When Nicholas Viscio’s docile powered parachute designs got their on-screen debut, they looked quite different from his original idea.
Featured in the film “The World is Not Enough,” the Parahawks were intimidating and agile, flying fast through the air above the mountains of Chamonix, France.
When they hit the ground, they transformed into villainous-looking snowmobiles, heading straight for James Bond.
“I never would have thought that a powered parachute would become an evil chase machine of any sort,” Viscio said.
The Altamont filmmaker began designing powered parachutes with his son Nicholas Daniel Viscio, who is an engineer, in the late 1990s with the intent that the aircraft would be behind the camera.
“This was back before you had drones. Drones now have replaced all of this. But powered parachutes were the stepping stone from a helicopter, which is very expensive to do simple aerials. . . I got interested in taking a look at what could be done with a design [that] would make it more suitable for aerial cinematography,” Viscio said.
He and his son created the Blue Heron Powered Parachute, which had an open front, allowing the pilot a clear vantage view of the sky and the ground below. The frame was lightweight but durable and the aircraft could go 100 miles on one tank of gas.
After they built the initial one, calls and requests from filmmakers and parachuters alike started pouring in.
“. . . that kept happening and sooner or later we decided it was going to become another adventure for us,” Viscio said.
Viscio, his wife, Marie, and son formed Helderberg Designs LLC and developed a line of powered parachutes for the sport aircraft market, as well as the film industry. The machines have been used to film many BBC projects and were used by plenty of parachute enthusiasts.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they were used on-screen. Allan Hewitt, a stunt pilot who was involved in “The World is Not Enough,” came across the Viscio’s Blue Heron design and felt it would be perfect for the film. The creators purchased 17 of the powered parachutes and Pinewood Studios transformed them into several nefarious machines, four of which are featured on screen.
“They used the base airframe and designed their cowling around it. The body of the aircraft was a visual metaphor [for] the bad guy in the film,” Viscio said.
The villain’s name is Renard and he has a distinctive, hooked nose. The front of the aircraft resembles that aesthetic, with its sleek black body and curved tip.
As part of the storyline, they were renamed Parahawks. The devices are first seen when James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) and Elektra King (played by Sophie Marceau) are skiing down majestic mountains. When they pause, the pair starts to notice the loud hum of four Parahawk vehicles and soon the pilots start shooting and throwing grenades at them as they try to ski away. After one of the machines gets tangled in a tree and explodes, two detach their parachutes and continue the chase on the snow.
However, the vehicles shot in the latter scene are quite different from Viscio’s original design.
“The snowmobile was a different vehicle. It wasn’t actually the same machine because they weren’t capable. There were some components were used to fake out the snowmobile frames,” Viscio said.
While two of the Parahawks from the film were purchased by other foundations and organizations, Viscio had one shipped back to him after filming. For many years after “The World is Not Enough” came out the Parahawks were in high demand.
“It went to air shows. Our dealers would borrow it and bring it to their hometown parades. It was shown a couple of times down at the Albany Airport,” Viscio said.
The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. contacted the Viscios, asking if they could display it.
“We weren’t interested in the time because it was being shown at airshows and it was an attraction. We had it on the road a lot back then, that was in the heyday of our business,” Viscio said.
However, about four years ago, the family decided to shut down Helderberg Designs. Viscio wanted to get back into filmmaking (and indeed he created “A Calling” which first came out in 2018) and he’s currently working on a short and looking into other documentary projects.
“It had been sitting around for so long since the business closed. It’s quite an item to show your friends but we started to think that it would probably do a lot better in a different venue,” Viscio said.
He reached out to the International Spy Museum and within a few months signed an agreement with the museum to loan it for the next decade.
In recent months the International Spy Museum has undergone a drastic change. It first opened in 2002 in the Penn Quarter of Washington, D.C. with about 19,000 square feet of space to exhibit some of the most famous espionage artifacts. Earlier this year, it moved to a new building shaped like a trapezoid at L’Enfant Plaza, increasing its exhibition space by 13,000 square feet.
With the added space, has come added artifacts, like the Viscios’ Parahawk. The museum picked up the vehicle a few weeks ago and while it was strange to see it go, Viscio said he’s excited to see it on display in the museum.
According to the museum, the Parahawk will be on display in the next month or so. The Museum is located at 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, D.C. For more info visit spymuseum.org.