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So I was thinking about the dynamic you always see in space settings in which the heroes always have a mobile basecamp in the form of their ship, and was thinking about how to have this sort of thing for a cyberpunk-ish world. While it would not be exactly the same thing, I was thinking about giving the heroes some sort of VTOL design as a semi-mobile base of sorts. The basic tech level is somewhere in the 21st century, though the exact details are somewhat flexible.

The obvious problem is that anything that works as a decent aircraft is too small to be the same sort of livable as spacecraft. A second problem is that you can't use aircraft to hide in cities in the same way as spacecraft with FTL.

So what are some possible designs for an aircraft that could achieve this?

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  • $\begingroup$ would that huge plane from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D go? It looks to be enough cyberpunk for me $\endgroup$ – ksbes Aug 25 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Does it have to fly? What about a Winnebago? $\endgroup$ – mwarren Aug 25 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @mwarren why wouldnt a Winnebago fly? google.com/… $\endgroup$ – Demigan Aug 25 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ How about train or subway? They might have completed all sorts of tunnels... $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Aug 25 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ The baddie in DieHard5 used a snazzy expanding trailer for his mobile office. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Aug 25 at 21:31
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Possible Aircraft

Cargo dirigibles are a staple in cyberpunk fiction, but one loitering over the city would be conspicious. A planned, but never built, example would be the cargolifter with 150t freight capacity. In the syndicate games, the cutscenes show that the command base of the team is a dirigible with a ton of advertising on it's side - this is hiding in plain (plane?) sight.

For plane or helicopter to function as a base it needs to be huge and in a city it can really only land at an airport or helipad. If your setting is really dystopian and chaotic, a large helicopter can maybe sit on a parking garage, under a camouflage netting that looks like a heap of trash.

Some cyberpunk setting, like the movie Blade Runner or the Cyberpunk 2020 rpg, contain flying cars that use vectored thrusters for VTOL. I believe this to be not really realistic because the fuel economy would be terrible compared to a helicopter but it would allow for a more compact vehicle that could maybe sit in a alleyway or something.

Frame challenge one

Why not a ship? It allows plenty space, can move from city to city. Just have your group hang around port cities mostly and have plenty of waterborne nomads to hide among.

Frame challenge two

Cyberpunk protagonists don't have bases. They don't even have much stuff: When we are introduced to Case in Neuromancer, he uses a coffin hotel, the last time we see him in the novel we lern that he didn't even unpack most of the clothes he baught along the way. In Mona Lisa overdrive, the "home" for one of the side characters (the pimp) is his suitcases from crocodile leather. And so on. When they settle down and get a base - like Case between Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, or Turner after Count Zero - they retire and cease to be protagonists of cyberpunk stories. Before that happens, they don't hold on to much because everything can be taken away anyway in short notice - at the start of Neuromancer, we learn the Case was robbed even of his skill.

If you want to keep the style described above, but still need a place for your characters to store their stuff, you could take a picture from the movie Lord of War, where the protagonist organizes his gun running out of a shipping container stashed somewhere in the harbor. The group's hacker just makes sure that the container with all the stuff is always where it's needed (and well protected), the characters meet in pubs and bars and clubs or at street basketball courts or a gym - the actual location always changes with the tides of coolness.

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    $\begingroup$ could easily hide this under a cargo shipping conglomerate. take the most common ship and have the crew work a normal job. saw a similar plot with cargo ships on the sea. they would switch transponders and flags so they didnt need to port, and had oil rig storage $\endgroup$ – DaFi4 Aug 26 at 20:06
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Cyberpunk and steampunk are a lot alike. Both make use of technomagic that makes sense on a visual level, but not on a physical or fully economical/sociological one. No one bats an eye when a steam-powered mech walks by, even though it would require better computer tech and engineering than we have today for that level of capability. Similarly no one bats an eye when a local punk down on his luck has a fully functional bionic arm in a cyberpunk.

So knowing that, why not take some stuff from steampunk? The airship (a catch-all term for all types of inflated aircraft) is a staple of the steampunk genre, and its sad that its used so little in more modern settings. It could be a simple cargo airship, a skycrane for construction or a full-flegded flying superyacht.

Its a bit dystopian to use large towers to dock your airships, making low-rent slums inside the shadows of such towers and airships. Pretty perfect for many cyberpunk stories. And since it doesnt have to make too much economical sense, how about making the airfields where these things land underground as an alternative? Nothing says "cyberpunk" than making an evil underground lair a basic part of everyday life, with the working class forced to work in underground area's as they load and unload cargo and process it for the rich elites.

