The company had invited me back. This time, I’d be sampling their aggressor birds, ex-Imperial craft that were used primarily to provide dissimilar craft training for client contracts, but also led a second life teaching pilots the ins and outs of these lethal craft.
First up was the standard bearer of the Imperial Fleet, the TIE Fighter. Nicknamed “Eyeball” by Rebel/Resistance pilots, the scream of its twin ion engines was known throughout the galaxy. Produced in massive quantities, it could still be found equipping backwater garrisons, forming the basis of various ugly hybrids, and in the hands of private militias and collectors.
While not produced with hyperdrives, life support, beams, or shield systems, various field modifications adding some or all of these systems were also common. However, without an upgraded reactor, performance suffered with these modifications. Provision for mounting warhead launchers was standard, and since these did not degrade the flight envelope, they were fitted often enough in Imperial service that their presence could never be discounted.
The cheap, spare design was completely intentional. It made it possible to mass produce the fighters with low-skilled conscript labor forces, and minimally trained pilots flying their expendable ships were a core Imperial doctrine during the rule of Emperor Palpitane. No hyperdrive meant those same pilots would be unable to escape during deployments.
Entering the TIE Fighter was an experience unto itself. Unlike Alliance snub fighters which were designed with landing gear, TIEs were designed to sit in racks and be launched via an external controller. While the wing panels were reinforced to allow them to be used as landing skids, this was largely an emergency-only procedure, save in some ground-based garrison locations. As such, ingress required the assistance of a crew chief to help me get into position, and ensure that my life support systems were properly connected.
Once inside, visibility was appalling. The huge front window gave excellent forward visibility, but everything else was only visible through monitors connected to external cameras. Beam and warhead warning systems provided some threat detection, but pilots lost a lot of their situational awareness by not being able to see behind them.
Start-up was quick, with the twin Ion Engines providing their characteristic shriek as soon as they were throttled up. We cruised out of the traffic pattern at half power, then throttled up the engines up into a scream to clear into the practice area. Through all this, the cockpit was surprisingly quiet. The engine scream reverberated throughout the hull, but the lack of cockpit air provided a significant deadening effect despite the lack of sound deadening. I found the seating position significantly less comfortable than Alliance fighters, however, likely another artifact of a ship designed for short range use.
In actual combat testing, the TIE Fighter’s biggest advantage was the close grouping of its dual laser cannons. Much like the Y-Wing, the close grouping maximized hits when dual linked. The Eyeball’s legendary maneuverability failed to live up to expectations though. Only slightly better in turning than the X-Wing, the TIE managed only the same max speed while being unshielded and vulnerable. While it was certainly a superior fighter to the Y-Wing or Z-95 Headhunter, it was clearly outclassed against later Alliance craft, and only its massive production quantities and overwhelming numerical advantages had kept it somewhat relevant.
After returning to base, being helped out of the cockpit by the crew chief, and finally taking off the bulky environmental suit, I mainly felt sympathy for the beings who’d been required to fly these things for the Empire on a regular basis. Every design element seemed to emphasize that the pilot was merely an expendable cog in a massive machine, as mass-produced and replaceable as a Stormtrooper’s blaster, and equally lacking in individual agency. And unlike me, who had a comfortable bed and personal ship to be able to return to, regular TIE pilots had no such luxury. Life in an Imperial squadron or garrison was even more soul-sucking and regimented than flight-ops could ever be.