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 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 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 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 recognizable 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 to a stately and assertive prow. The plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner in the classic QE2 mold. 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.

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. 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 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.

747 at Kennedy airport, 1997

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 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.

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.

British Airways 747-400 at Boston-Logan, 2011

I own several books about the 747. They are loaded with glam shots: sexily angled pics of landing gear, wings and tails; a soft-focus picture of a turbofan. There’s a word for this kind of thing: pornography, and you see it with cars and motorcycles and guns too — 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 has brought it closest, I feel, with its erudite melding of left and right brain sensibilities. The 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.”

On the other side of the ocean, however, designers don’t seem to be thinking this way. “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. Planes are a lot more boring now, we’re told, because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be.

But is this really the case? The 747 is one of several good-looking planes to emerge from Seattle since the early 70s, 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 Europeans 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 juxtaposition — 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. There is something grotesquely anthropomorphic about the front of the A380, its abruptly pitched forehead calling to mind a steroidal beluga. The rest of the plane is bloated, swollen and graceless. It’s 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.”

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

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

And what of the future?  While the A380’s was being doused with champagne and hyperbole, the 747 was flying into its fourth decade of operation.  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 was rapidly approaching obsolescence.  Would the A380 soon be only true jumbo jet?

Finally, in November, 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, and a wily overture to Asia, where the bulk of sales are expected and where the number 8 is often considered fortuitous.)  The plane entered service in early 2012.  The freighter version, introduced by Luxembourg-based Cargolux, was first.  Lufthansa debuted the passenger variant later that year.

The passenger version has a fuselage stretch of 12 feet and room for about 35 additional seats.  Those are minor 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.

The big question, though, is whether there is room out there for two jumbo jets.  It remains to be seen if the 747 and A380 can coexist in an industry in which long-haul markets have steadily fragmented, trending toward smaller planes, not bigger ones.  The need for an ultra-high capacity aircraft is still out there, but not in the numbers of times past.

One way that Boeing has hedged its bets is by showcasing a freighter option right from the start.  Cargo variants typically arrive later, not first.  The 747’s well-established history as an outstanding cargo-hauler assures a certain sales buffer should the passenger model stumble.  And 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.  Airbus spent three times that amount concocting the A380 from scratch.

But in my opinion, the best thing to like about the new 747 is the obvious one: 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 profile.  If anything it’s prettier.

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, profitable airliner.  The 747-8 is that plane.  Boeing’s back-to-the-future gamble may or may not make a profit, but either way it’s still pretty slick.

Over in Toulouse, Airbus swears that its A380 is no white elephant.  And how can we not agree?  Looking at that 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.


A version of this essay appears in the new book. Click here!


Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!