In the mid-1960s, the engineers and aerodynamicists at Boeing faced a momentous task. Their assignment: to build the largest commercial jetliner ever conceived — one that would feature twice the tonnage and capacity of any existing plane — and make it pretty. Where to begin?
Well, specifically, you begin in the front, and in the back. “Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems,” explains the architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a recent issue of The New Yorker. “How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky — the top and the bottom, in other words.” By thinking of a jetliner as a horizontal skyscraper, we understand that its beauty is gained or lost chiefly through the sculpting of the nose and tail.
The plane eventually fashioned by Boeing was the iconic 747. It’s perhaps telling that today, strictly from memory, with the aid only of a pencil and a lifetime of watching airplanes, I am able to sketch both the fore and aft sections of the 747 with a startling degree of accuracy. Even for a talentless illustrator like myself, the sweeps and angles of the nose and empennage are drawn almost effortlessly. Looking at the finished product — or at a real 747 out on the tarmac — one notices an organic flow to the jet’s silhouette. For all its square-footage and power, it maintains a graceful, understated elegance.
The vertical stabilizer rises to greater than 60 feet — half or so the height of many airport control towers. Though essentially a six- story aluminum billboard, there’s something sexy in the fin’s cant — like the angled foresail of a schooner. Up front, it’s hard to look at a 747 without focusing on the plane’s most famous feature — its sloping, second-story penthouse deck. The 747 is often, and rather unfairly, derided as “bubble-topped” or “humpbacked.” In truth, while providing the plane with its most recognizable feature, the upper-deck annex is softly and smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward — the cockpit windscreens anthropomorphizing as eyebrows — to a stately and confident prow. All together, the plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner. “A gentleman’s airplane,” as one captain puts it. Or, putting it another way, it looks like what it is: an impeccable piece of high industrial art.
In the second grade, my two favorite toys both were Boeing 747s. The first was an inflatable replica — similar to one of those novelty balloons you buy at parades — with rubbery wings that drooped in such violation of the real thing that I taped them into position. To a nine year-old the toy seemed enormous, almost like my own personal Macy’s float. Second was a plastic plane about twelve inches long, with rubber wheels. Like the balloon, it was decked out in the livery of Pan Am, and even carried the name and registration of the airline’s flagship jumbo, Clipper America. One side of the fuselage was transparent, made of clear polystyrene through which an entire interior, row-by-row, could be viewed. The blue and red pastels of the tiny chairs is something I can still picture exactly.
But what most infatuated me was the spiral staircase, modeled in perfect plastic miniature near the toy plane’s nose. Early version 747s were always outfitted with a set of spiral stairs, leading from the forward boarding door to the plane’s famous upper deck, a design quirk that, in my mind if nobody else’s became an iconic representation of the airplane. In 1982, when I took my first trip on a real 747, I beamed at the sight of the winding column of steps, materializing just beyond the El Al purser who greeted me at the end of the Jetway. It gave the entranceway the look and feel of a lobby, like the grand vestibule of a cruise ship. Those stairs are in my blood — a genetic helix spinning upward to a kind of pilot Nirvana. (Alas, updated 747s dispatched with spirals and adopted a traditional, ladder-style staircase.)
In league with the Concorde, the 747 is one of the only true Jet Age celebrities. Since Concorde’s retirement in 2003, it stands by itself as civil aviation’s signature product — one of very few eminently and instantly distinguishable aircraft. Even the name itself — the rakish tilt of the 7s and the lyrical, palindromic ring: Seven-forty-seven.
