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May 25, 2012

High Art: History, Hype and The World’s Biggest Planes

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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An Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8 Freighter on display at the 2011 Paris Air Show. (Photo by Rohan Visvanathan, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2007, so some of the numbers might be outdated, but the piece’s general message is still accurate.

In the mid-1960s, 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 an issue of The New Yorker. “How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky — the top and the bottom, in other words.” 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 engineers at Boeing understood Goldberger’s point exactly, and the airplane they came up, the iconic 747, is an aesthetic equal of the grandest Manhattan skyscraper.

It’s perhaps telling that today, strictly from memory, with only the aid of a pencil and a lifetime of watching airplanes, I am able to sketch the fore and aft sections of the 747 with surprising ease and accuracy. This is hardly a testament to my drawing skills. On the contrary, it is a natural demonstration of the elegant, almost organic flow of the jet’s profile.

The tail rises to greater than 60 feet. 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 recognizeable feature — its second-story penthouse deck. The 747 is often, and rather unfairly, described as “bubble-topped” or “humpbacked.” In truth the upper-deck annex is smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward — the cockpit windscreens anthropomorphizing as eyebrows — to a stately and assertive prow. The plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner in the classic QE2 mold.

The 747 was built for a market — high capacity, long-haul — that while potentially prodigious, technically didn’t exist yet. At the end of the 1960s, no shortage of people craved the opportunity to travel nonstop over great distances, but no plane was big enough, or had enough range, to make it affordable. Boeing’s 707, a kind of 747 in miniature, ushered in the jet age several years earlier, but lacked the economies of scale to exploit the most distantly separated and heavily traveled city pairs.

There might never have been a 747 if not for Juan Trippe, visionary leader of Pan Am, who’d been at the vanguard of the 707 project. He persuaded Boeing CEO William Allen that an airplane with twice the 707′s capacity was not only possible, it was a revolution waiting to happen. He was right, even if vindication didn’t come easy. Boeing took a chance and built Trippe his superjet, and nearly bankrupted itself in the process. The plane’s teething problems became legend, and sales were alarmingly slow at the outset. But on January 21, 1970, Pan Am’s Clipper Victor made the maiden voyage on the New York-London milk run, and the dynamics of global air travel were changed for good. It’s not a stretch to consider the advent of the 747 as the most crucial turning point in the history of commercial aviation, allowing millions of fliers to cover tremendous distances at great speed — at affordable fares.

Fast forward 40 years, and the 747 is one the best-selling airliners of all time. Of all passenger jets still in production, only its little brother, the 737, has sold more copies.

In league with the supersonic Concorde, the 747 became a Jet Age celebrity and remains one of very few eminently and instantly distinguishable aircraft. There is something poetic and proud even in the name itself — the rakish tilt of the 7s and the lyrical, palindromic ring: Seven-forty-seven.

In the second grade, my two favorite toys both were 747s. The first was an inflatable replica, similar to those novelty balloons you buy at parades, with rubbery wings that drooped in such violation of the real thing that I taped them into proper position. To a seven year-old the toy seemed enormous, like my own personal Macy’s float. Second was a plastic model about twelve inches long. Like the balloon, it was decked out in the livery of Pan Am. One side of the fuselage was made of clear polystyrene, through which the entire interior, row-by-row, could be viewed. The blue and red pastels of the tiny chairs is something I can still picture exactly.

Ditto for the blue spiral staircase, modeled in perfect miniature near the toy plane’s nose. Early version 747s were always outfitted with a set of spiral stairs connecting the main and upper decks. 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 purser who greeted me at the end of the jet bridge. 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, later-variant 747s adopted a traditional, ladder-style staircase.)

In the 1990s, Boeing ran a magazine advertisement for its 747. The ad was a two-pager, with a nose-on silhouette of the plane against a dusky sunset. “Where/does this/take you?” asked Boeing across the centerfold. Below this dreamy triptych the text read: “A stone monastery in the shadow of a Himalayan peak. A cluster of tents on the sweep of the Serengeti plains. The Boeing 747 was made for places like these. Distant places filled with adventure, romance, and discovery.” I so related to this syrupy bit of PR that I clipped it from the magazine and kept it in a folder. Whenever it seemed my career was going nowhere, which was all the time, I’d pull out the ad and look at it.

