“Drop shuttle (n.): An armored crate flown by a maniac.”
– The Unofficial Guide To The IN
Flying a drop shuttle is a unique sort of piloting. You’re always deploying under combat conditions, and often before you’ve established orbital superiority, so people are shooting at you from the moment you undock from the mama bird until the moment you hit ground, which means you want to come in as fast as possible. And flying re-entry at speed makes you a big, hot, glowing target, so you want to come in even faster than that, right on the hairy edge of burning up, and stay that fast until you’re too low for their flak to train on you, and that means damn near treetop height.
How do you decelerate at that height? We call it “lithobraking”. Anyone who doesn’t fly drop shuttles calls it “crashing”. Ever seen the ablative armor they pile on the nose of those things? That’s not for re-entry, and it’s not for flak – that, and the outsize inertial dampers, and the concussion gel that fills the cabin’re all there ’cause you and the ground are planning to get real friendly later. That’s also why they’re single-use. A good landing in a dropper is one that doesn’t crack the egg and smear your ass all over the landscape. Keeping the rest of the ship in one piece is optional, and I’ve never seen anyone opt for it yet.
Still the best ride there is, though. Besides, when you’ve been shooting these runs for a while, it’s hard to get a contract doing any kind of civvie piloting once they get a look at your flight records…
“Lithobraking” can be a non-crash option. Just need a very flat trajectory and skis. I was looking at that for a lunar lander design at one point.
Quite true – my figuring, though, is that in the jargon they save the term for those lithobrakings that can’t, in any respect, be confused for a normal landing.
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So, a drop-pod with wings?
Actually, not so much. The main criterion is size: a Piton-class drop pod gets one heavy to the drop zone; a Fist-class triple drop pod delivers one fireteam of three lights, but the Sledgehammer-class drop shuttle is intended to deliver a whole platoon.
(Also, not usually winged, either. They add too much size to the target profile, plus too much drag for the plummet-faster-than-a-rock part of the suicide-burn descent profile. A drop shuttle stays in the air by thrust alone, and otherwise has the flight characteristics of a large lead brick.)