TIM ROBINSON takes a fresh look at the innovative Edgley EA-7 Optica surveillance aircraft which could have a new lease of life in the 21st century.

The Edgley Optica is a distinctive shape in the air. (Keith Wilson)

If there is one aviation trend that has stood out during the 15 years since 9/11 it is the growth in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) or ISTAR platforms and the way in which air platforms have been pressed into service as ISR nodes, feeding imagery and intelligence for military and increasingly civil decision makers. From tiny UAVs, to microlights, to transport aircraft – all have been adapted, modified or marketed at some point as surveillance platforms. It is not just military demand for the ‘war on terror’ or COIN operations either – today, precision agriculture, border patrol, law enforcement, digital mapping and other roles are driving a rising demand for airborne eyes in the sky.

The Optica

It still looks futuristic today.

Yet over 30 years ago an aircraft was designed with this airborne surveillance task as it primary role – the Optica. Designed by John Edgley, former chairman of the RAeS General Aviation Group, the Optica uses a unique pusher design to provide almost unlimited 270deg visibility for pilot and two passengers. The aircraft's 260hp Lycoming engine also drives a five-bladed ducted fan buried in the rear fuselage – providing a low-noise cockpit environment and a reduced audio signature on the ground. The aircraft, designed to be sturdy and easy to maintain, has an impressive endurance too – flying at 70kt it can stay aloft for eight hours in its loitering cruise mode. At 110kt it is able to fly for four hours.

The ducted fan gives a low noise signature - both inside and from the ground.

In short, this unique aerial observation platform features the phenomenal visibility of a helicopter, with the operating costs and stability of a fixed-wing type. Says Edgley: “The idea came because I decided there was a need for air-to-ground observation, so I set about designing an aircraft that would fulfil that need.” Compared to a traditional aircraft, he says: “The visibility is quite outstanding – you just don’t get that in a conventional fixed-wing type. Compared to a helicopter is 1) cost – it is well recognised that a fixed-wing aircraft is a third or less to operate than a helicopter, and 2) it has better range and endurance, 3) smoothness and vibration-free flight for photography or sensors.”

So why, when it has almost no direct competitors (the Seeker being its nearest rival in observation aircraft) did it not take off?

Company history

For one brief moment - the Optica was a film star...

For aviation enthusiasts, the story of the Optica is a fascinating tale of what could have been. Evaluated by Hampshire Police in the observation role, in 1985 a crash (attributable to human factors, rather than any design flaw) killed two and placed the project under a shadow – especially for a small company that had to wait for the AAIB accident report to be released. Further bad luck hit the project in 1987 when half the production machines were destroyed in a factory fire believed to be arson. This was enough to scare potential customers away from this radical-looking type.

Yet the Optica's odd looks and unique capabilities give it some quirky aeronautical claims to fame. For example, at one point the company test pilot was a certain Neville Duke – WW2 ace and at one point world air speed record holder.

With its futuristic looks, the Optica also briefly became a movie star. In 1989 it appeared in the science fiction film, Slipstream with Mark (Luke Skywalker) Hamill. Indeed, it is odd that other filmmakers, on the hunt for a non-CGI yet otherworldly-looking or 'bad guys' aircraft have not used it in another SF or Bond film since then. It was also used as an aerial camera platform by MovieTone news who particularly appreciated its smooth flight for filming.

G-BOPO is the company demonstrator. 

Now, around five aircraft of the 22 built remain airworthy around the world, says John Edgley. Two are believed to be in the US, with two in Australia flying aerial sightseeing tours, along with the company demonstrator. The demonstrator itself (G-BOPO) is an ex-Spanish firefighting aircraft, where it was used in a forward air controller type role to spot and direct water bombers.

Now, after a succession of owners, the type’s fortunes are firmly back in the hands of its designer John Edgley, who formed AeroElvira and who is looking for an investor(s) interested in the possibility of restarting production of this unique aircraft. AeroElvira also owns a second ex-Spanish firefighting Optica that could be returned to airworthy condition, if needed.

Seeing is believing

Visibility for a fixed-wing type is superb.

To experience the Optica I was invited to take a demonstration flight earlier this year from Thruxton airfield in Hampshire to see for myself. My pilot was company pilot Clive Davidson, an experienced CFI, Tiger Moth and warbird aviator. Access to the three-person cockpit is easy via the large doors on each side, with the pilot and centre seat each having flight controls. A square almost helicopter-type layout of instruments is the only obstruction forward, which initially seems odd, given how the cockpit coaming is used to line up the horizon, but it soon becomes natural. Instruments are basic but adequate, given its day VFR mission.

On the ground the Optica sits low, allowing for an easy walkaround and entry to the cockpit, but again seems slightly unnatural to begin with, to be taxiing while sat down so low.

The Optica is not technically a STOL aircraft and is optimised for a slow loiter, yet take-off was brisk, with the aircraft lifting off around 55kt. From this the all-around view ahead, below and even behind was excellent – it was more like riding a 'magic carpet with nothing between you and the sky' than a more usual GA type sitting behind an engine.

Once airborne at around 1,000ft, Davidson began to demonstrate the type's unmatched visibility and slow speed loitering capability. With the bulging side doors, a turn to the side would give a view almost straight down. Ground features and individual targets or vehicles were easily kept in view at this height and can be tracked without losing them behind any part of the aircraft's structure. In addition, the right-hand door next to the observer’s seat also features a direct vision panel which could be opened to use a camera. In the 70kt loiter mode too, flaps can be part-way deployed, which also lowers the nose slightly, further improving the view forward and down.

