James Bond’s love affair with the helicopter

Sitting down to watch a James Bond movie you expect an expensively filmed mishmash of guns, gadgets and girls with just a wafer thin layer of plot spread over the top.

Yet in the past couple of outings it has become increasingly difficult to concentrate on the nuanced character development and subtle plot twists, ahem, due to the number of helicopters gracing the screen.

Skyfall effectively acted as a 143 minute advertisement for AgustaWestland (more on that later), while the latest in the franchise, Spectre, has two key sequences featuring rotorcraft, with a third thrown in for good measure.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in aviation, trying to work out which particular variant of an aircraft is being thrown around the sky completely distracts from enjoying the implausible action scenes.

The opening scene of Spectre, in particular, features a MBB Bo105, which initially seems like an odd choice for a shadowy international criminal syndicate, until you realise the aircraft is, of course, the helicopter of choice for Red Bull helicopter stunt pilot Chuck Aaron.

Barrell roll

The sequence is one big homage to what not to do in a helicopter – strangling the pilot and forcing the aircraft into a barrel roll being near the top of the list – and the question all over the internet was whether the stunt was performed live or was the result of digital trickery.

According to expert analysis by the BBC: “It seems unlikely that this is possible in real life, because of science. But it sure looks cool.”

Anyone who has seen footage of Aaron performing in the Bo105 will know it is quite possible. This is thanks to the type’s hinge-less, rigid articulating rotor and titanium rotor head combined with Aaron’s modifications to pimp up the aircraft further.

Given the altitude of Mexico City, it is all the more impressive just how far Aaron was able to push the machine, at times flying just 30 feet over the thousands of extras.

Spectre wraps up with Bond pursuing a SA365 N2 Dauphin down the Thames in London (reportedly the same helicopter that appeared in Jaguar’s ‘it’s good to be bad’ commercial).

Without going into details of the implausibility of the sequence, as someone who commutes in London, the subtext for me was the disruption that must have been caused getting the footage in the can.

Curiously, the official production notes for the movie says the helicopter involved in the climax was an AgustaWestland AW109. If so, it’s the first AW109 I’ve ever seen with a fenestron.

I think there was an MD500E in there as well but was distracted by a really big explosion.

Spectre’s love affair with the helicopter follows extensive rotorcraft sequences in Skyfall, which we featured in detail in the Feb-Mar 2013 issue of Rotorhub magazine.

As the film’s special effects supervisor Chris Corbould told RotorHub: ‘The whole helicopter sequence developed as we were making the film, so all of a sudden we had to find a funky-looking helicopter pretty quickly.’

Once it was established that Bond would be attacked by his enemy’s armed helicopter while at his ancestral home in Scotland, director Sam Mendes wanted a rotorcraft that was not too “namby pamby”.

Corbould’s team originally considered a Boeing Chinook, but ultimately opted for the AW101, which for the record was modified with a Spectrolab Nitesun search light, which was fully functional; a ‘sky shout’ speaker, which was not integrated; and a 0.5in-calibre machine gun in the side door provided by the UK MoD.

Hiding the helicopter’s actual registration marking, the AW101 had a decal added – an orange circle with an upturned triangle at its centre.

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Funnily enough, AgustaWestland was not too keen for the actual aircraft to be destroyed in the crash at the end of the sequence so two third-scale AW101 miniatures, which were still 20ft long, were crashed into a third-scale model of the Skyfall house using a hydraulic arm.

In one other dramatic moment in the film, Bond is saved by three AW159 Lynx Wildcats. While the aircraft in the film were computer-generated, the sound team was able to record three Wildcats flying in formation at the Farnborough Airshow to include the exact sound effect in the film.

While we are geeking out on James Bond and helicopters – and in the interests of completeness – Spectre is not the only film in the series that is book-ended with scenes that involve helicopters.

For Your Eyes Only in 1981 also features two central appearances of the helicopter, including what may have been the world’s first optionally-piloted aircraft, albeit remotely-controlled by a criminal mastermind.

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