Your crew then just hides in plain sight. There's always a dozen companies, freelancers, pleasure barges and cruiseships flying about. One day you act like a freelance captain down on his luck, the next day you falsify your credentials to look like you belong to one of the mega-corporations. The exact details of your ship changing with each report so they are never really looking for your ship, you hope.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. Hide an apple amidst apples. If you need to stay unnoticed setup the airship as a billboard ship, playing commercials 24/7. Like a hundred other blimps are doing. Cash in the money for the service and use it for maintenance. Besides airships are cool. $\endgroup$ – Duncan Drake Aug 25 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea that (ocean-going) ships can change their outline (add/remove fake funnels, masts, etc.). If, in this world, airships aren't the usual sleek bullet shape, but tend to have extra bits and bobs on them (which would feel a bit steam-punk), you could do the same. $\endgroup$ – Roger Lipscombe Aug 25 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ The economy has moved over to a hydrogen one. (Relatively) cheap production of hydrogen makes hydrogen-dirigables (with FlamePruf(R) coating) viable. The upper levels of cities get blanketed in these floating palaces, up where the air is cleaner. You could even have airship cities. (The "better class" of course uses Helium instead; for extra technobabble, the He can be D-D fusion byproduct of their reactor) $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 26 at 13:31
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They port in remotely.

The hallmark of cyberpunk is transhumanism. Protagonists interact in virtual worlds as in Neuromancer or The Matrix. Or taking a step further, manifest remotely in real worlds using new bodies, like in Avatar or Kiln People. Possibly they commandeer and use the bodies of the real inhabitants of that world. Landing an airship and hopping out with ray gun in hand is so Doc Savage.

Yet there must be somewhere to park the real bodies. Evading prying eyes and rays and drones and satellites would be nice.

How about a cozy submarine?

sub source

Added bonus - explore the submerged ruins of the precatastrophe Earth, and maybe older ruins yet.


Or subterranean drillship?

drillship source

I like the drillship because the geologist pilot has 3d charts and uses lots of geo terms. "We can't go straight to New Newark. We need to swing around the Hardyston Quartzite. Unless there's still a way under..." Here too the protagonists can encounter relics of the old world buried beneath the new.

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    $\begingroup$ Less realistic, but more fun... $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Aug 25 at 21:34
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An airship covered in camouflage fabric

Camouflage fabric is a standard feature of cyberpunk settings. Basically, they transmit light around a person or object, making the wearer seem transparent. There is usually some distortion, but for a rigid shape like an airship, that distortion could be very small.

To get to the ground, the crew could drop down in camouflage flightsuits or small gliders. which if powered can also get them back up, or cables can haul them back up with a much lower energy signature.

There are three issues with this idea. First, the airship should also be invisible to radar. This can be handled by using radar-transparent materials, supplemented with radar baffles.

The second issue is harder: Making the airship invisible to infrared cameras. Engines, people, and electric devices all emit heat, and if the HQ should be livable in winter, heating is an extra source of infrared radiation. One solution could be to have thin, cooling tubes along the entire surface and then get rid of the excess heast by firing an infrared laser up into the empty air (Davin Brin uses this cooling technique in his novel Sundiver). When cloudy, this laser should be dispersed to prevent obvious reflection from low cloud layers.

The third issue might be the most difficult. In a cyperpunk setting, wireless communication is ubiquitous. Wireless signals coming from the airship would be detectable, though it is possible that they would drown in the background noise. A solution would be to only transmit signals upwards, either to a satellite or to a relay airship or drone at a much higher altitude.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need to make undetectable at all? The OP did not ask for it. If it needs to go 'unnoticed' you could set it up as one of the many airships that play commercials non stop (as in Blade Runner). The crew could even make some money for maintenance out of it ;-) $\endgroup$ – Duncan Drake Aug 25 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ @DuncanDrake: That is a fair point - but I suspect there are some places that won't like any sort of airship passing above. Maybe the camouflage fabric can show commercials when needed and go stealth mode when desired. $\endgroup$ – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Aug 25 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly. That is up to the story of the OP. $\endgroup$ – Duncan Drake Aug 25 at 11:27
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First, let's have a look at a few basic requirements for the setup:

If you want the aircraft to be a base it needs to be able to sustain the crew and the group it supports. It means you need to be able to operate long flights, have significant cargo capacity, be able to resupply and limit the number of resupplies. It means you should avoid carrying fuel since it will be your main flight endurance limiting factor. One option to do that is having a solar-powered electrical plane.

Helios solar-powered aircraft

Being solar-powered it can actually stay inflight for virtually infinite time (in reality there are other limiting factors).

Of course, it has to be larger, sturdier, with some reinforcements, especially making it possible to perform a large part of maintenance in-flight.