The ducted fan for the 260hp engine also makes the aircraft seem quieter. On first starting up, the sound is more like a vacuum cleaner or spin dryer, rather than an aero engine. Once in the air, the cockpit environment is noticeably quieter and it is possible to remove headsets and have a conversation without shouting or speaking too loudly. While the Optica is certainly not silent, its unusual and reduced noise signature from the ground does give it advantages for covert or low-profile tasks when those it may be watching would be more aware of the noise of a helicopter.

The Optica provides an outstanding observation platform.

The Optica also scores highly in its stability and vibration-free flight when compared to some rotary wing types. While the bench seating looked basic, in 55mins of flight, it turned out to be quite comfortable and not at all fatiguing – a far cry from a rattling and tiring flight in a Sea King I once experienced. Indeed, its smoothness was surprising, given that you are sitting in a GA aircraft.

Climbing higher to 2,000ft, my pilot also demonstrated its docile handling and benign stalls. Although the Optica is definitely not a training aircraft, and lack of the propwash over the tail means the pilot has to 'think ahead' a little more, its low-speed handling means that stalls are easily recovered from. It is extremely reluctant to drop a wing, either with or without flaps – preferring just to sink gently wings level before being recovered. Clive also demonstrated that even if a wing was deliberately dropped, using an aileron, the aircraft can be recovered easily and safely.

All-round visibility is excellent.

I was also given a brief chance to fly it myself, under the watchful, expert eyes of my pilot. Trimmed it was precise, smooth and very stable and the lack of engine cowling or cockpit coaming ahead not proving any great disadvantage to keeping it level.

Landing was also fairly straightforward, with the Optica providing excellent visibility in the circuit. Again the unrestricted view ahead and the short-undercarriage made for a thrilling if tiny bit unsettling experience on the first touch and go, but that was soon gone on the second time round for the landing, which allowed one to soak up the amazing view.

Time for eye surgery?

The basic but functional cockpit could be easily updated with a modern glass GA suite. 

Interestingly, with Edgley seeking a buyer for the programme, it may just be an ideal time for this surveillance aircraft to make a comeback. Firstly, as noted earlier the demand for low-cost ISR has never been higher. Border patrol, in particular, has been made high profile in recent months, while aerial surveillance roles, whether for firefighting, law enforcement, homeland security, mapping, pipeline and powerline inspection and more has also expanded. Light ISR types are now even being used as cheap UAV surrogates for exercises and training. In addition, the Optica has also been used for more pleasurable tasks – like tourist sightseeing and aerial photography. Edgley also points out it could have applications in wildlife tracking or monitoring – again where its low-noise signature would not disturb animals (and perhaps alert poachers).

There is also now an awareness, in some quarters, of the limitations of UAVs versus manned ISR platforms. Unmanned can also entail a large analyst and support team. While UAVs undoubtedly provide cost advantages, they are also, until high-resolution wide-area sensors become the norm, limited by the 'drinking straw' effect of EO/IR cameras. A lack of situational awareness and a restricted field of view is something that you could never accuse the Optica of. John Edgley says of the boom market for UAVs: “It shows there is a need for air-to-ground observation. There are cases where its better to have a person up there than simply a camera.”

Second is that thanks to the RAeS GA Group and the CAA, there is now a much easier and affordable way of testing new GA aircraft and upgrades via 'E' Conditions regulations in the UK. That means its 80’s vintage ‘steam gauges’ cockpit could be easily upgraded with a low-cost glass cockpit avionics suite similar to many fitted to today’s GA and even homebuilt aircraft. “We’ve looked into that and it would not be difficult” says Edgley. Other potential upgrade options or enhancements, depending on market interest, could be a diesel powerplant, new seating/interior or perhaps a sensor EO/IR turret to collect video footage.

The demonstrator G-BOPO at Thruxton. The aircraft has been winning fans from those who have flown in it - but can a buyer put it back into production?

With the aircraft already certificated (EASA, FAA and Australian certification), tooling and jigs available, one demonstrator aircraft airworthy and another which could be made flyable, taking on the Optica to restart production would not be for the faint-hearted, but neither is it a paper aeroplane project which exists only in glossy brochures or computer graphics. Says Edgley: “We hold everything that is needed to get the Optica back into production. In other words, a full set of jigs and tools, the demonstrator, another that could be put back in the air, a part–built aircraft and components for a further five aircraft, plus manufacturing and inspection records.”

For the right owner, this could be an exciting way of revitalising a forgotten British aircraft that still could have big market potential. “We are basically offering the complete package for going back into production” says Edgley.


Seeking a comeback?

It may date from the 1980s, but in some ways the Optica was way ahead of its time. Both in its light ISR mission, which today is now in such demand (and its science-fiction looks). “I believe there is still as much a need today as when I designed it.”

Indeed, when Edgley flew it to the Paris Air Show in 2015 and it was displayed on static, he received comments from visitors who, unaware of its history, believed it was a brand new type. (It was also, despite the massive UK aerospace sector, the only British-built fixed-wing aircraft at Le Bourget last year.)

Today the Optica still provides a low-cost manned surveillance platform, with incredible visibility, stable and smooth handling and with a low noise signature. Can a saviour be sought for this rare British type, to give it a fresh lease of life for the 21st century? Indeed, putting a futuristic 1980s design back into production is already happening - with the news this week that the DeLorean car is to be built again. Can the Optica go 'Back to the Future' too? Keep an eye out.

29 January 2016