Not so plain planes - Part 1 | PDD

Not so plain planes – Part 1


on August 21 2013

Intercontinental commercial aircraft used to look very different in the 1970-90s – the Vickers VC10 with its four rear-mounted engines and high tail, and of course the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde with its dramatic delta wing and ‘droop snoot’. From the US there were also tri-jets in the shape of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed TriStar, once competitors to the distinctive Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo’.

The latest generation now beginning to take to the skies, the result of €10+ Billion investments by manufacturers Airbus Industries, Boeing and their respective suppliers look like ‘carbon copies’ of each other and, dare I say, boring! From the ground, will we be able to tell them apart, or for that matter distinguish them from other wide-bodied planes?

Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Spot the difference! Above image credit: Fly Away. Feature image: PDD

The Airbus A350 XWB (that in June 2013 had its maiden flight) and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (that is experiencing teething problems in early production) both make extensive use of composite materials for the aircraft body and wings. While the Airbus uses carbon fibre panels, Boeing is being more adventurous in deploying a wound composite construction for the fuselage.
This difference should certainly not be visible, though apparently the A350’s windows are wider and the 787’s taller! The two planes are very similar in size, performance and are priced at around €200M – each is a major business investment in the future by the two vying European and US manufacturers in trying to win the favours of the major flag-carriers, and ultimately their fare-paying passengers.
The weight-saving offered by the new materials technology, together with continued developments in jet engines and aerodynamics, promise perhaps a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency over the ‘current generation’ of aircraft. But again those, namely the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777, are very similar in appearance and for most onlookers indistinguishable from the newly developed models.
Modern design technologies of CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) and simulation, plus no doubt lots of work in the wind tunnel, have of course led to optimisation of wing profiles and nose shapes. Regulatory changes have for some time permitted twin-engine aircraft to fly transatlantic routes, and mounting of engines on pylons allows these expensive components to be fitted later in the build process…
All of the above go some way to explaining the increasingly common appearance of commercial aircraft, but I for one miss the days when you could instantly recognise the make and model of an aircraft as it soared overhead.