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!
Follow or Contact Us