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James Bond's autogyro revived by Brit spec-ops pilots

Whirly-wing 1930s protocopter 'ideal' for covert ops

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Farnborough Former British Army pilots, drawing on military experience carrying out covert surveillance with secret special-forces units, have decided to revive the autogyro - a long-lost aircraft design of the 1930s, probably most famous for its use in the James Bond movies.

The Little Nellie autogyro as used by James Bond, with designer Ken Wallis at the controls

One of only a few post-WWII flying autogyros.

British startup firm Gyrojet is exhibiting its planned designs at the Farnborough airshow this week, and the Reg whirlycraft and spook surveillance desk got the chance to chat with company executives.

Gyrojet's marketing material makes use of several key phrases which ring bells for those familiar with the history of the secret British Army unit formerly known as "14 Intelligence Company", aka "the Det(s)" during its time carrying out clandestine surveillance in the hard areas of Northern Ireland during the long troubles there.

The operators of 14 Int were selected from across the armed forces in much the same way as the SAS recruits, but far less well known even today. Unlike the SAS and SBS, 14 Int recruited women - for the simple and practical reason that it's difficult for an all-male covert ops team not to attract notice among a normal local population.

Though 14 Int operations and training focused mainly on car and foot operations in strongly republican areas, operators also made much use of covert airborne surveillance. An operator would normally be assigned the use of an aircraft from 5 Regiment Army Air Corps, assigned to "Manned Airborne Surveillance".

A helicopter or specially fitted fixed-wing Islander aircraft could lurk miles away, usually so far off that the target individuals would be unaware of its presence. A long-ranging, stabilised imaging scope - often an antitank targeting display pressed into surveillance use in the early days - would be used by the special operator to track a person or car of interest in cooperation with covert ground units.

"A lot of us [at Gyrojet] were formerly with 5 Regiment," says marketing director James Robb. "We're all helicopter or Islander types."

According to Robb, a fixed-wing aircraft such as the Islander can do a good job at manned covert surveillance in open or rural environments. But where it can't sit far away looking at a slant - as where the target is in an urban or built-up area - it must stay within a tightly limited piece of sky overhead so as to maintain line of sight.

As a fixed-wing aircraft can't realistically go much slower than say 50 knots, this means the aircraft is continually making hard turns. This is uncomfortable for the crew, hard on the aircraft, and may mean that the tracking scope can't be held easily on the target. In some locations where there are a lot of obstructions around the place to be watched, a fixed-wing plane simply can't turn tightly enough to maintain line of sight at all.

A helicopter has no such problems, being able if required to simply go into a stationary hover. But helicopters are hugely more expensive than planes, needing complex and expensive transmissions to connect powerful engines to their rotors. Furthermore, constant hovering is hard on a copter. All in all, using helicopters for surveillance is costly and difficult.

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