November 13, 2007


Ask the pilot: Oversized and overhyped, the world's biggest plane is here. Is the Airbus 380 the "most hideous airliner ever conceived"? (Patrick Smith, 11/08/07, Slate)

The jet is shamelessly, needlessly ugly.

Most of that ugliness is the fault of the plane's bulging forehead, a trait that resulted from an engineering decision to place the cockpit below the upper deck. It is useful to think of a jetliner as a sort of horizontal skyscraper. To recall the words of architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in a 2005 issue of the New Yorker: "Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems. How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky -- the top and the bottom, in other words." With airplanes, as with office towers, the observer's gaze is drawn instinctively to their extremities, and their attractiveness, or lack thereof, is personified through the sculpting of the nose and tail sections. Not that the A380's tail is anything special either, but it's hard to get past that forehead.

"Perhaps in ten to fifteen years," offered Geoffrey Thomas in last month's issue of Air Transport World, "the A380 will be described with the same passion and affection as the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower, two of many global icons that were bedeviled by controversy during their early years." Not this time.

Did it need to be this way? Is it true, to cite a quote attributed to an Airbus engineer some years ago, that "Air does not yield to style"? Jet age romantics recall the provocative curves of machines like the Caravelle; the urbane, needle-nosed superiority of Concorde; the Gothic surety of the 727. You're telling us that planes need to be boring, or worse, in the name of efficiency and economy. No, they don't. The state-of-the-art Boeing 787 is evidence enough of that. Americans might remember when, in the 1960s, most of the famous old baseball parks were torn down and replaced by sterile, cookie-cutter facilities in the name of "functionality." In time, people came to hate those places, until eventually they too were knocked down and replaced by retro-chic parks like the ones in Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and elsewhere. These stadiums offer the best of both worlds: They're functional and pretty to look at. Today's airplanes can, and should, embody a similar postmodern spirit. For what it's worth, early renderings of a proposed double-decked Airbus, known at the time as the A2000, show a more handsome plane, without the abruptly pitched forehead.

Compare the A380's resultant profile with that of its chief rival, the Boeing 747. The 747 is often derided as "bubble-topped" or "humpbacked." In truth, the upper-deck annex, fronted by the flight deck, provides the plane with its most recognizable feature and is smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward -- the pilots' windscreens anthropomorphizing as eyebrows -- to a stately and confident prow. Front to back, the 747 looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner. (For the record, the tail is pretty sexy too -- svelte like the foresail of a schooner.) The airplane is giant, but it doesn't necessarily seem that way. There's an organic flow to its silhouette. For all its square footage and power, it maintains a graceful, understated elegance.

Which is why they'll only be bought by state airways and landed where people have no voice.

Posted by at November 13, 2007 1:10 PM


The air version of The Cube.

Posted by: Luciferous at November 13, 2007 2:34 PM

Aircraft ought to look beautiful for the streamlining for flight is where form definitely predicts function.

An example: The B-47.

Posted by: Mikey at November 13, 2007 4:15 PM

The comparison to the drab and clunky stadiums of the 1970s is very apt.

I wonder if Prince Alaweed (who just bought one for himself) will request slight alterations to the nose. Surely his plane will be painted to downplay the Neanderthal look.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 14, 2007 10:08 PM