So your mission requires a helicopter, but you have a couple of challenges to overcome. Helicopter daily operating expenses are quite high and even more expensive to maintain in the long run. Noise is also a big factor. The final big expense is the initial purchase price. So where to now?
The Edgley EA-7 Optica, nicknamed ‘The Flying Eye’ was designed to fill the role of a helicopter.
Designed by John Edgley in the mid-1970s and built in Britain as a low-speed observation aircraft, this aircraft can loiter extremely slowly for long periods of time. Pilots love this aircraft because it is also extremely stable and has long endurance. This makes it perfect as a camera platform, or suited for observation duties in nature conservation, traffic monitoring, policing, power line inspections or border patrol.
The Optica is rather odd looking with a cockpit seemly looking like the front of an insect, and although unique in shape, it could seat three occupants. With its panoramic 270 degree all round windows, this aircraft offers views like no other, even under your feet.
Another unique design was the engine placement. Looking rather futuristic, the engine is encased in a circular shroud behind the cockpit very much like many popular drones and vertical aircraft being designed today. Looking very much like a jet engine, the design reduced the noise signature of the propeller significantly.
Powered by a 260hp Lycoming engine, the Optica could reach top speeds of 132mph (213kph). More impressive was the low stall speed of only 67 mph (108 kph), with a recommended loitering speed of 81 mph (130 kph). Fuel consumption was so low, that eight hours of endurance was not uncommon.
The Optica operates at one-third the cost of a traditional helicopter, without the vibration of a helicopter, and has better range and endurance. Another great benefit of the Optica is less stress on sensitive equipment like FLIR, cameras and sensors.
Landing gear was fixed tricycle, and the aircraft was built using traditional all-metal construction, helping to reduce maintenance costs. Stall strips and vortex generators helped improve the low-speed handling.
But the aircraft was not the success it should have been, as fate had other ideas. One of the problems was the aircraft was designed too far ahead of its time, with its first flight taking place in 1979.
Another was the fatal crash of an early production aircraft in 1985, killing two people when the aircraft stalled at a high angle of bank, something the aircraft was not designed for. Making matters worse was an arson attack on the factory in 1987 when 14 new production aircraft were destroyed, plus numerous tooling equipment also lost.
However John Edgley persisted, renaming the aircraft the Scout Master and building another nine aircraft by 1990. Ultimately the goal was to build around 200 aircraft, but public confidence was lost and sales reduced to almost zero. No more Opticas were built after 1990.
In 2016 there was talk of starting production again with new avionics, new engine and a ballistic chute. Maybe the time is now right to bring this aircraft back to the market in 2023.
Length: 26 feet 9 inches
Wingspan: 39 feet 4 inches
Height: 7 feet 7 inches
Wing area: 170.5 square feet
Empty weight: 2,090 lbs
Max takeoff weight: 2,899 lbs
Fuel capacity: 66 US gallons
Power plant: 1 × Textron Lycoming IO-540-V4A5D 260 horsepower air-cooled flat-six engine
Propellers: 5-bladed fixed-pitch ducted fan
Images: Anthony Noble and Flightglobal