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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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.

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