just the engine nacelles. Orienting the wing vertically for take-off reduces drag and allows for better climb performance in VTOL mode, but adds complexity and weight. I’m going to use the term tiltrotor to include both kinds.

Both formats have a size limitation that is probably insurmountable. You can only make rotors so big, so we’re not likely to see a tiltrotor much bigger than a bus. Trying to build one with more than two rotors just gets crazy.

Tech Level: High, as it works best if you have both turbine engines and computers for flight control. Best genre fit: Military or Near Future SF. Also a good choice for post-apocalyptic recovery, where humans retain a few hubs of technology and work to rescue survivors from isolated pockets.

Appeared In: The cyberpunk anime movie Ghost in the Shell and the anime series Read or Die both used tiltrotors in urban environments. The cartoon Martin Mystery (half Canadian, eh!) employed a ducted tiltrotor in wilderness settings. I think what makes the tiltrotor a favourite with animators is that it’s easier to show than tell. Where a written description of the machine’s transition from vertical to horizontal flight would be cumbersome, animation makes it instantly understandable. Also Avatar, although those ducted tiltrotors had little or no fixed wing.

For Your Plot: Vertical Take-Off is very handy for getting around without infrastructure like runways. That makes tiltrotors a natural for exploring or colonizing new worlds. Take your heroes swiftly to unexplored parts of the planet, and drop them into the places where the planetary survey charts say, “Here be dragons!”


Ultralight: A minimalist aircraft with a weight of roughly a thousand pounds or less. The United States Ultralight Association has photographs of a variety of designs. Descended from hang gliders, ultralights and microlights typically have tubular aluminum frames, fabric covered wings and open seating rather than an enclosed cockpits. They are not built for speed or comfort, but they will put a grin on your face. Rules vary from country to country, but they are generally less stringently regulated than conventional airplanes. Canadian authorities register them in a separate class; American regulations don’t require them to be registered at all.  The Wright brothers would have given their teeth for one of these, or even a good look at one.

Tech Level: Fairly low, in that advanced metalworking is not required, but you do need a lightweight engine, so Dieselpunk as a starting point, with great Post-Apocalyptic potential. Human-powered ultralights are possible, which gets us off the hook for a lightweight power plant, but the tech level rises towards composite materials in other areas because of the need for a very light and efficient airframe, transmission and propeller.

Appeared In: Emergence, by David R. Palmer (1984). After a biowarfare apocalypse, a young girl discovers she is evolved beyond ordinary humans, learns to fly an ultralight, and sets out to find more of her kind.  Note: when I went looking for this book online, paperback editions were mainly listed for $130 and up, with some premium copies priced at over $4000.

For Your Plot: Yay! Your hero can teach himself to fly an ultralight by trial and error. While being pursued by dystopian slavers on dirt-bikes. Through the radioactive badlands, because he’ll need some rough terrain to outrun a motorcycle. And he’ll have to turn the tables on one of those bikers if he wants to refuel.



Vacuum Airship: A theoretical kind of aerostat, or lighter-than-air flying machine. Except this one, instead of displacing air with a lighter lifting gas such as helium, has a rigid hull “filled with vacuum.” Okay, that’s a silly way of putting it. The air is pumped out while the hull retains its volume. Just in case you think the A to Z Challenge has driven me crazy and I’ve become so desperate at the tail end of the alphabet that I’ve started making stuff up, here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. Naturally, a nylon or silk envelope would simply collapse, so you need something really light and strong to make a rigid vessel out of. Titanium probably couldn’t do it. Futuristic materials such as graphene might work, but what you really want is an airtight force-field. Then you build a keel with a control cab and some propellers, and just create an air-displacing vacuum volume hull above you as you go. Big load? Crank up the volume. Between cargo-hauls? Shrink it down to a streamlined shape just big enough to support the permanent mechanical parts and fly fast to your next job. For extra points, shape the vacuum hull to generate lift: an airship that does this is called a dynastat. With force-field tech, you could alter the shape of the dynastat on the fly for optimal efficiency and as you sped up and increased aerodynamic lift, you could actually shrink the vacuum hull down a little. I want one.


Tech Level: Extremely high. Might work as Solarpunk. Best suited to Far Future or Space Opera.

Appeared In: Nothing that I know of. Illuminate me.

For Your Plot: On the plus side, it would be adjustable to fly on almost any planet with an atmosphere, so it would make a great scout ship for your intrepid team of exoplanet explorers. On the minus side, a power failure would be a downer.


Wingsuit: A parachutist’s jumpsuit with wings comparable to a flying squirrel’s. As early as the 1970s, some skydivers used “swoop cords” to tauten their jumpsuit from wrist to ankle, increasing their surface area and reducing their terminal velocity. The wingsuit takes this idea and runs with it. Wingsuits don’t have a very good glide ratio, but they do make lateral progress. Thrillseekers push it to the limit by flying down mountainsides. A parachute is usually used for a safe landing, but there is a video of one guy landing unhurt on a gigantic pile of cardboard boxes, so it’s only a matter of time.


Tech Level: Low, actually. Like parachutes, all you really need are fabric, a needle and thread. Fatally steep learning curve for the early adopters, though. The wingsuit is suitable for pre-industrial genres like Clockpunk, Time Travel and Alternate History, and it could also be at home in Military SF or Space Opera.

Appeared In: Umm, Rocky and Bullwinkle? And don’t try to say that Rocky was a real flying squirrel- he was a talking cartoon flying squirrel. That’s fiction. And speculative. Not good enough? How about The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie in the lead role? An awesome opening sequence shows him streaking down through the atmosphere to crash into a lake.

For Your Plot: Thrilling scenes where your hero has only seconds to choose a tolerable landing zone. Plenty of potential for death. How about a chase scene?


