Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Rapiers All in One Place (July 24, 2021)


Space Marshal
ChrisReid: While looking up links associated with the Rapier for a couple of news posts this past week, I notice we'd never taken LOAF's massive research on the ship and turned it into a singular article. It's a huge amount of info, so buckle your seatbelts and hang on! Here's LOAF with everything you ever wanted to know about the Rapier:

LOAF: The Rapier fighters in the Wing Commander movie were constructed from the cockpits of eight F.53 English Electric Lightning jets. I decided to read up on their history and it turns out they're part of a group of 34 ordered by the Saudi Royal Air Force in 1965!

One of these Lightnings crashed during its test flight; to replace it, BAC produced an extra plane using end-of-line parts. It was the last Lightning ever constructed and it became the Rapier flown by Freddie Prinze Jr's Lieutenant Blair!

The Lightnings flew ground attack missions against Yemen in 1970. In 1985, BAC bought back the 18 remaining flyable planes as part of a deal to sell Saudi Arabia the Lightning. They returned to England and were offered for sale used to other countries; there was little interest. BAC eventually made the unwanted Lightnings available cheaply as museum displays and gate guardians. Seven of them eventually went on display around the UK (sometimes repainted as an RAF F.6 Lightning.). An aviation enthusiast named Wensley Haydon-Baillie saved the remaining eleven from the scrapyard. He had become wealthy running a drug company which seemed to be on the verge of a cure for Herpes.. Unfortunately, the drug didn't work out and Mr. Haydon-Baillie was forced to sell his aircraft collection. The Lightnings went to a salvage company in Portsmouth in the mid-1990s. Luckily, the operator couldn't bring himself to destroy these classic aircraft!

Meanwhile, Wing Commander IV was wrapping up and Origin Systems was finally talking at making the long-talked-about Wing Commander movie a reality. Chris and his team started to put together a short demo to show how it would work. While the project was still at Origin (and the ships were still called Sabres) a series of painted storyboards for this test was put together. The first plan was to do completely CGI spacecraft, which was a tall order for 1996.

When Chris Roberts left to start Digital Anvil, Electronic Arts granted him the Wing Commander movie rights and work on the pitch continued at the new company. The demo premiered at SXSW in 1997 using a game-inspired Rapier built by artist Dean McCall:

FOX was impressed enough to finance the movie with a comparatively small budget. The first pass at the Rapier was done by Ron Cobb, probably best known for Alien's Nostromo.

The Cobb design was discarded as the original plan (building a full practical spacecraft like the X-Wing in a New Hope) for non-CGI shots ran into limitations of budget and technology. But what the production lacked in budget it made up for in talent behind the camera! Production designer Peter Lamont, fresh off of an Academy Award win for Titanic, created a lived-in, industrial world using salvaged equipment.

And that's where our stories meet! The production purchased eight of the ex-Saudi Lightnings' cockpits from Marine Salvage (plus a Canberra bomber nose for the Broadsword cockpit) and flew them to Luxembourg.

Contrary to popular belief, the production didn't cut aircraft to pieces (with one exception); the Rapiers are built on top of the cockpits which were designed to detach from the fuselage and wings.

Not all eight cockpits were modified. Some became full Rapiers for flight deck shots, some were mounted on motion rigs for spaceflight and one (ZF587) WAS cut in half down the windscreen for closeup shots of the pilots.

The team measured and photographed the physical spacecraft carefully to create 3D models for the VFX shots.

Compare two shots of the physical Rapier with two using 3D models. To my mind, that's pretty darned impressive for 1998! (Think of watching Wing Commander today versus The Phantom Menace, which was released six weeks later with ten times the budget.)

My next question was: what happened to the eight Wing Commander Lightnings? After principal photography finished, several were moved to Pinewood Studios in London for pickup shots. These were later returned to Marine Salvage to be resold, some still kitted out as Rapiers. Three most likely remained 'abandoned in place' in the Luxembourg warehouse that was the Tiger Claw flight deck. They and a number of other Wing Commander props appear in the 2004 Dolph Lundgren movie "Retrograde" which was shot in the same space!

In 2009, an urban explorer named Spako sneaked into the warehouse and took a beautiful HDR photo of one of the planes. She reported there were two others, one of which was not a full conversion.

