James Bond jet takes on U.S. Air Force mission
It’s a world-record holder, a movie star, and a freedom fighter, all wrapped in a package just big enough for a single pilot and a 50-pound turbofan engine. While some of the inner workings of this modified BD-5J are secret, keeping a truly low profile is not in the cards: This tiny airplane rarely fails to attract attention from curious onlookers.
“Even today, as we’re operating here, kind of hidden away and tucked away here, you should see the people that show up. And they’re taking pictures like they just think it’s the neatest thing they ever saw,” said Bob Bishop, standing outside a nondescript hangar at Easton/Newman Field in Easton, Md. “Here we’re almost 40 years later, and it still looks like a new James Bond toy.”
Bishop, among the original BD-5 test pilots chosen when James R. Bede assembled a team to produce a single-seat jet in the early 1970s, flew the BD-5J (a modified version he built with his wife) for nine years with the Coors Light Silver Bullets (Budweiser also assembled a team to promote Bud Light). Starting in 2000, he transitioned out of that mission and began working to attract a different kind of attention: using the small aircraft’s profile to develop air defense capabilities.
The “Small Manned Aerial Radar Target – 1” is as militarized as James Bond’s jet will ever get, fitted not with guns, but with classified technology that aims to make it harder to spot on a radar screen. Bishop and a hand-picked crew of pilots, who go by the name Freedom Team, have been working on various defense contracts since 2000, conducting a series of don’t-try-this-at-home missions: for example, flying fast and low toward Washington, D.C., in an airplane designed for stealth.
In addition to wowing movie audiences (the BD-5J was famously flown through a hangar for the 1983 film Octopussy by J.W. “Corkey” Fornof, another of the original test pilots) and dazzling airshow crowds, the BD-5 has proven to be a reliable stand-in for a cruise missile.
“We’re trying to solve a problem: make the cruise missile a non-threat,” Bishop said. “There are some very promising programs we are working with today. I’m hoping they put me out of business, quite frankly. I’m ready to retire. But I’m having too much fun.”
The overall effort, Bishop noted, involves much more than just a small fleet of tiny jets (wingspan of 17 feet, empty weight of 465 pounds). A number of contractors and systems are involved.
Still, it’s an important role for the aircraft recognized by Guinness as the “world’s smallest jet,” a distinction granted to a specific BD-5J.
Bishop has helped shape both the BD-5J’s legacy, and its future, offering his expertise and experience to advise Ed “Skeeter” Karnes, who founded BD-Micro Technologies with his son, Richard, to update the original Paul Griffin design—a story told in greater detail in the December issue of AOPA Pilot.
Bishop plans to add FLS versions to his fleet, and adapt them for this special mission—one that requires operation at higher weight with significantly more fuel, 51 gallons as opposed to the standard 30 gallons, or 46 with an auxiliary tank in the FLS.
“I have never seen an airplane go through such a large change in characteristics as you fly it,” Bishop said. “You can almost tell every gallon going away.”
The BD-5J has a few other quirks, and a crash record marked by failed first flights.
“The biggest problem with this airplane is landing it 10 feet in the air,” Bishop said. “You think you’re right on the ground, and you’re not, and that will take the gear off.”
Bishop hires experienced pilots and then requires glider training, which allows a pilot to develop the correct sight picture for an aircraft with a seat just a few inches off the runway. (Griffin, in fact, borrowed the basic fuselage shape from a glider.)
November 20, 2012