At first glance, the Edgley Optica EA-7 looks like an edgy, newly designed aircraft built for the modern-age mission of low-and-slow surveillance or sightseeing. It also looks like a squatty dragonfly. Its helicopter-like cockpit mounted ahead of a ducted-fan motor provides three-abreast seating and an amazing 270-degree field view.
The aircraft’s twin boom construction, twin rudders and high-mounted tailplane give it a shape vaguely reminiscent of the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. The aircraft sits very low on the ground upon fixed tricycle landing gear. Its quiet noise signature both inside and outside of the cockpit is thanks to the large ducted fan mounted aft of the cabin powered by a 260 horsepower Lycoming IO-540, which turns a fixed-pitch, five-bladed prop.
Designed in the mid-1970s by John Edgley, then a post-graduate student at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, the aircraft went through several cycles of “on-again, off-again” enthusiasm in the public and commercial markets before gaining fairly recent serious interest in 2017 from the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance commercial and government entities looking to fill a niche for border patrol, wildlife management and fire-spotting missions.
The interest has yet to crystalize into funding, however. As of this writing, the latest iteration of the Optica project is seeking an airframe manufacturer. Throughout the world, around five aircraft of the 22 built remain airworthy. Two Opticas are believed to be in the U.S., with two in Australia flying aerial sightseeing tours and one that remains as a company demonstrator.
When Edgley designed the futuristic-looking Optica in 1974, he did so specifically for the role of air-to-ground observation. Initially designed with a 160 hp Lycoming IO-320, the production models included the more powerful Textron Lycoming 10-540-V4A5D flat-six cylinder engine. The original company, Edgley Aircraft, flew the prototype in December 1979, and the first production model was flown in August 1984. The aircraft was certified in May 1985. A fatal, pilot-induced (not design-induced) flying accident involving a police-operated Optica in that same year seemed to spook investors, which forced Edgley out of his own company. Optica Industries was formed and took over the Optica plant in December 1985 and restarted production. In the late 1980s, the Optica’s unusual looks earned it a starring role in the 1989 film “Slipstream” with Mark Hamill.
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While the Optica (thus far) never starred in another movie, at least so far, it enjoyed a brief stint among aerial photographers as a premier aviation photography platform. In 1987, arson destroyed the Optica Industries factory and all but one aircraft, causing the company to dissolve. Other iterations of Optica Industries came and went in the years that followed before Edgley brought three key members of the original team together to form AeroElvira Ltd. in 2008 to reintroduce the Optica and its variants to the market.
By then, post-9/11 interest in a low and slow manned aircraft, one that could fill intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles more economically and independently than drones or helicopters, presented renewed possibilities to produce the Optica en masse. Edgley continued to beat the bushes for a sponsor or buyer at Farnborough and the Paris Air Show through 2016 in order to relaunch production. With a maximum speed of 132 mph, a range of 650 miles, and a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet, the Optica’s primary selling point was not as a leading-edge surveillance aircraft. But with capabilities akin to a surveillance helicopter with far lower noise and at one-third the operating cost, the Optica is a far more economical aircraft while still providing excellent ISR capabilities.
Will the Optica reemerge from the back pages of aviation history? That remains to be seen, but either way, it has earned a place in aircraft lore as a product of imaginative engineering.