Nature and travel writer Barry Lopez once authored an essay in which, standing inside the fuselage of an empty 747 freighter, he compares the aircraft to the quintessential symbol of another era — the Gothic cathedral of twelfth-century Europe. “Standing on the main deck,” Lopez writes, “where ‘nave’ meets ‘transept,’ and looking up toward the pilots’ ‘chancel.’ … The machine was magnificent, beautiful, complex as an insoluble murmur of quadratic equations.”

Meanwhile, 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, the European consortium that is Boeing’s main competitor. Right or wrong, he was addressing the fact that modern civil aircraft designs have become so bland and uninspired as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another. In addition to the 747, Jet Age romantics recall the provocative curves of the Caravelle; the urbane superiority of the needle-nosed Concorde; the gothic confidence of the 727. Now, we’re told, planes need to be boring, or worse, because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be?

Boeing and Airbus have been at each other’s throats since the latter’s entry onto the aerospace battlefield in 1974. Those thirty years of competition reveal an odd cultural juxtaposition. The 747 isn’t the only goodlooking plane to emerge from Seattle in the past three decades, yet Airbus has given us only one true head-turner — its 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.

Once 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,” said one of them. 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 $50 million apiece. And from the French, no less. This is the story of a peculiar cultural victory — the Americans as the elite and tasteful, trumping those boorish 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 beluga. It is big for big’s sake, yet at the same time conveys an undignified squatness, as if embarrassed by its own girth. It is the most self-conscious looking airliner I’ve ever seen. I can’t begin to sketch the tail. It looks like a dozen other tails, except much bigger.

Though, at the same time, not radically bigger. When the 747 debuted with Pan Am in 1970, 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 30 percent heavier than a 747. Meanwhile, its well-publicized capacity limits of 800-plus passengers is likely to be seen only in rare high-density configurations. As airlines, concentrating on first and business cabin amenities, most A380s have room for about 500 riders. The A380 is big; revolutionary it’s not.

Though you wouldn’t know it listening to the media. The puffery got going in the spring of 2005, when the Airbus A380 took to the air for its maiden test flight. “The most anticipated flight since Concorde leapt from the pavement in 1969″ cried one news report. “Straight into the history books” said another of the “gargantuan double-decked superjumbo.” Oh the humanity. Over on the the Airbus web site they were channeling Neil Armstrong, inviting visitors to listen to the “first words of chief test pilot Jacques Rosay.”

Regardless of what they look like, is there room out there for two jumbo jets? Can the 747 and A380 coexist in an industry that has long been trending toward smaller planes, not bigger ones?

Markets that were once the 747′s dominion have been steadily fragmenting. In America in the 1970s, heading overseas meant catching a flight on TWA or Pan Am from one of the country’s few transoceanic gateways. Today it might be a US Airways flight out of Philadelphia; Continental from Houston; Delta from Salt Lake City. The same has been happening in Europe and Asia: more flights from more cities, using smaller planes. Years ago, one could stand at Kennedy airport and watch ten 747s roar past in a row. Today those departures are likely to be smaller 767s and A330s. Leaner and cheaper to run, these planes can bring in long-haul profits even with a comparatively paltry 200 or 250 seats. The success of Boeing’s own 777 and upcoming 787, twin-engine long-haulers with near-747 lift at a portion of the operating expenses, would seem to make the 747′s future appear bleak.

But the need for a new, ultra-high capacity aircraft is still out there — albeit in lesser numbers than in times past, and mostly on routes to or from Asia and the Middle East. Over the years, Boeing repeatedly tinkered with the idea of overhauling the 747 to target this niche, each time deciding against it. Airbus, on the other hand, and after no lack of hesitance on its own part, went ahead with the A380. The bulbous new ‘bus brims with the fanciest high-tech gadgetry and the promise of unprecedented reliability. It boasts the lowest seat-mile operating costs — i.e. how many pennies it takes to move one person one mile, the gauge by which airlines live and die — ever seen.

Finally, in 2005, as if the ghost of Juan Trippe himself (he died in 1981) had drifted down for a pep talk, Boeing made the move it should have made sooner, announcing that it would, after several false starts, go ahead and produce an advanced 747, 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, this is a wily overture to Asia, where the bulk of sales are expected and where the number 8 is often considered fortuitous. The -8 will be available in both passenger and cargo options — the latter slightly larger.