Of the Rapiers that went back to England: Lightning ZF579 was only slightly modified for the film and was purchased by Gatwick Aviation Museum, where it was reunited with its fuselage and wings. It's on display there today!

ZF587, the plane that was sliced in half, was restored and is now on display at the Lashenden Air Warfare Museum! You can still see the scar:

Several suffered a more ignominious fate. ZF589 (Blair's Rapier) spent a short time in a Scottish science fiction museum and was then sold to a paintball arena! Where it spent several years as a target/spaceship.

It was recently rescued and is currently being painstakingly restored (as a Lightning.) You can follow that process on Facebook!:

Lightning ZF590 is exactly the same story: it spent years as a paintball target and was purchased and restored by a private citizen. It's privately owned today and is visible in storage at Bruntingthorpe Airfield in Leicestershire.

That's where the trail goes a little colder! Three are MIA. One pops up at a possibly-now-defunct lasertag arena outside London. It was last seen still in Rapier form in 2015, current whereabouts unknown!

One more was last seen across the pond: it was the centerpiece of a Planet Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio until it closed in 2001. I've reached out to Planet Hollywood to see if they know what became of it!

Ooh, and here's the final version's concept art I forgot to include earlier. You can see how they initially expected the additional superstructure to be more apparent!

Let me add a little about the fictional ship! Here's the Joan's Fighting Ships entry from The Confederation Handbook, which is kind of like the manual for the movie! Star Citizen fans may recognize the Rapier's designation :)

You can see that in-fiction, the huge cannon is supposed to be a neutron gun. Kind of an odd choice! The rotary slug thrower aesthetic carried over into Chris Roberts' next game, StarLancer... and you can still see it on ships in Star Citizen today!

Jumping back in time a little, I mentioned earlier the Rapier was originally the SABRE. You can read that first draft of the script here. The Sabre was the Confederation's heavy attack fighter in Wing Commander II. It's the ship you fly for the final missions of the game. It had a crew of two, with a rear turret gunner (that you could also switch to control.)

As an aside, I only just learned [back in 2018] that one of the background ships in Wing Commander Academy (the Saturday morning cartoon) was intended to be the Sabre! Thanks to this storyboard:

Chris Roberts did the first rewrite of the script for Wing Commander and in the process changed SABRE to RAPIER. You can find that script here. The original Rapier was the 'hero' ship in Wing Commander I. It's the Confederation's brand new badass dogfighter that you finish the game in. The 2D concept art was by Glen Johnson and the 3D model by outsourcer Mary Bellis working on an Amiga.

The Rapier shows up again in Wing Commander II as a neat narrative trick to show the passage of time (intended to be ten years.) Now it's the 'average' fighter, missing the bells and whistles of the others! It's said to be the G model.

The original F-44A Rapier got a super sexy reboot look for Super Wing Commander. The design was used heavily in the new cutscenes (including the intro.)

We should also be honest with ourselves and give the 1982 Clint Eastwood movie Firefox a... little... credit for the design (another reason not to stick closely to it for the move to the big screen!)

The Rapier and (the Sabre) figure prominently in most of the Baen Wing Commander novels. Author William Forstchen was a military historian who liked to spin gems into the lore; thus was born things like the Sabre-D model intended for the shorter runways on escort carriers! The last Baen novel, False Colors, even follows a squadron from a smaller country flying the export model Rapier just after the Kilrathi war. Just like the export model Lightnings that would eventually become Rapiers!

Wing Commander Arena for Xbox Live Arcade brought back the Rapier in three flavors! The artists referenced the original and the Super Wing Commander designs.

Embarrassing background: I chose the eight ship types used in Wing Commander Arena. I was asked what the four best known ships were for each faction... if I'd known we would go on to set the game in 2701 I'd have lied!

