Airliner: Design Classics

by everydayheartbreak

This summer many of you will be spending time in, and passing through airports, and even though commercial aviation is an everyday part of our lives now there are few people who don’t spend a minute or two gazing out of the terminal windows towards the runway to marvel as heavier than air machines lift gracefully into the air bound for foreign climes. Towns, cities, countries and continents once considered so far away are now just a relatively short plane ride from our fair isle.

Air travel today isn’t as glamorous as it once was, queues, delays, security checks and baggage allowances will test the patience of even the most romantically traveller – though improvements in safety and comfort in general are certainly very welcome!

As you look out of the terminal windows the most common aircraft you’ll see today are those manufactured by the twin behemoths of commercial aviation: Boeing & Airbus. Advances in aerodynamics, engine technology and the sheer cost of designing and producing aeroplanes (there are much fewer aircraft manufactures today than there once was) mean that today’s airliners all look a little similar, only a true aviation geek for example would be able to tell you the difference between an Airbus A330 and a Boeing 777. Sadly some of the most iconic and charismatic designs can now only be seen in museums or in private hands. Here is a selection of our favourite airliner classics, from a time-honoured design you’ll still see today at the airport to some that you’ll have to look a little harder for.

Remember If you are travelling through Heathrow don’t forget to visit us at one of our pubs the xx even has a viewing area to watch the action out on the taxiways and runways!

Boeing 747

If you are flying British Airways long haul there is a good chance you’ll fly on one of these Queens of the Skies, BA has the world’s largest fleet of the venerable giants with 55 currently operational. Today the 747 is probably the most recognisable aircraft you’ll see at the airport, its iconic double decker bulge at the fore of the plane making it easily identifiable.

The 747 was conceived in the mid-1960s as commercial aviation really started to take off. It was the foresight of Pan Am, at the time one of the world’s most important airlines that was to have a decisive role in the design and production of the Jumbo. Concerned about airport congestion and ever increasing passenger numbers on relatively small aircraft Pan Am’s then president Juan Trippe asked Boeing to design a plane twice as big as the 707 (see below).

Two of Boeings’ top engineers, Malcolm T. Stamper and Joe Sutter were brought into manage the project. Trippe saw supersonic air travel as the future for passengers and imagined that the 747 would only have a limited life span as a passenger carrying aircraft so Stamper and Sutter had to create an aircraft that could be easily converted to carry freight (Tripper saw this as the future for the 747). It was this design requirement that led to the 747s distinctive bulge at the front of the aircraft – there had to be room to retrofit a cargo door large enough to take standard size shipping containers.

Since its initial flight in 1970 (New York to London by a Pan Am’s Clipper Victor) the 747 has gone through much development, with various improvements and variants produced, from stretched examples to shortened versions and everything in between. The current incarnation of the 747, the one you are most likely to see or fly in, is the 747-400, the bestselling 747 model.

Boeing has recently started manufacture of the 747-8, the longest commercial jet in the world. The 8 is the third generation of this charismatic design which means you’ll be seeing Jumbos at airports around the world for many more years to come!

Boeing 707

If you ask a child to draw an aeroplane there is a very good chance that they will come up with something that resembles this Boeing classic. The 707 has been the blueprint for a huge number of commercial aircraft. With its long and thin fuselage, swept wings and podded under wing engines, it is the most enduring airliner design, the DNA of the 707 is still to be seen in today’s Boeings, Airbuses and Embraers.

The 707 was Boeing’s first jet airliner, although it wasn’t the first commercial jetliner it was the first to be commercially successful. The 707 dominated the skies in the 1960s and 1970s and in the liveries of Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Pan American (Pan Am) the 707 become one of the most recognisable icons of the era.

Though no longer in major civilian use (roughly ten continue to fly in commercially) various military derivatives remain in service amongst the world’s air forces, the most distinctive, due to its huge rotating radar dome above the fuselage being the E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, a number of which are operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Lockheed L0149 Super Constellation

Perhaps the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever grace the skies, the Connie with its instantly recognisable curving fuselage and triple tail is one of the greats.

Lockheed had originally started working the aircraft that would become the Constellation in 1937 but it wasn’t until the great Howard Hughes, a majority shareholder in TWA at the time, got involved with the project that this stunning aeroplane would be brought to life.

Hughes requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner with 3,500 mile (5,630 km) range which was well beyond the capabilities of the current Lockheed design. Hughes input was fundamental to the project, from concept, shape, capabilities and appearance; it was then down to the Lockheed engineers to make his aircraft a reality.

The final design came from the drawing board of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Johnson was nothing short of a genius. He enjoyed a career in aviation that spanned four decades, most notably he would go on to found the legendary “Skunk Works” where he would oversee an organisation, and have a hand in designing, some of the most technologically advanced and secretive aircraft ever produced including the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes (though now retired the latter still holds the record for pretty much every speed and altitude metric going including the fastest time by manned aircraft between London and New York, a staggering 1 hour 55 minutes which it set in 1974) as well as the first ‘stealth’ fighter, the F117 Nighthawk.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the Constellation truly came into its own as a fast, long-haul transport (when war was declared all non-military aircraft production was put on hold, the Connie would however have a long and distinguished career as a military transport). Lockheed built more than 850, with the Connie and later the Super Constellation ruling the skies until the introduction of turbojet airliners in the 1950s.

There are just a few two Super Connies still flying today, including an example owned by Brietling (the watch manufacturer) which is currently based in Switzerland. She is not uncommon sight on the British air show circuit so look out for her – she is a real beauty!

Douglas DC-3

There are very few uses to which this Douglas design hasn’t been put; from the D-Day landings of 1944, to various cargo and passenger roles, from covert military operations in Korea and Vietnam to crop spraying the rugged and adaptable Douglas DC-3 is one of the great aviation success stories.

The aircraft was conceived after an inquiry from the then boss of TWA to Donald Douglas for an aircraft that could compete with the Boeing 247 that was being produced exclusively for TWA’s arch rival, United Airlines. The design went through several iterations resulting in the DC-1 & DC-2 but it would be the DC-3 that would really take off – so to speak.

Production of the DC-3 would run to some 16,000 aeroplanes, the majority being the C-47 military variant (known as the Dakota or Skytrain), many of which were converted post-war for civilian use, with hundreds still flying in some capacity today.

De Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide

A seriously beautiful aircraft, the Dragon Rapide was the most successful British built short haul passenger aircraft of the 1930s; in fact it may well have been the first aircraft to operate at a profit without a government subsidy.

The Rapide was developed from the four engine DH86 Dragon which in turn was conceived after a brief from Hillman Airlines for an aircraft that could carry six passengers from London to Paris in (relative) comfort. The later Rapide, with just two engines proved the most popular with operators including the many small airlines that operated in Britain in the 1930’s.

British European Airways, which merged with BOAC to form British Airways (BA) operated a fleet of Rapide’s into the 1950s on certain domestic routes. Today there remain a good few flying with a number of operators offering pleasure flights in these lovely aeroplanes.