The passenger version has a fuselage stretch of 12 feet and room for about 35 additional seats. Those are not A380-esque enlargements, but extra seating is secondary. Boeing’s real mission was to upgrade the plane’s internal architecture to cutting-edge standards, drawing from advancements already in place on the 777 and 787. Airlines can bank on a 12 percent fuel efficiency advantage and an eye-popping 22 percent trip cost advantage over the Airbus. That’s 22 percent better operating costs per flight, but only a token fewer seats — i.e. less revenue — in most configurations.

In terms of range and capacity, the -8 will nestle in between the 777 and the A380 — exactly where the 747-400 is positioned today. The worldwide 747 fleet stands at around 1,000 — more than any Boeing model save the 737 — and most of those ships will be facing retirement during the next two decades. For companies like Japan Airlines, with more than 50 747s already on its roster, sticking with the platform would entail a relatively seamless transition.

And showcasing a freighter option right from the start — cargo variants typically arrive later — is a way for Boeing to hedge its bets. Airbus has done the same with the A380, but the 747′s well-established history as an outstanding cargo-hauler assures a certain sales buffer should the passenger model stumble. Not surprisingly, the earliest 747-8 commitments, for up to 35 examples, have come from a pair of renowned freight carriers, Japan’s Nippon Cargo Airlines and Luxembourg-based Cargolux. Both are long-time users of 747 freighters.

Thus, the 747-8 might seem to be less of a head-to-head rival to the A380 than a replacement option for 747s now in the air. But in truth, numerous airlines are currently undecided on taking that extra step toward the bigger, more expensive Airbus. Presence of the 747-8 could send many, or even most of them, running to Boeing. Why stake your future on an altogether unproven airframe?

Should the whole thing flop? Boeing has put up about $4 billion for 747-8, with most of the R&D borrowed from prior, already funded projects. In concocting its own behemoth from scratch, Airbus has spent three times that amount.

But in my opinion, the best thing to like about the 747-8 isn’t the impressiveness of its performance data. Quite simply, I’m enamored of the way it looks. Prominent tweaks are a futuristically raked wing, an extended upper deck, and scalloped engine nacelles that reduce noise, but from every angle it remains true to the original 747 profile.

As a kid, watching a whole generation of commercial planes go ugly in front of me, I often wondered: why can’t somebody take a classic airliner, apply some aerodynamic nip and tuck, imbibe it with the latest technology, and give it new life? Not as a retro novelty project, but as a viable, profitable airliner. Design trends speak to their age, it’s true, but commercial planes are built to last 30 or 40 years. Why not be permanently comfortable in that range? The 747-8 surely is, and if Boeing’s back-to-the-future gamble isn’t the smartest thing to happen in 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 obviously it yields to a little imagination and effort.

I own several books about the 747. They are loaded with glam shots: sexily angled pics of landing gear; views of the tail; a soft-focus picture of a turbofan. There’s a word for this kind of thing: pornography. Yes, you see this with cars and motorcycles too, and maybe guns as well — the sexualization of mechanical objects. Unfortunately for now, respect for aircraft has been unable to make it past this kind of adolescent fetishizing. What aviation needs, I think, is some crossover cred. The 747 comes close, with its erudite melding of left and right brain sensibilities, but still, you won’t find framed lithographs of the jet in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones of Boston, hanging alongside romanticized images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. I won’t feel vindicated, maybe, until the plane gets its own ten-part, sepia-toned Ken Burns documentary.

Sadly it was a friend of mine, not me, who became the first pilot I knew to fly a 747, setting off for Shanghai and Sydney while I flew to Hartford and Harrisburg. Closest I’ve gotten is the occasional upstairs seating assignment. The upper deck is a cozy room with an arched ceiling like the inside of a miniature hangar. I’ll recline up there, basking in the self-satisfaction of having made it, at least one way, up the spiral stairs. I had an upper-deck seat to Nairobi once on British Airways. Prior to pushback I wandered into the cockpit unannounced, to have a look, thinking the guys might be interested to learn they had another pilot on board. They weren’t. I’d interrupted their checklist, and they asked me to go away and slammed the door. “Yes, we do mind,” said the second officer in a voice exactly like Graham Chapman.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author behind the site AskThePilot.com. In his spare time he has visited more than 70 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Patrick Smith



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