HIGH ART: History, Hype, and The World’s Biggest Planes

Why can't you love me?   The A380 is a travesty of industrial design.

Why can’t you love me?   The A380 is a travesty of industrial design.

IN THE MID-1960s, aerodynamicists at Boeing, led by the visionary engineer Joe Sutter, 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 see that its beauty is gained or lost chiefly through the shaping of the nose and tail. The builders at Boeing understood Goldberger’s point exactly, and the airplane they came up with, 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 not a testament to my drawing skills, believe me. Rather, it’s a natural demonstration of the elegant, almost organic flow of the jet’s profile.

The tail rises to greater than 60 feet. Though it’s 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 recognizable feature—its second-story penthouse deck. The 747 is often — and unfairly — described as “bubble-topped” or “humpbacked.” In truth, the upper-deck annex is smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward to a stately and assertive prow. The plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner in the classic Queen Mary mold. There is something poetic and proud even in the name itself — the stylish tilt of the 7s and the lyrical, palindromic ring: seven-forty-seven.

The 747 was built for a market — high capacity, long haul — that technically didn’t exist yet. By the end of the 1960s, a growing population craved the opportunity to travel nonstop over great distances, but no plane was big enough, or had enough range, to make it affordable for the average person. Boeing’s four-engined 707 had ushered in the Jet Age several years earlier, but with room for about 180 passengers at most, its economies of scale were limited. The technological challenges and development costs of the 707 had been formidable, and planemakers were uneasy with the idea of building anything larger. It was up to Juan Trippe, the legendary leader of Pan Am, who’d been at the vanguard of the 707 project, to persuade Boeing that not only was an airplane with twice the 707’s capacity feasible, 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, nearly bankrupting itself in the process. Early-on engine problems were a costly embarrassment, 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 forever. For the first time, millions of flyers were able to cover tremendous distances at great speed — at affordable fares. Four-hundred passengers at a time — New York to Tokyo; Paris to Rio; Hong Kong to Sydney — moving at five-hundred miles per hour in a safe, spacious machine weighing close to a million pounds.

It’s not a stretch to consider the advent of the 747 as the most crucial turning point in the history of civil aviation, and over a nearly fifty-year production run it would go on to become one of the bestselling airliners of all time. Of all Boeing jets, only its little brother, the 737, would sell more copies.

747 at Kennedy Airport, 1997.   Author’s photo.

In the second grade, my two favorite toys were both 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’d tape them into proper position. To a seven-year-old it seemed enormous, like my own personal Macy’s float. The second toy was a plastic model about 12 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. I can still picture exactly the blue and red pastels of the tiny chairs.

Also visible, in perfect miniature near the toy plane’s nose, was a blue spiral staircase. Early 747s were outfitted with a set of spiral stairs connecting the main and upper decks – a touch that gave the entranceway a special look and feel. Stepping onto a 747 was like stepping into the lobby of a fancy hotel, or into the grand vestibule of a cruise ship. In 1982, on my inaugural trip on a 747, I beamed at my first real-life glimpse of that winding column. Those stairs are in my blood — a genetic helix twisting 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 the 747. It was a two-page, three-panel ad, 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 went on:

“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. The 747 is the symbol for air travelers in the hearts and minds of travelers. It is the airplane of far-off countries and cultures. Where will it take you?”

Perfect. I so related to this syrupy bit of PR that I clipped it from the magazine and kept it in a folder, where it resides to this day. Whenever it seemed my career was going nowhere (which was all the time), I’d pull out the ad and look at it.

Its grace, its capabilities, and its place in history give the 747 an unmatched mystique that transcends aviation. Its legacy belongs to the bigger, more important context of human imagination and achievement. The nature and travel writer Barry Lopez once authored an essay in which, from inside the hull 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.” No other airplane could arouse a comparison like that. Technologically, aesthetically, whichever — the 747 is without a doubt one the most impressive and inspirational works of industrial art ever produced.

Various other aircraft, while not as influential as the 747, have been nonetheless sexy in their own ways. Jet Age romantics recall the provocative curves of the Caravelle, the VC-10 and the L-1011. And every aircraft, even those of similar shapes and sizes, had a distinctive profile. You could tell a 707 from a DC-8, from five miles away. This distinctiveness is mostly gone. Planes nowadays tend to share the same generic blueprint: two engines below the wings, a nondescript tail, and a nose that could be any other nose. Planes used to look sculpted. Today they look like snap-together kits of interchangeable parts.

The trend has been a disheartening one, but Boeing, at least, has always put some thought into not only how its jets perform, but how they look. The 747 is the pinnacle of this effort, but other models too, past and present, have been head-turners: the 707 with its rakish tail antenna, or the unmistakable gothic lines of the 727. The 757 exuded power and confidence, as does the 777. Newest of all is the 787, with its bullet-train nose that evokes the Comet and the Caravelle, and a pair of magnificent wings that bend upward on takeoff, their tips rising nearly to the roofline of the cabin. As it leaves the runway the plane looks nearly alive, like some great seabird lifting its wings for flight.

