Some of the hottest hot-shot pilots in space opera are women. It's a longstanding tradition in science fiction to show women taking the controls of starships, space fighters and star-cruisers, and here are our favorite badass female cockpit jockeys.
Even as more women are becoming astronauts and getting to pilot the space shuttle, science fiction has shown tons of women taking the helm. Here are some of the most awesome, in no particular order:
Lady Sharrow in Against A Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
We don't get to see combat specialist Sharrow doing that much piloting in this book — but when she does take the controls, she makes it count. The one sequence where she does some fancy flying is one of the best moments in the book.
Carolyn Fry from Pitch Black.
I don't know how I managed to forget her — I actually had her on my list, and had grabbed this cool pic of her in advance. She manages to bring a dead ship down in spite of incredible odds — and sure, she tries to jettison her passengers. But she's just being sensible, after all.
Sue Parsons from Virtuality
As with Sharrow, Sue Parsons spends most of her screen time doing other things — mostly, like all the other characters on this show, bickering and freaking out about virtual reality nightmares. But when she does actually get to handle the Starship Phaeton's controls — watch out. She does an incredibly complex series of maneuvers while giant bombs are going off in her wake. Makes all the drama totally worth it.
Jenna, from Blake's 7.
This smuggler is the best pilot around — there's no competition, except maybe that arrogant twerp Del Tarrant. Jenna manages to take the controls of the Liberator, the most super-advanced ship in space, and master them almost immediately. And she's able to take it on manual and do some fancy flying, on occasion.
Saint-Emxin from Battle Beyond The Stars.
She's a mean Valkyrie fighter pilot, who more than holds her own in the movie's crucial Star Wars-inspired firefights. Han Solo not only couldn't pull off her headgear, he also couldn't outfly her. (I almost included Padme Amidala in this list, since she pilots a ship in Attack Of The Clones — but could Amidala really hold her own against Saint-Exmin? I think not.)
Tak from Invader Zim.
The "hideous new girl" shows up hoping to do a better job of invading Earth than Zim, and she has the ability to hypnotize humans into doing her bidding — but she also pilots her own ship.
Faye from Cowboy Bebop
Faye is an awesome fighter pilot, and even held her own in a dogfight with Spike. Runner-up status also goes to space trucker V.T., aka Victoria Terpsichore.
Carol "Foe Hammer" Rawley in Halo.
She does some pretty nifty flying as the pilot of Pelican transport Echo 419 on the UNSC Pillar of Autumn. She specializes in doing lots of missions involving hostile insertions and rescues, making her stand out from the rest.
Ana Khouri in Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds.
This assassin joins the crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity, intent on killing one of the crewmembers, but then two different digital entities fight over control of her, and thus of the ship. Also a killer pilot is the ship's de facto captain, Illia Volyova.
Mary Raven from Ignition City.
This grounded space pilot journeys to Earth's last spaceport, Ignition City, to find out what happened to her dad, in this new comic by Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarani. Space-jockey Mary Raven is determined to find out what happened to her dad, and she won't leave Ignition City until she gets some answers.
Lt. Shane Vansen from Space: Above And Beyond.
According to this site, she's "one of Earth's most celebrated pilots," piloting the SA-43 Hammerhead space fighter into battle.
Corp. Ferro in Aliens.
Okay, sure, she gets killed after speaking only a couple lines of dialogue. But she has cool sunglasses, and she manages to put the ship down through a lot of turbulence.
Carmen Ibanez in Starship Troopers.
Many of the badass pilots in this movie are women, and Carmen (Denise Richards) is the most memorable of them. She's a pilot in the SICON fleet, who pilots the drop ship, and even helps on the ground when things get rough.
Col. Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers In The 25th Century.
She doesn't just look good in a slinky jumpsuit, or boogieing next to Buck — Wilma's an ace fighter pilot in her own right, and a lot of episodes see her flying off solo to deal with the bikini-clad menace of the week.
