Live and Let Fly

Real pilots rate the performance of the airplanes in James Bond flicks.

Sean Connery flies an autogyro
In You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery flies an autogyro souped up with missiles, machine guns, and flame-throwers. The Kobal Collection

Ever since audiences first saw British secret agent number 007, tangling with a claw-handed villain in the 1962 film Dr. No, James Bond has branded the concept of cool. This November, he’s back—in a new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which, like its predecessors, showcases the kind of fare worthy of Ian Fleming’s suave super-spy: girls, gadgets, sports cars, and, best of all, airplanes.

At some point in every Bond film, the action takes to the sky. The aircraft, ranging from Harriers to Cessnas to hang gliders and flown by friend and foe, are typically cutting-edge for the time. The Bell Aerosystems rocket belt that propelled Bond to safety in Thunderball (1965) had been recently developed under a U.S. Army contract. The little autogyro in You Only Live Twice (1967) was a fresh design of record-setting pilot Ken Wallis. In Moonraker (1979), the now-familiar space shuttle blasted off the big screen two years before the maiden launch of the real thing. But in the upcoming Quantum of Solace, the airplanes have been around a while—a Douglas DC-3A built in 1939 shares the screen with a sleek and sinister black SIAI-Marchetti SF.260TP, a descendant of a 1960s design.

Sure, these aircraft are cool. But are they Bond cool? We ask real-life pilots to weigh in.

Wallis WA-116 “Little Nellie” Autogyro

The autogyro—a rotorcraft using an unpowered   overhead rotor acting as a circular wing to create lift—has been around a long time. In 1931, Amelia Earhart set a woman’s world altitude record in one—a Pitcairn PCA-2 that she flew to 18,415 feet. But Harold Pitcairn could not have imagined his design’s mutation into the tiny terror of You Only Live Twice (1967). Bond’s WA-116, nicknamed “Little Nellie,” is armed to the teeth with missiles, machine guns, rocket launchers, and even flame-throwers. Bond needs all these weapons to dispatch four bullet-spitting SPECTRE helicopters in hot pursuit. Score for the day: Bond 4, SPECTRE 0.

Nellie’s creator, Wing Commander Ken Wallis, became a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II. After retiring from the RAF in 1964, he concentrated full time on developing autogyro technology. He’s set many autogyro records, including speed, time to climb, duration, and altitude.

Wallis himself flew his WA-116 in the Bond movie. Now 92 and living in Norfolk, England, Wallis recalls, “I did 85 takeoffs and landings, and flew for 46 hours,” which translated into seven and a half minutes of pure excitement on the screen. “The helicopter pilots had to ask me to slow down, because they could not keep up with Little Nellie in level flight and while climbing.”

Film footage alternates between air-to-air views of Wallis from a distance and close-ups of Sean Connery in the cockpit. The two men were similar in build, “but Connery’s arms were considerably hairier, and that can be seen in the movie if you look closely,” says Wallis. Connery’s scenes were filmed in a studio before a blue screen (to enable fake backgrounds to be used), while Wallis’ were filmed high in the skies over Spain and over Japan’s Sakurajima volcano.

Another record-setting autogyro pilot, Andy Keech, who has 450 hours in seven autogyro types, says of the WA-116: “It was the most sympathetic machine I had ever been in. The blades of the WA-116 are quite short, relative to other gyros, at 20 feet. They are therefore very smooth and there is no feedback into the stick. It is as smooth to fly as a Piper Cub.”

Verdict: In a coded message to HQ, Bond described Little Nellie’s reception: “Four bigshots made improper advances toward her, but she defended her honor with great success.” Packing heat, Little Nellie is tailor-made to fit Bond cool.

Lockheed L1329 JetStar

EON Productions evidently liked the Lockheed JetStar so much that it was awarded two roles in Goldfinger (1964). It first appears as the executive aircraft of criminal mastermind Auric Goldfinger, and later reappears as a C-140 military transport.

As a corporate pilot, Neil Looy flew 3,000 hours in several iterations of JetStars. “At the time the plane came out, it was the premier corporate jet,” he says. “It was built like an airliner. A little more complicated than some of the Learjets and Gulfstreams that would come out on the market.”

