Live and Let Fly

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

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

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