X-Planes: Experimental aircraft tested by US government bodies like NACA, (which later became NASA) and the US Air Force. There have been over fifty X-planes. Wikipedia has a full list, but here are some of the more notable ones:

X-1 was the first plane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight, with Chuck Yeager at the controls in 1946.

X-2 was first to exceed Mach 3 in 1952.

X-6 would have been the nuclear-powered bomber, if it had flown on reactor power. Instead, the program was cancelled in 1957.

X-13 was a VTOL jet that stood on its tail: 1955

X-14 was a VTOL jet that used vectored thrust instead: 1957

X-15 Exceeded Mach 6 and achieved spaceflight by reaching an altitude of more than 100 kilometers in 1963.

X-18 was a tiltwing: 1959

X-19 was a tandem tiltrotor (a tiltrotor and a quadrotor!): 1963

X-22 was a ducted fan quadrotor/tiltrotor in 1966.

X-49 was a gyrodyne, a helicopter with a (ducted pusher) propeller to go faster: 2007

Other X-planes had swing-wings, forward swept wings, no wings, rotors, lifting bodies, ramjets and scramjets. There are lots of different ways to get something into the air. Some of them have to be seen to be believed, and in a few cases, even a photograph leaves me wondering, “could that thing really fly?”

Tech Level: Mostly high to very high, although there’s an autogyro and a sailplane on the list. Genre-wise, it’s a mixed bag, with lots of candidates for Military SF and a few that best belong in Alternate History.

Appeared In: Spaceplanes have been a stock SF item since before they existed. Other machines on the X-plane list have probably not found a home in Spec Fic. Yet.

For Your Plot: I think some of the weirder classes of aircraft on this list could lend a nice twist to worldbuilding. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about Alternative Aviation in general.


Young Pilots: Up to now, I’ve focused on unusual aircraft, and taken the pilots for granted. As you do. However, there’s one class of pilot that I feel deserves special mention: children. Kids can do amazing things, and aviation is not excluded. Probably the most famous juvenile aviator was Vicki Van Meter, who started flying when she was ten, and began racking up records at eleven, when she became the youngest pilot to fly across America in 1993. She crossed the Atlantic the next year at the age of twelve. The Guinness book people subsequently closed all their categories for youngest pilots on the grounds of undesirable risk. Even so, attempts were made, and not everyone was lucky. Infamously, Jessica Dubroff died in a crash at the age of seven. At the time, her instructor was at the controls, but Jessica had received over thirty hours of flight training. After her accident, a law was enacted to prohibit underage trainees (that is, kids too young to hold a pilot’s licence or student pilot permit) from making record attempts. More recently, Haris Suleman, a seventeen year old with a freshly issued pilot licence, but perhaps as much as nine years of experience, died while attempting to fly around the world for charity. I don’t think the problem is the youth of the pilots. I think it has more to do with the pressure of trying to make challenging flights to set records, with inexperience as a contributing factor.

Tech Level: Some aircraft are much easier to fly than others, and the simplest ones are not likely to be the ugly ducklings I’ve been featuring in this glossary. Basic training aircraft work best for this sort of thing. For genre fiction, let’s say Young Adult and Middle Grade.

Appeared In: I’ve already mentioned Emergence, by David R. Palmer, which features protagonist Candida Maria Smith-Foster as the eleven year old pilot of an ultralight. In Windhaven, by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle, Flyers come of age and take their parent’s strap-on wings at the age of thirteen. I researched this topic for my own SF novel, in which glider pilots have to be light, and girls are recruited at fourteen or so. Release of Avians is scheduled for 2017.

For Your Plot: All the thrills of alternative aviation, plus the added risks that come with inexperience. There’s an old saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Reverse engineer that, if you like.


Zeppelin: Properly, Zeppelin is a trade name of the company of the same name. However, their brand has become somewhat genericized, and is often used to refer to rigid airships of the kind they pioneered, even if built by someone else. Historically, Zeppelin not only built the two largest airships ever, the hydrogen-filled Hindenberg and Graf Zeppelin II, they also partnered with Goodyear to build the two largest helium-filled airships in history, the USS Macon and USS Akron. All in all, Zeppelin constructed 130 airships, and a successor company, Zeppelin NT is still building airships in the twenty-first century. Fun footnote: the first airline (yes, the first airline ever) was DELAG, and they began passenger service with Zeppelin airships in 1910.


ZR stands for Zeppelin Reparation: As part of the terms of the treaty ending World War I, Zeppelin built LZ-126 and gave it to the American government for research.

Tech Level: The first powered flight was made in a steam-powered dirigible in 1852, although the vessel could barely cope with a light breeze. Big rigid airships are a staple of Steampunk, although actual Zeppelins, at least the later ones, had diesel engines, so on technical grounds would more accurately fall into Dieselpunk. However, one reason airships are often featured in Steampunk has to do with their individuality. Like ocean liners, airships were one-offs, rather than mass-produced like, say, Boeing airliners. For more on the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk, see this blog post by my dieselpunk writing friend, Lindsay Kitson, or this one by Jason Sheehan. With airships, bigger is better: as they grow, their volume (and therefore lifting ability) rises sharply. A very large airship could carry such massive items as steam engines and coal for a long journey, or solar cells and huge batteries to fly at night, so both steampunk and solarpunk are possible.

Appeared In: Brand-name Zeppelins made multiple appearances in Indiana Jones movies. The Golden Compass, and many other Steampunk works, featured rigid airships of similar design.

For Your Plot: Rigid airships have bad history with thunderstorms, and early airships had unheated passenger cabins that were freezing cold due to the altitude. There must be a plot development or two there. Otherwise, airships are a grand way to factor aviation into alternative world-building, and you don’t have to stick with neo-Victorian.