I’ve had an aerial combat scene written for a while but I’m not sure how to describe the environment that would make it work. In in the heat of pursuit, my very salty Captain is frustrated at his gunners being unable to make their mark on their piratey pursuer or shake them. Eventually he orders the gunner to shoot full high and ahead, which baffles the gunner who knows the danger is abaft and low. I sprinkle some comedy in there as the gunner fails to see any logic; the Captain, now at wit’s end, tells the complaining gunner to “Put a sock in it!” A wise shipmate guides the gunner to quickly doff his socks, stuff them with wadding and powder over the round, and chamber it.

In my mind (the visual I tried to create through a perfectly timed banking maneuver that’s too complicated to detail here), this launches a round with a smoke trail shooting almost on a vertical. The Captain watches the trail intently, and sees the trail break. With satisfaction, he orders the ship to climb all up, drops fore and aft kite drogues, enters the thermal wind shear he just found, and as sails drop from the spars they fill with the shear, yank the ship to a 45° list and make big gains on his steam-powered pursuer to save the day; all souls holding onto bulkheads for dear life.

So, I think under normal (boring) circumstances either the clouds or a primitive radiosonde would have told them about a nearby favorable wind shear. This is 1890’s tech. A radiosonde would blurt out sequences of Morse every few minutes or so, then take time to read and compare against your own instruments to calculate if a shear is coming up.

Q: Under what conditions would this

sock-shot be most useful to find a wind shear?

Basically, why were all the other methods inadequate. My thought first is that this is much faster than instruments, but not faster than looking at clouds themselves. I’m trying to create a world-based scenario where this is the best solution that doesn’t rely on the Captain’s personal style. It needs to be OBJECTIVELY better, demonstrating the Captain’s skill.


A couple things may work in my favor here.

  1. They live on a hot planet with thick impenetrable clouds. This means they already have insulative fabric to do work outside, and they wear this during combat in case of accidental exposure. I’m imagining the “sock” here is effectively the booty of a proximity suit.
  2. They have a hybrid sailing airship, the pirates do not.
  3. They all have black powder cannons.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Given the previous questions relating to the cannon in this atmosphere density, the rounds are only going to be able to travel about a hundred metres before they start falling near vertically. So, the captain is looking for a thermal shear with a boundary less than a hundred metres away? $\endgroup$ Sep 18 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ That would indeed be by the grace of God. A Hail Mary pass, yes. I could make him gamble with a larger charge as well, but that would probably be seen as foolish. Or maybe an improvised shot could get lower drag for lower KE & longer range. Maybe such cans are lying around. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 18 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ Wind shear ... is a difference in wind speed and/or direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere. Atmospheric wind shear is normally described as either vertical or horizontal wind shear. Vertical wind shear is a change in wind speed or direction with a change in altitude. Horizontal wind shear is a change in wind speed with a change in lateral position for a given altitude. I assume you're specifically looking for horizontal wind shear? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 19 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, +1 for asking your best question yet. I suspect the down votes are due to spending too much time explaining your story, which makes the question look like it's a storybuilding question (why would the captain do this?) rather than a worldbuilding question (application of technology vs. planetary conditions). To be honest, why your ship's captain needs to do this is irrelevant to the quesiton. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 19 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ One more quesiton, how married are you to the phrase, "put a sock in it!"? Inviting a crew member to take off any part of their proximity suit - if that suit is currently necessary and in your planet's atmosphere - would be a bad idea. There could be other solutions, but they might not meet your expectations for your narrative. Can we ignore it? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 19 at 2:47

1 Answer 1


First and foremost, when this information can help you reach your short-term goals

The best usage in a fight is always to reach your goal while reducing costs. In general (but not always1!) this means maximizing damage output while reducing damage taken. The traits, structure, number and inertia of each ship will change how you want to engage the enemy, ie. which position and rotation relative to the enemy you want to be. And changing from one wind to another could help you outmaneuver your opponent and perform such trick.

Old real-world sailships were long2, and as such most cannons were mounted on the broadside. This means that to have the maximum firepower, you need to have your side facing the enemy. You could also want to "flip" from one side to another and offset the long cooldown of very big cannons. And if the enemy ship shows its longer side, this means a bigger target for you.

Apply this, but now in 3D and with your own ship designs : Cannons looking at the bottom will need you to move higher to reach the enemy. Inversely, if your enemy has the same kind of downward artillery, you want to be up and close to be in their dead zone and minimize the damage taken. You also need to account where you want to be hit : Some pieces are more critical and/or vulnerable, so you might want to hide them behind the bulk of your armor.

In short, you want to know precisely the wind when you need to reposition yourself. That's great, because this is the best situation to show your captain's tactical skills!

That was the general stuff, but now let's add the specifics of the sock-gun :

When there's no cloud

When the sky is clear, you don't have any visual cue of the wind at higher levels. You therefore need to create your own clouds for that purpose.

On-board instruments isn't likely to help you find that critical information, since it will record data at your position, not 100 or 200m above you. Let's not speak when you manage to send your sock 1km or 2 above you, disregarding normal laws of physics (#ruleOfCool).

When the wind is changing at different heights, like a lot

When the wind is changing a lot, at different heights, it might be difficult to know where the wind goes at each level, even with clouds.

Having the sock's cloud vary in color could help determining precisely what wind you have at which height. Long lasting clouds will also help check for turbulences. And if it lasts long enough, it can be used as a relatively stable airmark in the sky, even when you moved away.

When you have an ally

If you shoot your sock, allies will also see it. If you notice an ally is having trouble (e.g. : their vulnerable side is shown), just fire your sock. If you have chance, the wind is good up there, and your ally know they can go up to relocate themselves more quickly.

When you have an enemy

Let's recall the previous paragraph :

If you shoot your sock, allies will also see it.

This is also true for your enemies. Information is power, and feinting in a possibly desperate situation could save you.

To give you an example : Your ship is against the wind and in range of the pirates who take pleasure in taking you down bit by bits, out of range from your own cannons. That's a very bad tactical situation : You can't flee away, and if you turn back the pirates will have long gone away, still shooting at you.

Now let's say the pirates don't know your hero's hybrid sailship is... Well, hybrid. You shoot your sock, and the obvious path is to go up, then forward, where the wind is in favor of an escape. You go up, the enemy's too to catch up with you, but then you backpedal with your steam engine. By the time the pirates turn around and lower back, you might be just in range to give a well deserved meal of lead, perhaps even close enough to board the enemy ship.

1 : Other common usage are fleeing (A.K.A "tactical retreat") or protecting an objective.
2 : You should take a look at sailship designs to know more : Brigs, Galleons, ... Because they change in size, speed relative to the wind direction, rotation speed and armor, this changed how they were handled, and which kind of weapon (range/firepower/number) they held. Here's a video to get started. You should also get a look at tacking if you plan to make sailboats, even in the sky :).


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