With its four tail-mounted engines, “you could practically see the gas gauges moving—those four little Pratts were burning that much JP-4 [fuel],” he says, referring to the Pratt & Whitney JT12A-6 turbojets. Yet even with the four engines it’s underpowered, impotent to climb to cruising altitude as long as the tanks are full. “You had to stair-step to get up to altitude, like the airliners,” says Looy. “With the 731 version of the JetStar [equipped with Garret AiResearch TFE731-3 turbofan engines], I’d get up to 35,000 feet and have to wait until I burned off fuel before I could bring it up to higher altitude, burn more fuel, and go up higher.”

Still, Looy loved the JetStar for its airliner qualities—“so large, heavy, and roomy. Wonderful to fly.” And the novelty of an executive luxury jet was no doubt cool for 007 audiences to see in 1964.

Verdict: While certain deficiencies can be overlooked, any kind of impotence automatically disqualifies an aircraft from Bond cool.

Bede BD-5J Acrostar Micro-jet

Ever wonder what it would be like to strap on a micro-jet and shriek across the sky? Ask the man who built and flew the one in Octopussy (1983). That pilot is J.W. “Corkey” Fornof, who, when flying past at more than 300 mph, also passes as a credible double for Roger Moore. Fornof has 1,000-plus hours in his TRS-18 microturbo-powered Bede jet. And he figures he and his friends spent 3,300 hours building it.

The memorable opening of Octopussy shows his Acrostar evading a ground-to-air missile by flying through a hangar, but it soon runs out of fuel, so Bond nonchalantly lands on a road and coasts to a stop at the pumps of a service station. Except for the ground-to-air missile, the scene’s action came directly from Fornof’s personal experience.

While he was flying near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, his BD-5J lost oil pressure and he was forced to land on a highway. “Once on the ground, I went down the exit ramp and coasted into a gas station, just like in the movie, and ran over the little hose that went ding ding,” he recalls. He has a clipping from the local newspaper documenting the event.

Prior to the movie, Fornof had flown the Acrostar through an open hangar for a Toshiba commercial in Japan. After Bond producers Michael Wilson and Cubby Broccoli saw it, they wanted similar action in their upcoming film.

About his “kids, don’t try this at home” stunt, Fornof explains that he opened all the hangar’s doors and windows to reduce the sudden pressure increase caused by an aircraft trying to push a lot of air through an enclosed space. He calculated that, given the frontal area of the BD-5 and the size of the hangar, airspeed couldn’t exceed 180 mph. If he went too fast, “the pressure feedback would probably have caused me to bounce off the floor and into the rafters,” he says. “As I approached the hangar, the opening looked very small. I had exactly six feet below me and six feet above me. My heart was in my throat. I don’t think I took a breath for a minute and a half.” The stunt came off perfectly.

“The Acrostar is in my top five favorite airplanes of all time,” he says. “It’s like driving a Formula One racecar compared to a regular sedan.”

Verdict: The Acrostar used in Octopussy is still Fornof’s airplane, now on loan to the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California. It is the quintessential Bond airplane and a scene-stealer in the coolest 007 opening sequence ever.

The Space Shuttle

In Moonraker (1979), Bond joins forces with Holly Goodhead, an alluring NASA astronaut and CIA agent, and together they commandeer evil genius Hugo Drax’s space shuttle just before takeoff to foil his plan for world domination. A tad far-fetched, but that didn’t stop Moonraker from raking in more than $210 million at the box office.

Aside from some over-the-top fiction, parts of Moonraker are plausible. Women have piloted—and commanded—space shuttles. The first was commander Eileen Collins. Over the course of four shuttle missions, Collins spent a total of 36 days in space.

The movie also accurately depicts that at crucial points, such as the rendezvous for docking at a space station, the shuttle is controlled manually. Under manual operation, Collins says flying the space shuttle is similar in some ways to flying conventional aircraft. (During her years with the U.S. Air Force and NASA, she has logged more than 6,700 hours piloting 30 types of aircraft.) To line up the shuttle for docking, “you have the six degrees of freedom,” she explains. “The six axes are roll, pitch, and yaw, and the translations x, y, and z, which are right/left, in/out, and up/down.” 

During the return to Earth, the crew again takes manual control. “The first part of reentry is done on autopilot, until you go subsonic,” Collins explains. “Once you go under Mach 1, the commander takes control and flies it down to the landing. The commander makes the landing on every shuttle flight. We’ve never done an auto-landing.” (Of course, we never see the shuttle land at the end of Moonraker, because of Bond’s romantic dalliance with his pilot in the zero-gravity cargo bay.)

