Gary Parsons reports on Sywell's 2008 Airshow, held on 24 August, which saw the return of an eighties' aviation dream. Pictures by the author
John Edgley, the engineer who established the Optica project, the radical design concept for a slow-flying observation aircraft that was so far ahead of its time when launched in the early 1980s, has recently repurchased the design rights plus the jigs and tools needed for production, together with three aircraft, the first of which 021 (G-BOPO) is now flying and was the star of the show at Sywell.
The Optica has an unusual configuration with a fully-glazed forward cabin seating three across, reminiscent of an Alouette helicopter. Behind it is situated a Lycoming flat-six engine powering a ducted fan, twin boom cantilever tailplane with twin rudders and a high-mounted single elevator. The wings are unswept and untapered, and the aircraft is of a fairly standard all-metal construction with stressed aluminium skin. Its distinctive appearance led to it being known as the 'bug-eye'.
First flown on 14 December 1979, the Optica entered production in 1983, achieving certification on 8 February 1985. A highly-publicised crash of Police-operated G-KATY on 15 May 1985 killed two members of the Hampshire Constabulary; the cause was suspected to be a stall, insufficient airspeed during a turn causing instability. This led to the bankruptcy of Edgley, with Optica Industries being formed in October 1985 to continue production, twenty-five Opticas being built before a fire destroyed the factory and all but one flying Optica. The company was reformed again as Brooklands Aircraft, and the Optica briefly returned to production, ceasing in March 1990, when Brooklands Aircraft went bankrupt. AGI Ltd then bought the design rights, but production never resumed.
Now, after his original involvement ceased in the mid eighties, John Edgley, together with Emlyn Coldicott and three former employees of the original Edgley Aircraft Limited, has established a new company called AeroElvira Limited, with the conviction that it is now possible to re-establish the aircraft type as a significant player in the role of aerial observation well into the second decade of the twenty first century. AeroElvira has regained the design rights plus the jigs and tools for the Optica, with 021/G-BOPO restored to flight as the UK type demonstrator. At this stage it is likely that any new production will be outside the UK, but exactly where has yet to be finalised.
The Optica's Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) performance was ably demonstrated at Sywell by pilot Clive Davidson - "Sitting in that beautiful bubble gives the most marvellous views of the sky and countryside. Many other pilots have asked if there is any difficulty selecting an attitude without a nose to position under the horizon, but this perceived problem is of little real consequence as attitudes may still be selected in the normal way, trimmed and cross checked by instruments. Handling is quite conventional, with good stability and no surprises, corners or 'gotchas'. A simple cockpit layout and a low workload, coupled with a reduced ambient noise levels from the rear sited and shrouded prop (plus a comfortable seat!) combine to make a pleasant stress-free working environment. I wish I could get my hands on her just a little more often!"
The Optica also has a low impact in environmental terms because of its low noise levels and emissions - it has about twice the endurance of a helicopter. Emlyn Coldicott: "The aircraft has been used in forest fire monitoring in Spain; one aircraft has flown some 3,000 hours on fire detection duties, trouble free and on budget. We are certain that there is still a demand for the Optica, particularly in countries with large areas of land to be covered. So our challenge it is about getting to a level of critical mass that will push to project forward and allow the Optica to finally be produced in significant numbers."
Another interesting type on display not normally seen away from its home airfield was Aeronca 100 G-AEVS, one of just twenty-four built in the UK before production halted due to a lack of sales. A version of the American Aeronca C-3, the 100 was built in England by Light Aircraft, Ltd. at nearby Peterborough. The British-built Aeronca was virtually identical to its American cousin with the exception of having more conventional fabric-covered ailerons instead of metal ones. Nick-named the 'Flying Bathtub' with the pilot sitting so low in the cockpit, landing was easy giving rise to the expression "Flying by the seat of your pants". G-AEVS, built in 1937, is operated by the Real Aeroplane Company from Breighton in Yorkshire, is called 'Jeeves' and is the longest serving RAC aircraft.
Elsewhere Sywell was its usual mix of barnstorming flying with warbirds, biplanes and jets, with all proceeds going to the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, which duly had a 'shout' during the afternoon, underlining the importance of its work. Our only grumble with Sywell is that we'll have to wait until 2010 for the next one!