Type: hybrid jet/helicopter aircraft ("convertacoptor")
Significant date: 1999 (movie), 2005 (at Scaled)
For the movie The Sixth Day, Sony Pictures needed a futuristic vehicle that converts from a jet to a helicopter, for use by Arnold Schwartzenegger to get away from people that created his evil clone. The Whispercraft™ was designed by internationally-renowned artist Ron Cobb of Alien, Babylon 5 or Conan the Barbarian fame (Cobb also designed much of the cloning technology for the movie). The Whispercraft™ was conceived by Cobb as a “convertacoptor”, and digital effects company Apex turned the design into near-reality under the auspices of 3D modeler Doug Antonides, who generated a 3D model from a physical scale model and produced construction plans and full-size patterns for the full-scale mock-ups.
In the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Adam Gibson, an old-fashioned family man and the owner of a small aircraft rental company specializing in VTOL Whispercraft™, helicopter-like vehicles that can be flown by remote control, and whose blades can be "fixed" in flight to function as conventional wings. Gibson is not quite comfortable in a world where your pet can be cloned overnight and bananas come in different flavors. Adam, however, doesn't dismiss the new technology; his home is filled with modern conveniences, and the Whispercraft™ he pilots for a living is an extremely high-tech helicopter capable of transforming into a jet aircraft. But he doesn't embrace all facets of the new technology—his car is a Cadillac built in the 1950s rather than the battery-powered, computer-driven cars of the day, and he chooses to live in an old farmhouse in a rural neighborhood. In one scene, henchmen shoot one of these flying machines down. Later, while Gibson is stalked by killers, he uses the handset for guiding another Whispercraft™ to chase the villain across a rooftop, and then activates the remote-pilot's hover mode to escape by hanging onto the outside of the machine while still controlling it himself.
The movie's flying sequences were all done using computer graphics. The Rhythm & Hues company was in charge of CG. "It was a completely CG helicopter that had the ability to transform itself from a helicopter to jet propulsion," said Tom Leeser, visual effects supervisor and art director at R&H. The challenge was for computer graphics to simulate an object audiences are used to seeing in real life. While the Whispercraft™ is a more futuristic version of a helicopter, viewers can still compare it to the other helicopters they've seen. "It wasn't necessarily so in the future that you would be able to get away with certain unbelievable things," Leeser said. "It didn't do anything outside of our world. It just did it better." To help himself understand the theory behind the Whispercraft™ technology, Leeser did a lot of research on how helicopters move. "What we wanted to do was push the limits of what was physically possible. Spottiswoode had done a lot of flying himself, so he brought along his personal experience. He wanted something that would take the audience beyond reality."
In the course of the film, the Whispercraft™ appears in full daylight, which made the 3D work that much more complex to achieve, with no place to conceal mistakes. "One of the biggest challenges was to create photo-realistic imagery right in your face," Murphy said. In one tough sequence, with backgrounds shot in an area just north of Vancouver, the characters played by Schwarzenegger and Michael Rapaport fly through canyons in the Whispercraft™ in broad daylight. "It introduces the Whispercraft™ in terms of its transformation capabilities," Leeser said. The craft was created using proprietary Rhythm & Hues 3D software, with Silicon Grail's Chalice used for compositing.
As envisioned by Ron Cobb, the Whispercraft™ could sweep its two rotor blades at 30º backward after stop spinning the rotor. To get the rotor spinning again, the sweep would be undone firstly. This entire procedure would be automatically done once the pilot activates the locking switch. In helicopter mode, the aircraft could take off and land in dense urban environments. Once it reached a certain altitude and speed, the rotor blades would form a locked V-shaped position, turning it into a fixed-wing aircraft with incredible speed, maneuverability and distance. It could be flown by a remote control assembly that the pilot straps to his forearm. However, when the Whispercraft™ transitions from jet mode to helicopter mode (and vice versa) in the movie, they lose absolutely no altitude, which seems highly improbable to an aviation specialist. In real life, according to engineer David Lednicer, a similar craft "never could have flown". Other observers remarked: "it looks like they aren't planning on much cyclic motion. (...) it would be easy to remove the tail boom by pulling back on the stick. (...) Stick forward would get pretty close to the cockpit as well, which could be a headache."
Live action scenes were shot on location in Vancouver, British Columbia. Two mock-ups were built for the movie, and although they did not actually fly, everything was done to render the aircraft as realistic as possible. The Whispercraft™ were a blend of high-tech materials covered with a poly-composited fiberglass finish and fitted with a computerized dashboard and working rotorblades. The mock-ups could even spin their rotors, and aviation subcontractor IDEC (through the Wesco company’s Vancouver office) even supplied switches and LED illuminated devices for the Whispercraft™, adding to the type's realism. Getting the 7,000 pound vehicle up to the rooftops was itself quite a challenge. A giant crane, a crew of 40 and lots of patience were required to lift the craft into place.
The story goes that the fictional Whispercraft™ were based on actual variable-wing VTOL concepts under development by the U.S. government. Yet the story may be more complicated than that. A few years back, some military officials got together and wondered whether Hollywood could play a part in the U.S. defense effort. They were looking, strangely enough, for fresh ideas in designing the Army of the future. Stranger still, it turned out that Hollywood had plenty of ideas, some of them good ones. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Army drew on its pool of Hollywood experts to come up with possible terrorism scenarios to help with training and preparedness.
A small group of entertainment-industry recruits has since been given the task of grappling with combat-related questions. They offer some ideas in the form of short films that illustrate proposed new equipment, or video games for training. Other proposals come as drawings and mock-ups of futuristic tanks, uniforms and helicopters. "Entertainment people think in a totally different way from conventional business and scientific thinking," explains Richard Lindheim, executive director for the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), the Marina Del Rey think tank where the Army and Tinseltown collaborate. In interviewing Ron Cobb, they suggested that he look at the "whispercraft" in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "The Sixth Day," a helicopter that converts to an airplane and back again. Cobb was already familiar with the plane -- since he'd designed it!
The only surviving mock-up arrived at the Hansens' hangar at Mojave in the summer 2003, still carrying the movie's fictitious registration N9747P (the FAA has reserved fictitious tail numbers N88892, N9748C and N9747P specifically for movies). The movie set builders did a masterful job, as evidenced by the number of people have been fooled by its presence on the tarmac there. The Whispercraft™ was last seen behind Scaled Composites' hangar in 2005, although it is not known exactly what purpose the mock-up is fulfilling there. Though no information seems to back the theory at present time, it is possible that Scaled was initially responsible for completion of the mock-up, and has been asked to refurbish it for exhibition status at Santa Monica Airport's small aviation museum.
™ indicates a Ron Cobb trademark.
Population: 2 mock-ups built
Pictures: Alan Radecki - Michael W. Rosa - Ken Robbins