(Arena was a very weird time in Wing Commander history, but I don't regret it!) I accidentally boned one other piece of Rapier-related Wing Commander lore, too, the story of which I will now share to end this thread! In lore, the Rapiers in the Wing Commander movie (which is set in March 2654) are very old. The ships are clearly beat to death and you can see in the Joan's entry above the design is said to be a century old. But in Wing Commander I, which starts in April 2654, the Rapier is BRAND NEW. There is a mission where you literally fly the prototype on its first combat test (historically the mission is flown by Spirit and Angel.). Superfans explain this by referencing the Kilrathi Saga manual which for whatever reason renames the Rapier-G from Wing Commander II the "Rapier II." Wing Commander uses USAF-style designations where a trailing Roman numeral indicates an entirely different design. P-47 vs. A-10. Ergo, in the future WC universe the two Rapiers must be totally different ship designs. The CF-117 Rapier retires and is immediately replaced by the F-44 Rapier. Clunky as heck, but it lets you sleep at night when you're a crazy fanboy (I'm talking about me and no one else.)

How did I mess this up even further? As part of the movie's licensing deal, a series of 'movie books' were written by author Peter Telep (better known today as the co-writer of several Tom Clancey books!) These started with an adaptation of the film.

When you write a movie adaptation, it has to be published the same time the movie comes out. So you can't actually watch anything, you have to work in parallel from the script and possibly some early production concepts. As a result, novelizations of movies (or things like Star Trek pilots!) can vary wildly from what you see on the screen. That surely happened with Wing Commander, which includes all the traitor and Merlin scenes dropped when the film was in post.

Mr. Telep is a wonderful man and he does very thorough research, even for a video game movie adaptation. He reached out to me through my fan site at the time and asked if I could provide him with background about the WC universe. I was fifteen or so at the time and thought I'd handed responsibility for the fate of the universe. I sent him copies of the games and he sent me a list of proper nouns. He couldn't share the script, but could I provide background on these things referenced in it? So I happily wrote up every single fact I could think of about RAPIERS, DRALTHI, KRANT, ANGEL, the TIGER'S CLAW and so on. I made him exhaustive lists of ships and Kilrathi language references and maps of how known space was laid out. But all I knew was the game, I had no idea what they were doing with the movie. I didn't know the Rapier was old and neither did Peter... so instead of the CF-117b, the book features the brand new F-44A described just as it is in Wing Commander I (straight from my notes.)

The first sequel novel, Pilgrim Stars, includes an explanation that just adds another layer of trouble: "[Blair] surveyed his instruments, noting a few differences between his present fighter, the CF-117b Rapier, and the old F44-A he had flown only three days prior..." "The new model had increased missile capacity to ten guided or dumbfire missiles and packed a second generation nose-mounted rotary-barrel neutron gun that allowed for longer continuous neutron fire."

If you're still here, thank you very much and I'm very sorry about inadvertently making starfighter lore a little bit more confusing.

Unfortunately, HarperCollins killed the line before the third, already-finished novel was published. But if you'd like you can read the uncorrected galley here (a longtime grail of mine!).

One more fun one -- a comparison of four Rapier cockpit designs! Wing Commander (1990), Wing Commander II (1991), Super Wing Commander (1994) and Wing Commander (1999):

MORE NEAT STUFF! The Rapier props in the movie have some incredible details that you barely get to see. Many of the markings are based on World War II carrier planes. Look for grids of kill markings based on the Japanese flags you would see on a Hellcat or Corsair ace's plane.

Each one also has a name and rank like a modern jet fighter, an identification number, a small piece of nose art and various warning signs.

That's the Terran Confederation Space Force logo on the left, too! And here's a Flight School variation on Blair's pilot evaluation (the text quietly includes the events of the first episode of Wing Commander Academy!)

The ID numbers are also based on vintage USN carrier planes. The Rapiers do lack the tail markings which identify which aircraft carrier a particular plane belongs to. (Maybe the Tiger Claw works alone!)

What numbers do we see? Bossman/Blair is 18, Rosie is 59, Maniac is 64 and Angel is 69 (hah?) The numbers were simple stickers and could be swapped easily. We also see 13, 21, 65 and 72 in various places (and maybe others.)

Here's a closeup of the kill markers! The shooting script makes a bigger deal of the kill markings. Blair specifically notes that Bossman and Angel both have 26 at various points. You can read the shooting script here.

Closeup of the TCSF wings, thanks to AD.

One little mistake: this shot is used twice during the big scramble in act two, mirrored the second time! I guess that's Rapier टმ. :)

Wow, those look cool lined up. Here's a page showing the different nose art for the different characters (Knight flew a Broadsword.) Bossman's art is the squadron logo with his name over it. And who knew Rosie's callsign was SASSY?!