Secondly, it should be able to operate from water. It gives tons of benefits, from the ability to build a larger plane (initially large planes were amphibians since almost any length of the landing "strip" can be available) to ability to operate in many areas without the necessity to build actual landing strips. If you have enough water, you can land and take-off. It also makes it possible to operate from desolated areas. Finally, in case of damage that cannot be handled airborne, you just have to sit your bird on any nearby water without exposing yourself at least to land assault and wait for the ranger planes to organise repair supplies.

In addition, you have to consider some ability to leave and dock back smaller planes so that they can serve as communication "rafts". Similar attempts were already done.

To increase capacity, rather than having a single plane you may want to have a few of them flying either in a formation or when needed separating and operating on its own. With current AI capabilities, autonomous in-flight operations could allow keeping the same distance during the whole flight, allowing the creation of some kind of links between the planes that could even offer the ability to move between the planes. One of many examples can be seen here.

Things like Starlink network and standard GPS will give full freedom in terms of internet (or other means of communication) availability as well as navigability. At the same time, insufficient radar coverage gives plenty of space to hide (It's not representing full radar coverage but gives a hint where the problem lies).

Example radar coverage

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 Nice map, shows you where the global economies are located. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Aug 25 at 21:36
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Just FYI, what you want (sort of) is actually available, if you have several hundred thousand dollars to spend. There are quite a few airplane camper conversions out there, particularly of Grumman seaplanes - the Goose, Widgeon, Albatross, &c. Searching for "Grumman seaplane camper" will get examples.

Of course you're limited to landing on suitable runways or bodies of water, but that's a different issue. VTOL aircraft aren't all that practical, except for some military uses. However, there were attempts to build & sell helicopter campers, e.g. https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/the-flying-winnebago-3672/

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My first thought is the V-22 Osprey. Being a real aircraft, you can find specs on Wikipedia and use that as a base for your design. It's VTOL, it's fairly fast (much faster than an airship), it's designed to cargo stuff around, and you can add weapons to it, so that's a good candidate for a cool, real-ish, flying base for a squad of image-conscious heroes.

You shouldn't expect a palace though. It's conceivable that you can build a flying tour bus for a handful of people, but it'll be a tight fit and you won't have much room for cargo inside (although you can still tow cargo outside). That said, big roomy coolcraft doesn't sound very cyberpunk to me, so maybe that's a bonus. And on the flip side, you can land it pretty much everywhere and camp in the great outdoors, and that'll be more room than any sci-fi spaceship can give you.

The question is tagged "engineering" but...

The problem isn't engineering, it's logistics

And even then,

The real problem is fuel

Hands down, how you're refueling your plane will be the single biggest design decision to this question. I say that because it doesn't just shape the plane, it shapes the world and the plot.

Refueling on land

The basic option is to land and go to the gas station to get your kerosene. The first limitation here is landing somewhere that has the infrastructure and that welcomes you.

Fiction gives you the opportunity to place private and/or pirate airfields all around the world. Private airfields means you'll have to ask permission, book a slot and pay for it. Pirate airfields might not bother with such formalities, which is also a great way to induce shenanigans, like that time you landed in Ulaanbaatar and pirates kidnapped your pilot in broad daylight.

You can also land anywhere in the plains of Africa or the steppes of Asia without being bothered by the neighbours and set up shop in the wild. That's good to do some basic maintenance, and if you can source some fuel from there it's a valid option, though you obviously lose the benefits of an established infrastructure.

The other major limitation here is that when doing a Reykjavik-Jakarta to get to your next mission you'll need to land once, twice, or maybe more. That means the problems above become recurring, and ultimately it's going to eat some precious time you might not be able to afford, especially if aforementionned shenanigans occur. Whether that's a pro or a con for your story is up to you.

At any rate, if you go for that option, a straight-up Osprey-type aircraft will do the job just fine.

Refueling in the air

We do have the technology to bring the gas station directly to you in-flight. The problem is you know that's stupid expensive because no commercial airlines do it, only the military can justify that spending somehow. A cyberpunk setting might allow you to introduce a commercial service of tankers to refuel private citizens such as your heroes. But that means flying an air-bus around for 'round-the-world trips is a common enough occurence that there's a market for it.

That's a pretty big condition, and one that will potentially reshape your world. If refueling in-flight is widely available, your heroes are more likely to get contested by air-pirates, corporations, and private militaries having their own air-bases. If everybody has a cool air-base, your own cool air-base may lose its romanticism.

Maybe the biggest limitation here is the stupid expensive part. Unless your team is swimming in cyberdollars, such a refuel might be more than they can afford. And that means they'll have to hijack a tanker or two. While it is a pretty cool image, it brings a lot of complications to your travels. Your plane will need to be designed for combat, and obviously that means you should expect to spend a few chapters fighting for fuel at 30000 feet.

