WE START WITH A QUOTE: “Who cares what it looks like?”
That was the sentiment of an emailer responding to my opinion that the Airbus A380 is possibly — no, wait, definitely — the ugliest commercial jetliner ever built.
“I spend my time inside the aircraft, not outside, he continues. “I don’t care what the A380 looks like. If it’s big, then maybe passengers will have more room and the economy class nightmare won’t be so bad.”
True, perhaps, on that latter point, but I’m having a hard time with the premise. I passionately submit that it does, absolutely, matter what the airplane looks like. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I like to think of the jetliner as something loftier — both literally and figuratively — than a mere vehicle, and thus deserving of the same aesthetic seriousness bestowed across a wide range of industrial design. Obviously this is nothing specific to aviation, but a point that speaks to design in general: do we not care what our bridges and skyscrapers look like, functionality aside?
Of course we do.
If you ask me, the emailer’s opinion is symptomatic of the public’s all but vanished appreciation for air travel. Flying has become so routine, and so uncomfortable, that few people stop to consider the impressiveness of soaring thousands of feet over the ocean, at hundreds of miles per hour, in a machine that cost tens of millions of dollars — in nearly absolute safety to boot. So what, the thinking goes. Just get me there quickly (and cheaply).
The industry, for its part — both plane-makers and the airlines — seems to be more or less comfortable with this attitude. In a lot of ways, a plane is only as attractive as the paintjob applied to it, and the state of airline liveries has never been more atrocious than it is right now. Aircraft themselves, meanwhile, have become so generic as to be indistinguishable from each other. In the old days, even at six miles out you could tell a 727 from a DC-9, or even the L-1011 from the DC-10, similar as they were. Nowadays, depending on the angle, you can be literally right next to a plane and not be certain which model it is.
The A380 aside, most latter-day planes aren’t ugly so much as boring. We recall the gothic lines of the 727 or the sleekness of the Concorde and Caravelle. Conventional wisdom holds that modern planes, by comparison, are uninspired because they have to be — that there’s something about aerodynamics and economy that necessitate a certain monotony of design. “Air does not yield to style,” are the words attributed to an Airbus engineer.
This is bollocks, and there are just enough state-of-the-art examples of great-looking planes to prove me right: the 777, the Embraer ERJ-145, the brand-new 747-8, and even Airbus’ own A340. If the rest are aesthetically bland, it’s because their designers didn’t take the efforts to craft them otherwise.
Leaving the A380 alone for a minute, let’s look at some other of my least favorite commercial planes, both new and old, big and small. In no particular order….
— The Airbus A320
The A320 was made because not enough people thought air travel was boring. Somebody once wrote — wait, it was me — that the plane looked like it popped from an Airbus vending machine, or hatched from an egg laid by an A380. The A320 has three equally inelegant siblings — the A318, A319, and A321– that are essentially the A320 baseline plus or minus a fuselage plug. This bland foursome has been Airbus’s biggest seller, with over 4,000 built, doing all they can to reinforce the notion that yes, flying is tedious and unexciting.
— The Lockheed Constellation
Help me out with this. For airplane buffs, talking trash about the Constellation is among the most grievous sins possible. Rarely is the vaguest slight directed at this legendary four-motor propliner of the ‘40s and ‘50s. But I just don’t get it. It started with my first and only sighting of the venerable Connie, in San Juan, in 1980. As the plane, ancient even 30-odd years ago, taxied past me, it appeared misshapen, wobbly, crawling along like an injured mantis. (The one I saw, a Dominican freighter registered HI-328, crashed the following year into the ocean near St. Thomas.) But maybe that’s it. The Connie, like some newer craft (the 767-300, for example), was victimized by a fish-out-of-water complex. On the ground it sat awkwardly, uncomfortably nose-high. Only when aloft did its grace become apparent. Or did it?
— The McDonnell Douglas DC-10
You may have heard that the Boeing 777 was the first airliner to be designed entirely on computer. What you probably didn’t know is that the DC-10 was the first to be designed with crayons and a wooden ruler. The problem revolves mostly around the tail. Although the DC-10 wasn’t the first jet to have three engines, the builders had no idea what to do with the middle one. Hurried to outpace their main competitor, the Lockheed L-1011, they flipped a coin and decided to wedge it through the vertical stabilizer. Lockheed took its time and developed a beauty; Douglas gave us this…
— The Britten-Norman Trislander
Somewhere in the UK, a group of precocious fifth-graders saw pictures of the DC-10. Grabbing up scraps of plywood and lawn mower parts they shouted, “we can do worse!” A few days later they unveiled the Trislander, which promptly won fourth prize in the school’s show-and-tell science contest. Though you have to admit, the idea of a three-engine, piston-powered commuter plane is kind of neat. Or not.
— The Shorts SD-330, 360, and SC-7 Skyvan
Northern Ireland gave us Stiff Little Fingers, the great, long-forgotten punk band of the late ’70s and early ’80s. It also gave us the Shorts Brothers, known for their line of boxy commuter turboprops. I admit to a fondness for the 330 and 360 models. Sure they’re inelegant, but the design is so wonderfully utilitarian — and from certain angles the planes do maintain a certain grace and dignity. The Skyvan, however, is another story. Could you fly on one of these scaled-up child’s toys and still feel good about yourself in the morning?
The CASA C-212 Aviocar
Here’s the answer to why the Spanish aerospace industry is second in global non-prominence only to its automobile industry. And the name… “Aviocar” is like “Airbus” (or “Skyvan”), only stupider. (We’re reminded of those fantastical flying car ideas of the 1950s. Someday we’d all be zipping around in our own “aviocar,” though who knew it would look like this?) Wait, the Spanish are major partners in the Airbus consortium too. Does the A380’s troubled DNA go all the way back to this contraption?
The VFW (Fokker) 614
Nobody knows what this plane, one of the few German commercial aircraft ventures, is supposed to be, exactly. Are the engines really on top of the wings, or was the plane built upside down around them? In either case, why? We’re told the unorthodox placement allows for shorter landing gear and perhaps a slightly lower wing, which in turn allow for a slightly bigger cabin and a bit more space for fuel or cargo, but some of us theorize the engineers were strung out on schnapps. The engines-on-top concept had the added bonus of reducing the plane’s noise footprint on the ground, while making things as loud as possible in the cabin.
— The Antonov An-72
Things gets tricky when it comes to the Soviet planes. They were strange-looking machines, but many of them embodied a cool, Cold War sort of sensibility that could be, in its own way, darkly beautiful. The Tupolevs were my favorites. See the Tu-134, or best of all the apocalyptic Tu-114. This wasn’t the case, however, with the Antonov line. Most Antonovs were beastly, and there’s a special place in the Pantheon for the An-72. Let the picture do the talking…
And so on.
I know, there are plenty more worthy candidates. But let’s just drop it.
One final point, though, about the A380: I agree that an airplane’s design, no different from that bridge or skyscraper, speaks to its era, and it’s important to temper one’s judgment with context. This does not apply to the A380, a plane whose ungainliness will, I assure you, prove timeless. It’s ugly now and will continue to be ugly 40 years from now.
Now this is only half the story, of course — albeit the fun half. Where, you’re asking, are the good-looking planes?
My affections for the Boeing 747 are well documented, but we shan’t neglect the 727, the Ilyushin IL-62, and that handsomest of old turboprops, the IL-18. A list for another time…