Rarely noticed: the Rapier control surfaces are LUXURIOUS. They're so good you assume they're just stock Lightning controls. They aren't! Chris smartly had a second unit shoot lots of footage of just the controls in use which appear throughout the film.

And that's the end of our story for now! I'm passionate about aircraft preservation but I do hope one of these somehow remains a Rapier. Here's a spreadsheet I made as I was trying to track them all.

I just thought of another kinda silly Rapier story! There was a toy line for the Wing Commander movie, with eight different Star Wars-scale action figures (including the traitor who was fully cut from the film.) The package also advertised Rapier and Dralthi vehicles coming soon.

The movie was not a hit and the vehicles never went into production. But some years ago, Joe Garrity of the Origin Museum tracked down the man in charge of the company and asked if he would be willing to sell the prototypes. Joe asked if I wanted to go in for half, and I dug up every penny I had to my name at the time and we went to meet the president of the toy company. The company was named X-TOYS, which was a terrible thing to name something people would want to Alta Vista for in 1999. For their first toy lines they licensed WING COMMANDER and WILD WILD WEST. I don't know if they were late to the the licensing expo or just liked Ws.

We had lunch with the guy and he told us his sad story. They followed the Ws up with a series of Saturday Night Live toys that also didn't sell. He talked all about what else he'd wanted to do for Wing Commander! C'est la vie. He also mentioned he was onto the next big thing (tiny skateboards that rolled) and in fact he was about to meet a big name skater about licensing. "Tony Hawk?!" Joe and I said in unison. "No!" he replied angrily, "why does everyone keep asking that?!" Poor X-Toys.

Anyway, here is the prototype of the toy Rapier, which is safely in a box in my office! Joe Garrity kept the Dralthi in his museum.

Okay NOW I'm done, I promise. Have a great night, everybody!

Original update published on July 24, 2021


Rogue Leader
Embarrassing background: I chose the eight ship types used in Wing Commander Arena. I was asked what the four best known ships were for each faction... if I'd known we would go on to set the game in 2701 I'd have lied!
I seem to recall these kind of articles from past years but I don't recall this bit. @Bandit LOAF What kind of ships would you have considered if you knew the real purpose behind this question? Thinking on it at the time you wrote this piece or even today?


Rear Admiral
One thing I've always found curious is why the movie decided to call the mainline fighter "Rapier" at all, if the intent was to make them, from a story standpoint, aging, decrepit fighters. The very first game of the series establishes that the Rapier is brand new and highly advanced, and while I wouldn't expect the script writers to have researched every little detail of the canon established by the games, that seems pretty basic.

Now you say it was Chris Roberts himself that made that decision, changing it from "Sabre". I find that even more curious. You'd think he'd have known and avoided the continuity issue it created. Wouldn't it have been just as easy to have the movie fighters be Scimitars or Raptors (or even Hornets)... any of the fighters from the original game that weren't the brand new prototype, and therefore had "been around a while"?

Another thought: Did the movie pre-date the Academy television series, or vice versa? How about Action Stations? Seems like it could have been better continuity, and also kind of cool, to call the fighters "Wildcats", though I guess that would have reduced ties to the game, which was the most popular and well-known part of the universe.


Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
I guess I can't overstate how much that creators of things tend to not care about that kind of stuff. It's the fans who obsess over it, and not the other way around. His favorite ship from WC1 was the Rapier, so the main ship in the movie gets to be the Rapier. And any other context is irrelevant.

Some prework on the movie did predate Academy and Action Stations, but it's pretty safe to say the people making the film (and games!) had little to no interest nor familiarity with either of those things. That's not to say Academy and Action Stations didn't matter. There are people whose job it is to care about that stuff - and that will translate into little nods like a story about the Mantu winding up in the Prophecy ICIS manual. But there was no chance that the movie ship was going to be called the Wildcat.

