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The Dragon Rider’s Guide to Aerial Combat Does Not Approve of the Battle of Winterfell

The most devastating weapons on ‘Game of Thrones’ were largely neutralized in the fight to save humanity. Here’s what that reveals about dragons—and what Jon and Daenerys could learn from Oswald Boelcke.

HBO/Ringer illustration

All throughout Game of Thrones, dragons have been portrayed as the ultimate weapon. For good reason: The Targaryens ruled Westeros for generations thanks to their dragons, which gave Targaryen military forces an immense advantage over their foes in firepower and mobility. Dragons move faster and punch harder than any other military asset, and above a certain altitude are nearly impervious to enemy weapons. I’ve referred to them in the past as weapons of mass destruction.

We’ve seen the power of dragons in Daenerys’s conquest of Slaver’s Bay and in the Battle of the Goldroad, as Drogon incinerated a column of Lannister troops returning from Highgarden. You may remember this moment from the Game of Thrones meme bracket The Ringer ran earlier this month.

Of course, that same battle showed that dragons can be vulnerable—which is fine, as an invincible dragon would’ve spelled trouble from a storytelling perspective—when Bronn scored a glancing hit on Drogon with a ballista. Two episodes later, the Night King managed to bring down Viserion with a javelin, then resurrect him as a wight.

Yet even though we knew going into the Battle of Winterfell that dragons have limitations, what unfolded was a tough night for Westeros’s air force. Drogon and Rhaegal did burn swaths through the army of the dead, knock the Night King off Viserion, and bite a hole in their undead brother’s neck. But when the Night King summoned wind and cloud cover, the two dragon riders—Daenerys and Jon—couldn’t see the battle action or signals on the ground, reducing their effectiveness and requiring Melisandre to improvise and set fire to the protective trench surrounding Winterfell. And though both dragons survived the battle, they took a beating, with Rhaegal being forced to the ground and Drogon having to shrug off a swarm of wights late in the episode. Most importantly, when Daenerys and Drogon got a clear shot at the Night King, dragonfire proved useless against the enemy leader.

After seven and a half seasons of being talked up as unstoppable weapons, dragons were largely neutralized in the biggest and most important battle humanity had ever seen. So had we been lied to? Are the dragons in Game of Thrones overrated?

No. The dragons are fine; the problem is that the dragon riders didn’t get the best out of them, and that’s not really Jon and Daenerys’s fault. The Battle of Winterfell took place at night and in the cold—far from ideal conditions—and the Night King’s employment of wind and fog was as unexpected as it was effective. Jon and Daenerys knew that they were fighting the army of the dead; they couldn’t have known that they were also going to fight the equivalent of Storm from X-Men. And when the possibility of dragonfire failing to impact the Night King was brought up last week, everyone just shrugged. Daenerys got the shot she wanted. She took it, and it didn’t work. C’est la guerre.

That’s not to say there weren’t some unforced errors, but it’s important to remember that dragons have so recently reemerged on the Westerosi military landscape that contemporary dragon riders have no idea how to get the best out of them. Jon had never even piloted a dragon until just days before the battle, and even that experience—re-enacting the “A Whole New World” scene from Aladdin before finding a quiet hookup spot—was a poor substitute for combat training.

On this side of the television set, we have more than 100 years of history to inform how best to use aircraft in a combined arms battle. The Wright brothers made their first flight in December 1903, and humanity figured out how to weaponize the airplane soon after. The first air-to-air military confrontation took place in 1913, and the first dogfight between aircraft specifically outfitted for the purpose took place in July 1915. Less than a year after that, German ace Oswald Boelcke (mentor of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron) published his Dicta Boelcke, a guide to dogfighting tactics that remains in use today.

Having read every novel Tom Clancy ever wrote, watched Top Gun dozens of times, and devoted thousands of hours to the PC game Red Baron as an airplane-obsessed preteen in the 1990s, I consider myself something of an expert on aerial combat. And I can tell you that Jon and Daenerys definitely did not get the most out of their dragons.

Drogon was almost killed when Daenerys lingered too long on the ground, and therefore left him vulnerable, among a multitude of wights. (One of Boelcke’s rules is to always keep an eye on your line of retreat when over enemy territory.) She and Jon had their dragons hover over the clouds while looking for the Night King and Viserion, when gliding in circles not only would have expended less energy, but also allowed the dragons to build up speed for an attack or a retreat when they spotted Viserion.

Boelcke also preached the importance of communication, and while the elements made signaling difficult, Jon and Daenerys didn’t communicate well while airborne, either with each other or with their ground forces. This negated the advantage of having air power for scouting. (For that matter, Bran warged into a raven and spent the majority of the battle looking down on the action from above, but chose to convey absolutely zilch in the way of scouting information to people who might have been able to make use of it.)

Even the Night King made fatal mistakes. In aerial combat, it takes time and energy to gain altitude, and a climbing aircraft (or dragon) flies slowly. Conversely, diving into an attack from above offers more speed and better visibility. Both Boelcke and the pioneering British aerial tactician Edward Mannock recommended specific forms of attack: from above, from behind, and from the enemy’s blind spots. Don’t engage if outnumbered, and don’t open fire until you’re close enough to hit the target.

So what did the Night King do? Fly Viserion straight up toward his enemies, giving away his position by belching fire while he was nowhere near close enough to inflict real damage. And the Night King paid for that error by getting his dragon knocked out from under him.

But you can’t really blame any of the dragon riders for their mistakes. Aerial warfare is routine in the real world, but it’s entirely new to the characters of Game of Thrones. We just saw, in this episode, the first air-to-air combat in living memory for anyone in Westeros—they don’t have enough experience with dragons to create effective tactics.

Though just as Boelcke, Mannock, and other World War I aces learned quickly how to fight in an airplane effectively, Daenerys is learning quickly as well. Conditions permitting, dragons have been devastatingly effective in what we’d call close air support, and after the first successful surface-to-air attack in “Beyond the Wall,” Daenerys and Drogon dodged the Night King’s javelin this time around. Competency requires experience. Fortunately for Jon and Daenerys, they lived to learn from their lackluster performance at the Battle of Winterfell.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.