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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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.

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