You probably remember it from the Bond classic Octopussy, where the Roger Moore piloted the tiny BD-5J microjet through a hangar to dodge a missile. It was one of the Bond Franchise's most memorable moments. Some 30 years later, the tiny BD-5J has found a new purpose in life, not dodging missiles on screen, but masquerading as one over the simulated battlefield.
The BD-5 was originally introduced in the 1970s as a kit-built aircraft that was designed by aviation pioneer Jim bede and his resourceful team, including Burt Rutan. The aircraft was originally offered in two forms, one with a piston engine prop configuration utilizing different motors by Rotax and Honda and another with a tiny turbojet engine that is just 12 inches wide. The little tubrojet only weighed 80lbs but it put out about 250lbs of thrust. Later on even a micro-turboprop configuration was flown.
Developing the world's tiniest high-performance aircraft was fraught with challenges, and weight was always a major consideration as the aircraft would almost double in mass once it was fueled with 35 gallons of gas and a pilot strapped into it. In the early 1970s, advanced flight simulators were massive and expensive machines, so the Bede team had to come up with an economical and realistic way to learn how to land the fragile microjet. Burt Rutan explains how they ended up attaching the BD-5 to the front a truck and using it as a poor-man's simulator (see the photo and video below).
Much of what Burt Rutan would learn from Jim Bede, especially about composite structures, would be rolled into Scaled Composites, a company that has changed the way the world looks at aviation and aerospace design. Think of it as the more civilian aviation focused Lockheed Skunk Works if you will.
After its design and testing stages were complete, BD-5J weighed about 400lbs, could fit inside a truck for transportation, and its performance was impressive, with a top speed of over 300mph, a rate of climb of 4,000ft a minute, a range of some 350+ miles and a ceiling of over 24,000ft.
During the 1980s, the BD-5Js were popular on the air show circuit and Coors sponsored a pair of the jets called "The Silver Bullets" for multiple seasons. In the 1990s, Budweiser used the BD-5J as "The Bud Light Jet" as well.
The BD-5J was always a hit with the crowd, but the wildest part of the act was when the little jet would taxi by the crowd line at the end of its performance and people could really could see just how tiny the thing they just watched rocket around the sky truly was.
Many BD-5s crashed over the years, with multiple notable air show crashes included, and even though about 5,000 BD-5 kits were sold, only a few hundred were ever completed, and only around 100 remain airworthy today. Thus calling the aircraft a success would be questionable, but it did set records, entertained thousands, and thrilled many who flew it, although it killed some too.
By the turn of the millennium, the diminutive BD-5J's novelty may have slightly worn off but its potential when it comes to weapons development and training was just emerging.
With the proliferation of cruise missiles throughout the world, some of which have been obtained by less than desirable people, including non-governmental actors, and the reality of a post 9/11 world, the Defense Department refocused its efforts at developing better anti-cruise missile and anti-ship missile capabilities. The problem was that cruise missiles have a relatively tiny radar signature, and seeing that many types of these missiles fly nap-of-the-earth attack profiles, spotting them yet alone reliably engaging them remained a challenging to say the least.
Semi-expendable target drones, such as a the BGM-74 Chukar, are good for testing and training duties on tightly controlled missile ranges, but they are not really usable for large force employment exercises, not to mention they are expensive and need to be refurbished after each use. On the other hand, a manned aircraft can make multiple intricate 'test passes' and it can be flown over and over in a single a day, which allows for more rapid testing.
So for live-fire testing of a new SAM system or air-to-air missile, using drones makes sense, but what happens when you want to put multiple systems to the test, all working together in a simulated operational combat scenario, and in crowded airspace that is not a highly sanitized missile range? This is where the BD-5J based Small Manned Aerial Target model One (SMART-1) and its tiny radar signature comes in to play.
SMART-1 offers the DoD an incredibly inexpensive cruise missile simulator. Because it is manned, SMART-1 can participate in large force exercises without having the massive infrastructure and intricate airspace planning that an unmanned target drone requires. SMART-1's sortie rate is also virtually unlimited, so it can fly economically in multiple mission evolutions in a single day and it can even provide multiple missile attack profiles on a single mission.
Because SMART-1 has a master pilot onboard, changing missions and routes in real time is possible, as is a full debrief from the SMART-1 pilot's perspective. This is a key 'selling point,' especially when the SMART-1 goes up against other aircraft or front-line SAM systems during exercises. Additionally, the BD-5J can pull up to six Gs, so it can mimic the abrupt terminal attack patterns of some of the latest cruise and anti-ship missiles.
For fighter aircraft, especially those fielded with AESA radar arrays that are more adept at detecting and engaging small, low-flying targets like cruise missiles, the SMART-1 is not only a hard radar target to detect, but it is also an incredibly hard visual target to spot, and its infrared signature is relatively tiny, as is with most air breathing guided missiles.
So whether a defense contractor is developing a new radar system that needs to be put through its paces, or the Marines need a gaggle of cruise missile simulators for their next Weapons Tactics Instructor (WTI) course culmination exercise, Jim Bede's 40 year old 'missile with a man in it' can provide its services at a comparatively bargain basement price.
I mean if it is good enough for Bond and MI6 it has to be good enough for DoD right?
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com