From the other side of the Atlantic has come a different approach. “Air does not yield to style,” is a refrain attributed some years ago to an engineer at Airbus Industrie, Boeing’s main competitor. Right or wrong, he was addressing the fact that modern civil aircraft designs, the 747 and a few others notwithstanding, have been rapidly devolving to a point of total genericism. Jet Age romantics recall the provocative curves of machines like the Caravelle; the urbane superiority of the needle-nosed Concorde; the gothic surety of the 727. Now, they’re telling us, planes need to be boring, or worse, because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be. Not everyone believes it, and there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Boeing and Airbus have been at each other’s throats since the latter’s entry onto the aerospace battlefield with the A300, the first twin-engine widebody, in 1974. Those thirty years of competition reveal an odd cultural juxtaposition. The 747 isn’t the only good looking plane to emerge from Seattle in the past three decades, while after five baseline models and scores of variants, Airbus has given us only one true head-turner — the long-range A340. True to their contention that air and style are zero-sum variables, the Airbus consortium has produced a line of aircraft at once technologically exquisite and visually banal. Not long ago I was standing in an airport boarding lounge when a group of young women, seated near a window, began giggling as a small jetliner passed by the window. “Check out that goofy little plane,” one of the girls giggled. It was an Airbus A320, which you have to admit looks vaguely, well, dwarfish, as if it popped form an Airbus vending machine or hatched from an egg. You’d expect more, maybe, at $60 million apiece. And from the French, no less, builders of the Caravelle and who partnered in that most haughtily unmistakable of all airborne contraptions, Concorde. At heart, this is the story of a peculiar cultural victory — the Americans as the elite, trumping those boorish, tasteless Europeans. Who knew?
At Airbus, the pinnacle of aesthetic disregard was finally achieved upon rollout of the company’s latest and much-ballyhooed creation: the enormous, double-decked A380. With a maximum takeoff weight of 1,291,000 pounds, it is the first civilian airliner to exceed the million-pound mark. The Airbus A380 is the largest, most powerful, and most expensive commercial plane in history. And possibly the ugliest. With its abruptly pitched forehead and immense, swollen fuselage, it calls to mind a steroidal whale. I can’t begin to sketch the tail. It looks like a dozen other tails, except bigger.
Though, at the same time, not radically bigger. When the 747 debuted with Pan Am in 1970 (JFK-Heathrow was its maiden voyage), it was more than double the size and weight of its closest competitor, the stretched DC-8 from Douglas. A million pounds sure sounds like a lot — and indeed it is — but the Airbus A380 weighs in only about a third beyond the 747′s 875,000 pounds. Meanwhile, its much-hyped capacity limits of 800-plus passengers, not unlike the 747′s 570-plus potential, is likely to be seen only in rare, charter-only configurations. When it enters service with Singapore Airlines and Emirates in mid-2006, it will have room for about 500 riders. Some carriers, concentrating on first and business cabin amenities, are planning fewer seats than are found today on most 747s. The A380 is big; revolutionary it’s not.
Meanwhile, Boeing had not tweaked its 747 line since the -400 variant in the late 1980s. Sales had dropped off precipitously, and there was talk of the model going out of production. For a while it appeared that the A380 would be the only true high-capacity jetliner out there. For me at least, it was distressing to imagine the sight of a tarmac jammed with A380s; the 747 consigned to memory and old photographs.
But finally in November, 2005, after several teases and false starts, Boeing announced that it will go ahead and produce an advanced 747. For now, if not permanently, it is designated the 747-8. The nomenclature is a departure from Boeing’s usual ordered suffixing of -100, -200, -300, etc. While the aerogeek purist might gasp in disaffection, the name is a wily overture to Asia, where the bulk of sales are expected and where, in some cultures, the number 8 is considered fortuitous. The -8 will be available in both passenger and cargo options.
If you ask me, the best thing to like about the 747-8 isn’t the impressiveness of its performance data or its chances for sales. Quite simply, I’m enamored of the way it looks. Prominent tweaks are an all-new, futuristically raked wing, an extended upper deck, and a foursome of scalloped nacelles that help reduce engine noise. But from every angle it remains true to the original 747 profile.
As a kid, watching a whole generation of commercial airliners go ugly in front of me, I often wondered: why couldn’t somebody take a classic airliner, apply some aerodynamic nip and tuck, imbibe it with the latest cockpit and systems gizmos, and give it new life? Not as a retro novelty project, but as legitimate and viable airliner. Design trends speak to their age, it’s true, but commercial planes are built to last 20, 30, or 40 years. Certain forms are, or ought to be, permanently comfortable in that range. The 747-8 is one of those forms, and if Boeing’s back-to-the-future gamble isn’t the smartest thing to happen in commercial aviation in recent years, it’s definitely the slickest.
Over in Toulouse, Airbus is sucking its teeth, but swears the A380 is no white elephant. And how can we not agree? Looking at that beluga forehead again, that’s not doing justice to the grace of elephants. Does air yield to style? Maybe that’s the wrong question. For it certainly yields to a little imagination and effort.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and air travel columnist.
Patrick has visited more than 60 countries and always asks for a window seat. For more information, please visit:
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