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
Exactly, although I think it's less a case of the Rapier being a favorite as it is a very conscious attempt to distill Wing Commander into a recognizable brand. It's the Rapier because the hope is that Rapier is the Wing Commander name people will recognize, in the hopes that 'Rapier and Dralthi' might become the IP's equivalent of 'X-Wing and TIE Fighter'. I know fans don't want to be told that they don't matter, but in terms of the bottom line that's usually the case. The people who consider themselves super fans of Wing Commander are a tiny number compared to the number that simply bought it and remembered it as a great game. That's thousands of people around a million who made a game succesful back then. Then a movie is another level: you need tens of millions of people to see such a film to make it a success... which means appealing not to the thousands of superfans or even the million who may remember enjoying the game... it needs to be packaged into something that you can express to *the average person*.

There's also a bit of a creator myth going on here. We tend to think of the big name on the top of the credits as a sort of God, responsible for and dedicated to everything you see. And that is very rarely the case, especially in games where a whole bunch of different disciplines come together to make anything happen. In Chris' case, he's not the one writing and creating the lore... there are writers of varying stripes hired to do that... his biggest interest has always been the technology side of things. Wing Commander I didn't even have a professional writer on staff, designers put together a little world to lay on top of Chris' magnificent game engine. He would absolutely have to /approve/ everything but Wing Commander started out as 'how do we get this cool space dogfighting experience' rather than 'here's our universe and timeline that we're dedicated to'. In fact, the only reason the Kilrathi are cats is because nobody especially cared what they were... the game needed bad guys, described in the pitch as humanoid mutants, a designer stuck a space cat in as the placeholder and it stayed because no one had a better idea.
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Thanks for sharing this info. I always felt the movie Rapier was a flying cockpit with some ugly parts slapped onto it, and never understood why they wouldn't go with the awesome game designs. But now that I understand the work they have done to get things done despite the budgetary constraints, I can appreciate it a bit more.
I still don't understand why they didn't go for the excellent WC3 cast and existing props for the movie though...

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
That's a good question! With regards to the props it's that it's because our memories of the game cutscenes are a little bit better than the reality. Wing Commander III was truly amazing... because it was like nothing else we'd ever seen on the computer. But compared to other productions at the time, even a low budget television show like Babylon 5, the production values were incredibly rough.

A big part of why you don't remember that is because the video-source heavily compressed, 320x200, 15 fps video files hid a LOT of sins. Basically, your mind fills in the gapes much to the benefit of what's actually on screen. For instance, the white Confederation helmets look SO cool... but if you could see them even at SD resolution it'd become a lot more obvious that they're motorcycle helmets with a flimsy mould hot glued to the front. I own one of the Kilrathi rifles and it's nothing but some wooden tubes attached to one another and then spraypainted black. It works great for a low resolution video but it wouldn't survive the jump to 35mm film projected in a theater.

In fact, here's a slightly higher resolution example where you can see what your memories have been doing. Take a close look at the Wing Commander III wingman selection screen:

SO cool, liike you're really in a futuristic space fighter pilot briefing room? Except... focus on the chairs! It's not a briefing room at all or /even a set/. It's two rows of office chairs lined up on a concrete floor! (The video is a much lower resolution so it does a better job of covering things like that). The FMV stuff also didn't allow for... I guess you'd say cinematography. The camera movement in the games is incredibly limited for a couple reasons... especially Wing Commander III which used pre-rendered CGI background so every shot had to be totally static. But even Wing Commander IV which could shoot on film with real sets and had the money for more serious equipment was extremely limited in how Chris could move the camera because he had to account for the super high compression needed to store the video files on CD-ROMs. So while we remember the games looking incredible and being these movies we could play, they don't really hold up to movie standards.

As for the actors, the first thing to stress is that at no point was any of it an insult to the game casts. Some fans imagine it was a case of trying to be bigger than the actors that made the series succesful and that they must've felt insulted. That's not the case at all, it's much more complex but it's something everyone involved would have recognized and been okay with. There are a few answers but the big one is very much the same: we remember the acting in Wing Commander III being so stunning because it was so far ahead of what we had been seeing in games up to that point (often just developers recording their voices for talky games which when you first heard it also seemed amazing). And it IS extremely good, far better than I think any other game and highly competetive with anything you were seeing on TV at the time... but movie actors are considered a measurable tier above that. Think about the WC3 cast -- you will often come across them guesting or even starring on TV shows to this day... but it's much rarer to see them in anything other than background character actors in big films (and even that is not common and is usually the result of a technicality, like Hamill's connection to Star Wars). I don't want to argue that one group is inherently better than the other (I don't even believe it!) but it is how Hollywood tends to divide such things. In fact the big exception to this is Malcolm McDowell who is a movie-tier actor who often appears as a scene-chewing villain... but of course he WAS cast as Tolwyn in the movie and had to drop out.