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the philosophy of aircraft design has gone in a somewhat different direction. “Air does not yield to style” is a refrain attributed some years ago to an engineer at Airbus, the European collective that grew to become the world’s second-biggest aircraft manufacturer, and Boeing’s main competitor. Right or wrong, he was addressing how, or why, modern-day aircraft have become so bland. This, we’re told, is because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be.

True to its word, Airbus has produced a line of aircraft at once technologically exquisite and visually banal. Since its inception in 1970 the company has given us only one true stunner, its long-range A340. At best, the Airbus strategy seems centered around a belief that not enough people think air travel is boring. It’s a peculiar cultural juxtaposition — the Americans elite and tasteful, trumping those artless Europeans. Who knew?

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 taxied by the window. “Check out that little plane,” said one of them. It was an Airbus A319, which you have to admit looks vaguely, well, goofy — as if it popped from an Airbus vending machine or hatched from an egg.

Bad enough, but the height of aesthetic disregard was achieved upon rollout in 2005 of Airbus’s biggest and most ballyhooed creation: the enormous, double-decked A380. With a maximum takeoff weight of more than a million pounds, the Airbus A380 is the largest, most powerful, and most expensive commercial jet in history.

And possibly the ugliest. There is something grotesquely anthropomorphic about the A380, especially in the front, where its abruptly pitched forehead calls to mind a steroidal beluga. The rest of the plane is bloated, swollen, and graceless. It’s big for big’s sake — a huge, tottering wedding cake of a jetliner. Yet strangely, at the same time, it conveys an undignified squatness, as if embarrassed by its own girth. It’s the most self-conscious-looking plane I’ve ever seen.

When the A380 took to the air for its maiden test flight, the publicity was borderline hysterical. “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.” Over at the Airbus website they were channeling Neil Armstrong, inviting visitors to listen to the “first words of chief test pilot Jacques Rosay.” Oh the humanity.

I hate spoiling a party, but while the A380 is certainly big, revolutionary it is not. Consider that when the 747 debuted in 1970, it was an entire class of jetliner unto itself — more than double the size and weight of any existing plane. The A380 weighs in at only about 30 percent heavier than a 747. Meanwhile, its well-publicized capacity limits of seven-hundred-plus passengers are likely to be seen only in rare, high-density configurations. With airlines concentrating on first- and business-cabin amenities, most A380s are set up for about five hundred riders — slightly more than most 747s.

Emirates A380 and El Al 747 at Kennedy airport, 2014.

A380 and 747 at Kennedy airport.   Author’s photo.

And what of the future?

While the A380 was being doused with champagne and hyperbole, the 747 was flying into its fourth decade of operation, and age was catching up. The bulbous new ’Bus wasn’t much to look at, but it was loaded with high-tech gadgetry and the lowest seat mile operating costs ever seen. The 747’s last substantial redesign had been in 1989, and for all its history, it was rapidly approaching obsolescence.

In November, 2005, as if the ghost of Juan Trippe himself (he died in 1981) had drifted down for a pep talk, Boeing announced 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., but an overture to Asia, where the bulk of sales were expected and where the number eight is considered fortunate.) The plane entered service in early 2012. The freighter version, introduced by Luxembourg-based Cargolux, was first. Lufthansa debuted the passenger variant later in the year.

The 747-8 has a fuselage stretch of 12 feet and room for about thirty-five additional seats. The internal architecture was ugraded 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 a 22 percent trip cost advantage over the Airbus. Prominent external tweaks include a futuristically raked wing, an extended upper deck, and scalloped engine nacelles that reduce noise. From every angle, it remains true to the original profile. If anything, it’s prettier.

The big question, though, from the start, is whether there’d be room out there for two jumbo jets in an industry in which long-haul markets have steadily fragmented, trending toward smaller planes, not bigger ones.

The answer, a decade on, seems to be no. And it’s Boeing, for the most part, that has found itself on the losing end. Sales of the 747-8 have been sluggish at best, and after 49 years the assembly line is on the verge of closing down.

The A380 has sold better, but underwhelmingly so. And while Boeing put up around $4 billion for the 747-8, with most of the R&D borrowed from prior, already-funded projects, Airbus spent three times that amount concocting the A380 from scratch, and has barely broken even. If not for the massive, hundred-plus order from Emirates, it too would be deemed a failure. Outside of Dubai it exists only in scattered pockets of three, five, ten or a dozen aircraft: Air France, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Qantas, British Airways. Not a single A380 has been sold in North America.

As a kid, watching a whole generation of planes go ugly in front of me, I often wondered: why can’t somebody take a classic airliner, apply some aerodynamic nip and tuck, imbue it with the latest technology, and give it new life? Not as a retro novelty project, but as a viable airliner. The 747-8 is that plane.

Which is too bad, because Boeing’s back-to-the-future gamble appears to have fallen short. By the time you’re reading this, it’s possible that the final 747 has already been delivered.

Over in Toulouse the prognosis is slightly better, and Airbus insists that its A380 is no white elephant. And how can we not agree? As any glance at an A380 will tell you; 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.

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