If you aren't interested in a world that's highly militarised, with weaponising your plane, or if risking your life for every refuel sounds too big of a hassle, you might consider this a bad option.

Not refueling, like, at all

The most realistic alternative would be solar power. Solar power is nice in that you might be able to fly indefinitely for cheap. You do have to account for daylight and the size of your batteries when planning your route. In some cases, that might be very inconvenient, but still, solar energy is cheap and readily available most of the time. It gives you the opportunity to stay in the air much longer without needing a refuel.

Of course, your setting might have a better alternative. Whatever your energy source ends up being, it needs to be:

  • light,
  • compact,
  • powerful,
  • have enough capacity to keep you in the air for a convenient amount of time.

Ideas may include a pocket nuclear reactor. Nuclear energy offers a lot of opportunities for shenanigans.

You might also think of that refuels by sucking gases the atmosphere. For an added bonus, you can make it something found at a specific altitude. Imagine your aircraft needs a specific mix of hydrogen-2 and helium-7 that's only found just at the operational ceiling. And this is just an example with zero scientific backing, but if you establish it with enough confidence, it'll play.


Additional consideration

An aircraft needs space to fly. You're thinking "not a problem, the sky is full of that", but the sky also belongs to somebody. It's one thing to fly a drone or a Cessna without authorisation, but governments/corporations will notice a big military plane flying around the world and might take offence if it goes through their sovereign airspace.

There is plenty of airpsace where nobody will come bother you. The middle of the ocean for instance, and the great deserts of the world. For everywhere else, you can embrace piracy with an IDGAF attitude (which is fairly cyberpunk), and hope you can dodge the jet fighters indefinitely. You can also add everybody's favourite part of a story: bureaucracy and red tape. Or you can do both: violating airspace of people with poor radar coverage or weak air forces, and file the paperwork where you are likely to get shot down on sight.

That gives you the opportunity to hack the mainframe to give your aircraft the right credentials. That also gives you the opportunity to get caught with fake credentials and having to hightail it out of missile range.

Which is to say your aircraft will be designed for speed. You might want to replace propellers with jets for more speed, and also for more coolness. That should give you a better chance when you need to make a quick exit.

I wouldn't bother with stealth. It only helps to the point where nobody looks up and sees your big airplane hovering above the headquarters of Megacorp, or if nobody can hear the roar of the engines from over the horizon.


In conclusion

The only question you need to ask yourself is what fuel you put in the tank, and how you get that fuel.

The rest has largely been solved by real engineers in the real world, which is to say your cool aircraft looks like an Osprey. It can be bigger, it can be haphazardly converted to solar power, and maybe you have tiltjets rather than tiltrotors, but a big VTOL is just about the gist of it.

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  • $\begingroup$ In the real world, fueling is not a problem at all. You can land at most medium-sized airports, and either taxi to the self-service pump, or the FBO will have someone drive a fuel truck out to you. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 26 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf True, but in the real-world people don't usually fly pirate fortresses. That might raise eyebrows at most medium-sized airports. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 27 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ You really can't have an aircraft that is also a fortress (barring anti-gravity or some other handwavium), as the armor would make it too heavy to fly. You could fit a decent communications center into one of those Grumman flying boats I mentioned in my answer. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 27 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I mean fortress as in B-17, not as in actual flying castle. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 28 at 6:47
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Mart's answer mentions the Neuromancer trilogy. If you haven't read it yet, I suggest you do. It's a seminal work in Cyberpunk literature.

In the second book of the series, Count Zero, one of the character pilots a combat jet that is able to camouflage itself when landed. It also has an AI that makes very smart decisions in order to fulfill its mission. Twice in the story the pilot loses consciousness...

"Where are we?"

"We are fifteen meters south-southeast of the landing coordinates you provided," the plane said. "You were unconscious again. I opted for concealment."

He reached back and removed the interface plug from his socket, breaking his link with the plane. He gazed dully around the cockpit until he found the manual controls for the canopy. It sighed up on servos, the lacework of polycarbon leaves shifting as it moved. He got his leg over the side, looked down at his hand flat against the fuselage at the edge of the cockpit where the polycarbon reproduced the gray tones of a nearby boulder; as he watched, it began to paint a hand-sized patch the color of his palm.

I also suggest watching the original Ghost in the Shell movie from the 90's for some inspiration on camouflage. Then see the Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. There is a hacker there that is able to make his face impossible to see or remember:

In the Ghost in the Shell series, Laughing Man proves to be the ultimate hacker, capable of such feats as hijacking multiple video streams simultaneously, taking over someone's cybernetic brain entirely, or even editing his own images out of someone's cybernetic eyes, and all in real time.

You could do the same with the aircraft.

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