From Altamont, With Love | WAMC

From Altamont, With Love

Nov 7, 2019

A family in Altamont, New York has loaned a powered parachute used in the 1999 James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough” to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

The theatrical release poster for "The World is Not Enough," starring Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, and Denise Richards.

If you’re a Bond fan, then you know the scene: Pierce Brosnan’s 007 sports sunglasses and a popped collar while skiing in the mountains of Azerbaijan with the daughter of an oil tycoon – and suddenly they’ve got company.

Four henchman in “Parahawks” – black, motorized carts with machine guns and explosives – descend from the clouds on parachutes, throwing everything they’ve got from above as the MI6 agent hits the slopes.

“When I talk to people that saw it, they say, ‘Wow, that was really exciting!’ and everything. And to me, I was like, ‘Those things only go 25 miles an hour – he could have outrun them going down the hill easily!’” laughs Nick Viscio, who designed the model for those powered parachutes with his son, Nicholas, in the mid 1990s. While the hook-nosed Parahawks were built for battle – with skis, even, to convert them into snowmobiles upon landing – the “Blue Heron” marketed by the Viscio family business until 2015 was much tamer. A filmmaker himself, Viscio says his version was intended to fly low and slow for aerial footage.

“Because it’s a ram-type canopy, or parachute, the first thing that has to happen is for the aircraft to move forward, which launches the canopy into the air, and it inflates," he explains. "Once it inflates, it takes the shape of a wing. Once the pilot sees everything’s inflated, there’s no entanglement of the strings or whatever, you give it throttle and it takes off just like a plane.”

When Pinewood Studios reached out seeking to adapt some Blue Herons in 1999, the resulting Parahawk entered the Bond canon– and, in a way, espionage history. Between 24 films, 14 books, and countless comics and video games, International Spy Museum Curator and Historian Dr. Alexis Albion says Bond is bound to have an impact.

“For many people, popular culture, movies, TV shows – and for a lot of people, James Bond – is kind of their entry point into learning about intelligence and espionage," she notes. "They’re learning about some of the language, some of the ideas…So we do recognize for a lot of people that has formed their impressions of what spying is.”

The Viscio family business, Heldeberg Designs LLC, marketed the "Blue Heron" powered parachute from 1999 to 2015.
Credit Jesse King / WAMC

Many of those impressions are way off course. While Bond dodges explosives and surrounds himself with flashy cars, menacing villains and beautiful women, downing shaken martinis, Albion says a lot of today’s espionage takes place at a desk. By intercepting digital messages and analyzing satellite images, agencies can gather intelligence without sending someone into danger. Albion likens today’s spies to analysts and researchers.

“Once intelligence has been analyzed and packaged, it is passed on to decision makers, policymakers – they are the ones who make decisions about what to do or not to do with intelligence," she says. "In the Bond films, we usually see Bond doing all of that at once: collecting, figuring it out, and then making his own decision as to what to do.”

The International Spy Museum is in the process of making some decisions itself: the non-profit moved into a new building by the National Mall in May, and is still working out when and where it will feature the Parahawk in its exhibitions. Viscio says his aircraft is the last one in the U.S. He’s only flown it twice since “The World is Not Enough” – the added body around the airframe, he admits, makes it a little scary to pilot, and he’s eager to avoid a view to a kill.

But it’s still bittersweet to see it go.    

“It’s a little melancholy, because it’s kind of been around for almost 20 years with us – but it’s very exciting to have it go down to D.C., so we’re pretty excited," says Viscio. "We’ll be going down to the opening of the exhibition once it’s up and running.”