A few years ago, my wife and I watched the whole run of Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Teen dramas used to be a guilty pleasure for me, and I had found my way to GG in my mid-20s. I watched the first three seasons on DVD and parts of season four on live TV, before buying a house and cutting cable. I later returned to the series during season seven, just in time for the last episode. It had changed so much! Rory’s rich boyfriend called her “Ace”? Perplexing. But through Netflix, years later, I could finally follow Rory’s trajectory from out-of-place teen at Chilton to (spoiler alert!) reporter following Barrack Obama’s bid for the democratic nomination. Watching the episodes I’d missed, all I could think about was how wrong her nickname sounded.
When I was six years old, I received two of the best Christmas presents ever, Kenner’s AT-AT and Hasbro’s Skystriker. It was the latter that jetted me away from a Star Wars tractor beam that had held me for as long as I could remember, into the grasp of an even more insidious 1980s marketing machine, GI Joe: A Real American Hero.
Now, having recently discovered a stack of old journals from my childhood, I can see that there was a time when I didn’t think Ace was a stupid nickname. In fact, I was so enamoured with the Skystriker and its pilot that I called myself “Ace”.
Staring at the Skystriker now, I mourn for the simplest time in my life, when the only loss I’d suffered was the grandfather who’d passed away before I was born, before my cousin and my other three grandparents had passed away, before my sister was diagnosed with MS. That particular toy – my all-time favourite! – represents a childhood I have never felt more nostalgic about, a time when everyone I love was still here, still healthy and still close to me.
Christmas morning started with the AT-AT from Santa and ended with bacon, cheese and tomato sandwiches, which had somehow become our traditional Christmas lunch. My sisters and I weren’t spoiled, but blessed by two parents from leaner upbringings who wanted to ensure the holiday season was special for us. That Christmas was the first that I can assign solid memories to – all the previous ones were vague recollections of Christmas-related concepts. But at six years old, I was still learning the patterns of opening gifts on Christmas morning. I thought the AT-AT was the peak of my whole morning, and had zero expectations for anything else waiting under the tree.
I was knocked senseless when unwrapping the Skystriker last.
1983 was the torch-passing year, for sure, as I received a Star Wars playset from Santa and a GI Joe playset from my parents. For the next two years, GI Joe toys would arrive via Santa and Transformers would arrive from my parents. The biggest present was always from Santa, but that Christmas I started noticing that my parents always put their names on something special too.
Shortly, I was posing for a photo with my Star Wars and GI Joe collections – Rebels and Empire, Joes and Cobra, all one big happy family, like the cast of a movie who are friends off screen. Eventually, I would be so dedicated to the concept of Joe vs. Cobra – of good vs. evil – that I couldn’t pose the two opposing forces together anymore.
The Skystriker was a near perfect toy.
It had retractable landing gear and shifted into an ultra-sleek, flight mode through sliding a lever. It was also sturdy and had some key, removable pieces (six missiles, obviously, but also a few panels). That was important since I would demonstrate the vehicle taking damage by removing parts in battle. The level of detailing and decals created a realism that nothing I owned could match. (An infinite amount of stickers said, “NO STEP”, like you might expect to see on a real jet.) And the scale was perfect for balancing playability with reality, something that Hasbro always struggled with, from 1982’s under-scaled Mobat to 1985’s USS Flagg.
If you take the Skystriker and place it side-by-side with Fisher Price’s Turbo Hawk, another vehicle based on the F-14 Tomcat, you can see how incredible it was for Hasbro to design the Skystriker in such a realistic scale.
As implied by my self-proclaimed nickname, there was a time where Ace was my favourite Joe, not just my favourite driver. Mr. Hama had written his filecard so well that I could imagine him as a real person, the kind of poker player Kenny Rogers would have written songs about. And since I couldn’t divorce my favourite vehicle, the Skystriker, from the driver, Ace was immediately cast as my favourite figure.
I’m not sure when Airborne took that mantel, but it certainly wasn’t right away.
Now, as an adult collector with a critical eye, I have a few complaints about the Skystriker. The obvious is Ace’s jumpsuit. I had no idea what pilots should wear when I was six, and Ace’s bubbly jumpsuit was as good a guess as any. It wasn’t until Top Gun that I actually found out how flyboys dressed. But at the time it didn’t matter to me, and now, with some additional paint apps to his knife and pistol and richer colours, his look would have been much stronger. Specialized team with advanced technology to fight an extreme terrorist organization? For sure I would have expected them to have futuristic jumpsuits.
Ace’s figure didn’t match his cartoon counterpart, and that’s a bit of a complaint now, but more from my experience as a former marketer. Poor integration! Likewise, the dark, rear fins of the Skystriker prototypes made their way far enough in Joe media that the lighter, production fins caused doubts about whether I had a lower quality, Canadian version of the Skystriker.
My biggest complaint, though, is that the parachutes aren’t reliable. I owned the Fisher Price Adventure People parachute, the one that you could ball up tightly and throw twenty feet in the air, that would deploy correctly and land any action figure safely. The flimsiness of the Skystriker’s parachute was maddening. Regardless, Hasbro still sold a shit-ton of their crappy parachutes, between the Skystriker, the Parachute Pack and Sky Patrol.
What else? The clear plastic of the canopy smells terrible and I never understood why. Possibly a byproduct of the plastic deteriorating, but I remember this from my childhood. My friends and I used to dare each other to smell the inside of the canopy.
I could also mention that my childhood Ace’s helmet smelled like toothpaste. But that problem was specific to me and my best friend, Donny. One time, we had been playing together and decided to put Crest in Ace’s helmet.
Man, kids are weird.
Clearly, Hasbro hit it out of the park with the Skystriker.
My original Skystriker was sold in 1991, when I was looking for money to invest in hockey cards. (Insert: face palm.) But the Skystriker was a priority re-buy when I got back into collecting Joes full-time in 2014, and has been on display at my house ever-since.
(Re-watching those episodes of Gilmore Girls might have somehow kicked the whole collecting bug into overdrive in my subconscious!)
The Skystriker holds the distinction of being the largest GI Joe vehicle I keep multiples of. The double is for use with the USS Flagg, since I much prefer a second Skystriker to placing the Conquest on the Flagg.
Only the Cobra Soldier (1982-85) was at retail longer than the Skystriker (1983-85). Maybe Crystal Ball… but that was for unplanned reasons. The Mobat, the rest of the 1982 figures, some of the 83s, and Storm Shadow also enjoyed 3-year runs. But the Skystriker was actively marketed well into 1985, appearing whenever the USS Flagg was showcased. In that way, the Skystriker demonstrates a timelessness that couldn’t be replicated in today’s action figure market. And when the Skystriker was replaced by the Conquest in 1986, it could be argued that GI Joe was getting ready to jump the shark.
The 1983 GI Joe Skystriker. Icon.