Aeryn Sun in Farscape.
She's a formidable fighter generally, but she's also a former Peacekeeper pilot, and some of her best moments involve her taking the helm of a ship — like the season two finale, when Crichton is flying away with Scorpius' mind controlling him, and Aeryn chases after him in her own ship.
Yoninne Leg-Wot from The Witling by Vernor Vinge.
We don't actually get to see much of her piloting skills, since she and her companion Ajao Bjault get stranded on the planet full of telekinetic aliens early on. But she does turn out to be resourceful, and despite being unattractive by Earth standards, she helps win over the "witling" of the story's title, Prince Pelio.
River in Serenity.
Okay, so Serenity's real pilot is, and always will be, Wash. But you can tell, at the end of the movie, that River is gearing up to be a pretty great pilot in her own right. And in the series of movie sequels that unspool in my daydreams from time to time, she's piloting the ship all the time.
Manda in Burning The Ice by Laura J. Mixon.
Manda CarliPablo's stigmatized because she's the only colonist on a barren gas giant who's not a twin or triplet — her other clones died before they were "born" — but her isolation turns out to be a good thing, as she becomes the best pilot in the colony and explores the unexplored regions of this new world — discovering an alien race along the way.
Turanga Leela from Futurama.
Despite being captain, she's also always ready to take the helm of the Planet Express ship, and her lack of three-dimensional vision doesn't seem to interfere with her amazing piloting skills.
Jaina Solo from the Star Wars expanded universe.
The daughter of Han Solo and Princess Leia didn't just inherit her mom's Force powers — she also became a kick-ass pilot, like her dad. She flew the Millenium Falcon on a few occasions. When she got caught flying the Merry Miner, an unarmed mining ship, during the Yuuzhan Vong war, she managed to dodge the aliens' attacks until help arrived. And then she became one of the New Republic's most valued starfighter pilots.
Captain Beka Valentine from Andromeda.
Thanks to everyone who suggested adding her — Beka Valentine is, among other things, the Andromeda's first officer and pilot, taking advantage of her better-than-human reaction times and strength.
Tanni from Mutineer's Moon by David Weber
Here's the key sequence:
"And," MacMahan added gently, "Tanni will be your pilot."
"Tanni will be your pilot," MacMahan repeated mildly. "I'm speaking now as the commander of a military operation, and I don't have time to be diplomatic, so both of you just shut up and listen... we can't afford anything but our very best pilot behind those controls. You're good, Colin, and your reaction time is phenomenal even by Imperial standards, but good as you are, you have very little experience in an Imperial fighter.
Tanni, on the other hand, is a natural pilot and the youngest of our Imperials, with reaction time almost as good as yours but far, far more experience. The overall mission will be under your command, but she's your pilot and you're her electronics officer, or neither of you goes."
Kathryn Fairly in Space Camp.
A group of teenagers get to go aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis during a test-firing of its engines. But the mean android named Jinx decides to — what else — jinx them by making the space shuttle blast off for real. They're stuck in orbit, without enough oxygen to get home. And Kathryn (Lea Thompson), who was struggling with the "multi-axis trainer" that's required for shuttle pilots, manages to ace the real-life situation that simulator creates: a flat spin after the shuttle's reorbit burn. She brings that bird down safe and proves she's an awesome pilot.
Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica.
As I said before, these are in no particular order — but if they were, Starbuck would be #1 in any list. She's clearly the best pilot among Battlestar's flyboys and -girls. Adama always refers to her as his best pilot, and she pushes herself harder than anyone else. Kat may have tried to challenge Starbuck's impressive kill rate, but she never really had a hope.
Additional reporting by Alexis Brown. Special thanks to Pete Gofton, Brian Williams, Erin Souza, Ira Wile, Jordan Hoffman, Austin Grossman, Ekaterina Sedia, and @soapboxx on Twitter.