Verdict: As the first space shuttle ever, it’s Bond cool. 

British Aerospace Harrier T.10

Few sights in aviation are more impressive than a Harrier roaring straight up, hanging suspended for a moment, then screaming forward into the blue. The V/STOL (vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing) attack aircraft, designed in Britain and further developed in the United States as the AV-8B for the Marine Corps, does just that in The Living Daylights (1987).

The scene showing a two-seat T.10 spiriting away the defecting Soviet general Georgi Koskov lasts only one minute, perhaps because theater audiences now so accustomed to computer-generated imagery no longer appreciate seeing an airplane that’s really capable of a spectacular repertoire.

What does a veteran with 2,600 hours in Harriers say about the sensation that comes with V/STOL? Retired U.S. Marine Major General Joe Anderson says, “It is a shot of adrenaline, and it never diminishes.”

Anderson, the deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, has flown a British Aerospace two-seat Harrier at England’s Farnborough International Airshow, taking off from a ski jump. Such a takeoff “feels like a soft catapult shot,” he says. “The Harrier accelerates faster than anything else I’ve flown.”

Anderson acknowledges that the poor reputation of the early Harriers (known in the U.S. as the AV-8A), such as being underpowered and being vulnerable when taking off and landing vertically, has “stuck,” and that some people might think those early demons continue to dog the second generation of Harriers. But, he says, the weaknesses have been overcome: “The AV-8B was greatly improved by upgraded avionics, including a state-of-the-art HUD [head-up display], improved stability augmentation systems, and a supercritical wing.”

Art Nalls owns the only flyable Harrier in civilian hands. “It’s still a remarkable piece of engineering,” Nalls says, “uniquely designed to…conquer various parts of the flight envelope.” He recalls an incident as a Marine Corps aviator: “On one flight off the coast of Beirut, I succeeded in touching all the corners of the authorized flight envelope. I took off from the deck of the USS Tarawa and dropped down to skim the water, climbed to 42,000 feet, dove down and broke the sound barrier, and landed at zero airspeed. No other airplane at the time could do that. Sea level to 42,000 feet, zero to Mach 1. What a beast!”

Verdict: Where does the Harrier register on the Bond cool-o-meter? It’s waaay cool.

SIAI-Marchetti SF.260TP

In Quantum of Solace, the bad guy guns for Bond in an all-black SIAI-Marchetti SF.260TP, which has performance enough to make Bond’s long-suffering gadget whiz “Q” envious. For the movie, Steve Hinton, veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, flew the Italian military trainer for about 70 hours near San Felipe, Mexico.

“Its handling qualities feel quite a bit like a fighter airplane,” says. He should know: He’s flown about 30 types of fighters, both piston and jet-powered. “If you don’t look at the airspeed indicator, it feels a lot like a P-51. You can pull it around corners, you can fly it upside down, and you can loop it. It’s got a 6 G limitation on it, and built very strong. He adds that “the plane has a pretty wide range of operation,” with good slow speed handling qualities as well—necessary for flying behind a DC-3 with Bond aboard and to match the speed of camera-toting helicopters (although a very capable Aerostar camera platform did much of the filming).

Hinton says that turboprop engines suffer a drop in performance in hot weather—a factor in Mexico, where during filming temperatures ranged from 50 to 80 degrees. “But it had plenty of power to do the kind of flying we needed,” he says. “For filming, you push it to the limit, within its limits. We did a lot of really low-level flying, head-on passes, inverted rolling, looping, Cuban-eighting, and pulling up to go over canyon peaks.”

Hinton cites one weakness: The gas-slurping, turbine-powered (“TP”) version of the SF.260 has a small fuel capacity. He says the aircraft can  go about two and a half hours before refueling, but “when you do the high-power, low-level thing, you’re out of gas after two hours. And when it takes you 20 minutes to get to location and 20 minutes back, you’re left with not much time to shoot.”

Some Bond-watchers were surprised by the choice of this older, somewhat exotic piston airplane, but perhaps the producers saw the SIAI-Marchetti in the tradition of the famous vintage Aston Martin DB5 sports car that appears perennially in Bond films, first in 1964’s Goldfinger and more recently, in 2006’s Casino Royale, in enemy hands.

Verdict: Like fine vintage wine, the SIAI-Marchetti is Bond cool.

