Given that melee combat usually requires that one have at least a semisolid footing in order to be able to exert significant force against one's opponent (instead of merely pushing the two combatants apart), what would be effective strategies for melee combat between flying opponents (winged and/or floating)?

Inspired by this, this, and this El Goonish Shive comic (discussing/showcasing problems with fighting while airborne).

EDIT TO CLARIFY: My question is about how one would fight without a solid footing; this other question is about how one would avoid/limit damage during aerial combat.

FURTHER EDIT: Given this other other question, I'm removing the part about combat in microgravity and opting to focus this question exclusively on aerial melee combat in the presence of gravity.

  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Aerial combat: winged humans $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 19, 2018 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Do equipments/weapons apply as "strategy" in your question? $\endgroup$
    – Basher
    Dec 19, 2018 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor You mean Orson Scott Card, right? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 19, 2018 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor I was really nervous for a moment thinking that Niven ghost-wrote Ender's Game or something... I was going to have to rewrite my childhood! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 19, 2018 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ My view of the duplicate question is that the other one goes into a lot of detail that makes the answers fairly specific (and about weapon choices too). Whereas this question is about aerial fighting in general. I would think that, while there are some great answers in the other question, there are items left out because of the scope of the question. I'm going to vote to leave it open but I will encourage the OP to read the other question and answers and edit her/his question to focus on what didn't get answered before. $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Dec 20, 2018 at 2:05

4 Answers 4


Speed and Sharpness are your allies in aerial combat, although melee tactics will give way to maneuvering.

In an answer about Martial Arts in microgravity I spoke about hold techniques, and if you're talking about unarmed low gravity combat, I still maintain this is the best solution.

In an aerial environment however, it is better to look at birds as your closest analogue. Hunting birds have two traits that make them successful in that regard; speed and sharp talons & beaks.

Ultimately, momentum (which is going to have the greatest impact on your enemy) is made up of two components - mass and velocity. Birds are low in mass by design, although birds like eagles and falcons are larger than the prey they hunt, but for combat purposes the way they increase the impact of their collision with each other is through speed. The faster you're going, the more impact your existing mass will have on your opponent.

Of course, to maximise the benefit of that impact however, you want that impact to inflict the most damage and that means razor sharp beaks and claws, effectively working like daggers. These require only a small amount of momentum to do piercing damage, thus wringing every drop of damage out of the momentum they are capable of building up.

In such a situation, you won't be dealing with birds trying to hover in mid air and fight each other so much as swooping each other from above (falling maximises speed and therefore momentum) or at the very least, trying to get around the opponent to strike a weak point. Most aerial bird fights are dogfights, not melee actions.

Of course, it's important to point out that birds fight this way because they are in a gravity well and their wings are designed to interact with the air in a manner that supports their mode of flight and their ability to turn quickly in the atmosphere. In a zero gravity environment, birds would be as lost as we would be in terms of their instinctive fighting techniques.

To that end, the answer above should be read as how winged creatures in a full gravity environment would fight; the linked answer would still hold valid (wings or not) for those fighting hand to hand in a zero gravity or micro-gravity environment.


The reality is that we have spent thousands of hours refining our melee combat skills, and we still disagree on what the best approaches are. So expect a wide variety of things. But most importantly, this means that one will always have to adapt to the strategies around it. This is always true, but when we're exploring new territory, it's doubly important.

The real key to melee combat will be holding your opponent so you can apply force. Hockey enforcers figure out really quickly that you have to hold your opponent in order to do any real damage while on ice. This flying environment is no different. Any art which relies on holding the opponent and using their body against them will do well in this environment.

Other than that, it's worth noting that flying opens us a curious blurry region between ranged fighting and melee fighting. It is possible for you to become the projectile. This opens up a whole new set of options, such as extremely brutal grabs of sensitive areas like throats at high velocity. An individual trained in Tiger Claw Kung Fu can already rip a windpipe out if given the chance. I'm sure they'd love an extra 20m/s to do it with.

Knives will be incredibly important in these environments, as they would be in any grappling environment. Anything to let you focus the force that you can actually apply will be crucial.

All that being said, the strategy for fighting will remain the same thing as it has been for the last few hundred thousand years: find the opponent's weakness, exploit it. Find your opponent's strength, avoid it. Find your strength, use it. Find your weakness, keep it from the opponent. Take any particular variant of aerial fighting (organic wings, synthetic wings, rocket packs, zero gee, etc), and apply that fundamental pattern, and you will find the real strategy.


I think the most effective would be wrestling, grappling and pinning techniques. While its true that a lot of them would require gravity to help assist in holding these techniques would be more suited to close quarters combat where you are basically holding or in constant contact with your opponent.

I can't give you solid strategies, but these Fighting styles come to mind:

  • Wrestling: You can put your opponent into holds and there are probably a bunch of pointers about manipulating your opponent and their center of gravity.
  • Ju Jitsu: Using your opponents weight against them. While we don't have gravity. Being able to manipulate your opponent and their momentum is pretty important.
  • MMA: Probably the most prevalent one. Its pretty popular and outdoes most traditional martial arts and fighting styles because of the prevalent use of charging and grabbing onto your enemies which most fighting styles are unable to suitably account for. This is probably the best one to use if you want to have close quaters combat because it takes the most effective moves from a variety of different martial arts.

Winged combat would usually be about gaining momentum and striking the other. Gaining momentum upward using wings will be difficult due to gravity, so it would be a race to be higher. When a good elevation vs your opponent is gained, it will be about creating downward thrust, and delivering that gravity-assisted kick. Kicks from above would expose less of your body, thus giving less chance to counterattack during the attack. After the attack, however, would be a different matter. Once dodged, the downward momentum would give counter punch, knee strikes, elbow strikes or kicks will deliver destructive force.

If gaining momentum is not yet possible, hovering while punching and kicking would be reliable, but there would be little force behind the strikes. I can imagine using wings to create the thrust needed to spin, thus making spinning kicks possible.

Your strikes would propel you further to your opponent. To work around it, you can grab your opponent as you punch or kick. One striking martial arts comes to mind when it comes to clinching. Muay Thai.

Jiu Jitsu, however, needs no foothold. You only need to be as close to your opponent as hugging distance.


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