Part of that is purely money and not talent or process one way a movie helps to guarantee investors so that it can be made is promising a cast of a particular value. Movie audiences are somewhat predictable in terms of actors they love and so movie actors are often measured by their total box office... a movie that stars Tom Hanks is considered a much safer bet because his other films have grossed 200 billion dollars overall versus a movie that stars the guy that played Hawk because they've grossed $8 million overall. It's in no way an exact science but it's one of several measures of the saftey of a production... if they can promise you Tom Hanks then they're a more reliable bet than the little production that can guarantee you Chris Mulkey. So the fact that the movie's producers could promise this low budget opportunity that was going to have two up and coming actors that would hopefully drive the box office was a big deal. (Also worth noting: the lack of movement mentioned above also meant that the Wing Commander game casts didn't need to be particularly adept PHYSICAL actors in the same way a movie cast is. It's just (sometimes) a different range of talents to do dramatic stage-style conversations versus the stunts/blocking/camerawork experience you need for a big film. And while the games certainly did have some good physical actors--paging François Chau!--they weren't cast with that in mind at all.)

Another aspect beyond all this is purely the creative, though. The different projects cast their actors for very different reasons, particularly the Blair role. Mark Hamill made an amazing Blair because in the game Blair needed to be something of a blank everyman... he needed to be someone you put your own backstory into because you're the real hero of the game. Hamill is perfect for that (it's also why he was ideal for Star Wars, a generation of kids in 1977 saw themselves as that bored farm boy...) But the movie didn't need a player standin, it needed a Blair who was a distinct character of some sort. Similarly, it was absolutely a creative decision to cast the veteran pilots as celebrated European character actors instead of (as in the game) mostly Americans... it draws an immediate contrast with the fresh faced lead pilots who are supposed to stand out as naivein comparison.

(Finally, one big reason really is the one stated publicly at the time: the movie's development was spun off from Universal's Wing Commander Academy TV project and from the very first outline was imagined as telling the start of the Wing Commander story... so there was never a point where the much older actors would've been seriously considered anyway.)

(I also think there's a good counter exercise you can run your mind through if you want: consider that casting Luke Skywalker in our very-much-like-Star-Wars game was considered cheeky and a bragging point for Wing Commander... among us (wonderful) nerds. Consider though, what Wing Commander's producers would've had to early on: how would that work if he were presented to the whole world in a very Star Wars-like movie... six weeks before the new Star Wars movie released. Wing Commander wouldn't get a second thought, the story would purely be that someone made a knock-off of Star Wars with Luke as a middle aged man and had the gall to try and slip it in release a few weeks before the most anticipated movie of all time. You'd have a Star Wars fandom that now hated Mark for trying to compete with their movie, you'd have it as how every review or press piece about the movie was framed... it'd have been a mess.)


I guess I can't overstate how much that creators of things tend to not care about that kind of stuff. It's the fans who obsess over it, and not the other way around.

Depends on the creator, normally *someone* does care internally but when the medium transfers there's no guarantee they'll make the leap with it. Sometimes the company that holds the ip will be go to great lengths to ensure consistency in order to protect that IP.
Of course when a creator does care you run the risk of ending up with something like Serenity where the uninitiated are left wondering what on earth is going on (and somehow the fans still find a way to complain).

Bob McDob

Better Health Through Less Flavor
I'm glad to hear about the Lightnings! I was wondering about them the other day, they're an iconic bit of cold war aviation history but a lot of that is disappearing.

I wonder what will eventually happen to the Rapier. I guess it'll stay together for now, but how long will it? And should it? It's important to us, sure, but it's also an increasingly scarce historical artifact. Maybe at some point we should part with it and fashion a replacement cockpit (that will be many times more expensive than the original, no doubt).

On another note, whatever became of the Canberra-Broadswords?
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