Piper Cherokee PA-28

Even a pedestrian airplane like a Cherokee can be fun to watch, especially when the five of them that make up Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus fly in close formation in Goldfinger (1964). That formation is an early example of major product placement, in this case for Piper Aircraft’s newest model.

Dennis Boykin, who has logged more than 1,200 hours in Cherokees, reports that his wife, Joyce, is a huge Bond fan. “Every time we watch Goldfinger, she mentions the Cherokees, as in ‘Dennis, here comes your favorite part,’ ” he says. Their first date was in his Cherokee—a 120-mile flight to Kansas City, Missouri, for dinner. As the ultimate affirmation for a pilot and airplane, “she slept through the landing. I knew right then she was my new copilot. She’s been falling asleep in my airplane for 20 years now.”

Of course, Boykin is a diehard proponent of the model and a card-carrying member of the Cherokee Pilots’ Association. “The airplane is built like a tank, with a carry-through spar that goes under the rear seat,” he says. “The structure is very survivable in an accident”—good news whether you’re flying with Bond or against him. “The constant-chord wing, also known as the ‘Hershey Bar,’ is one of the most forgiving airfoils ever produced. It’s nearly impossible to get the Cherokee to produce a classic stall—mostly it just ‘mushes.’ ”

When asked if anything memorable has ever happened while flying his Cherokee, Boykin offers an immediate Bond-like response: “Yes, but one of them isn’t for publication in a family magazine.”

Verdict: That answer alone averts a thumbs-down.

Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros

In the first 10 minutes of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Bond nimbly maneuvers an L-39 out of the way of a cruise missile at a terrorist arms bazaar in the Khyber Pass. The Czech military trainer has become popular with civilians for its agile handling, and has become a standard attraction at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, where it debuted in 2002 in the new Jet Class races. L-39 pilot Glenn Goldman, an airline pilot for 20 years, has flown about 70 airplane types, from 767s to piston-driven warbirds. He’s also a licensed mechanic.

“It’s an incredibly reliable airplane,” says Goldman, who has tinkered with the L-39 as well as flown it. “The engineering is top-notch, the construction is top-notch. Very simple and easy to maintain.”

As for flying, “the airplane has very few vices,” he says. “It’s got well-harmonized controls. You really don’t have to think when you want to turn. It’s almost intuitive how much aileron to put in, how much rudder, and how much back pressure to maintain altitude. It uses push rods, and since push rods run on bearings, it’s very smooth on the controls.”

On the other hand, Goldman feels there’s no challenge, no satisfaction of the kind found in mastering the older warbirds. “It’s a boring airplane to fly,” he says. “I could teach my grandmother to fly an L-39.”

And if the advanced trainer/light attack aircraft were intended to pass for a MiG (since the movie has it armed with “Soviet SB-5 nuclear torpedoes” on the wings’ hard points), then it’s decidedly uncool in another respect: A real MiG of the era, such as the MiG-29, could fly Mach 2-plus and carry an 8,816-pound warload. Which means the MiG, its pilot yawning and writing a letter to his girlfriend in Moscow, could fly circles around the straight-winged L-39, which reaches only 390 mph in level flight and carries a third of the armament.

Verdict: Does the L-39 deserve distinction as Bond cool? Sorry; “grandmotherly cool” doesn’t cut it.

Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt

After Bond uses a Bell Aerosystems rocket belt to make a slick getaway from SPECTRE henchmen in Thunderball (1965), a whole generation of kids grew up fantasizing about free flight over the neighborhood. The movie stays true to the capabilities of the peroxide-fueled device: Bond soars overhead and remains there for 20 seconds, just inside the rocket belt’s 21-second flying limit.

Bill Suitor, the actual rocketeer for the movie, says, “When you strap the belt to your back, you become part of it and it becomes part of you. But you only have 21 seconds—there’s always that time element.”

Verdict: As a pop culture novelty from the 1960s, it’s cool. But for the same reasons the U.S. Army discarded the idea (flight time, unstealthy howl, instability), the rocket belt falls one belt-loop short of Bond cool.


Whether it's a desperado using the rotors to try to slice 007 to ribbons, or Bond himself using the vehicle to escape (here, in Die Another Day), the humble helicopter puts the action into action films. The Kobal Collection
The rocket belt's potential users included flying commuters, camouflage-clad rocket soldiers, an aerial police force - and, of course, spies. The Kobal Collection
Fleeing a heat-seeking missile, Bond outwits foes in Octopussy by flying his micro-jet through a hangar. The Kobal Collection

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