On the wings of design

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The Independent Online

Like a lot of small boys, I enjoyed the unveiling of the Airbus 380 the other day, along with its accompanying superlatives and its gathering of political magi, come to pay homage at the crib.

Like a lot of small boys, I enjoyed the unveiling of the Airbus 380 the other day, along with its accompanying superlatives and its gathering of political magi, come to pay homage at the crib. But the excitement at the new plane's bulk - excitedly talked up by many of the reporters present with many references to football fields and London buses (the standard units of technological excess) - was accompanied by a distinct pang. This may well be the beginning of a new era in aviation history, but if that's true it's also likely to mark the end of an old one.

The long-unchallenged reign of the Boeing 747 as the biggest airliner in the sky will shortly be over. And since the 747 has strong claims to be one of the great man-made constructions of the 20th century, it's hard not to feel a little wistful about its impending redundancy.

The Jumbo was a wonder of our world, and for all its world-beating statistics, the Airbus seems unlikely to replace it in the affections of passengers. The names alone mark a distinction: the 747 got a friendly nickname almost immediately, the Airbus 380 is likely to have to make do with its formal title for a long time yet. What a bathetic title it is too, insisting with every utterance that a flight to Shanghai or San Francisco is just the Number 19 writ large.

If scale alone was the source of the Jumbo's greatness there wouldn't be any sadness. The Airbus 380 beats it in every measurable dimension, so if bigger is better this is manifestly the superior machine. Talking on a radio news programme on the day of its launch, Francis Spufford, an astute historian of the intersection between technology and culture, seemed to suggest that was the case. Recalling that Sir Norman Foster had once chosen the Boeing 747 as his favourite building, he concluded that what was true of that plane "must be twice as true of the A380". That, though, is to leave aesthetics out of the equation entirely - and it's impossible to explain the success of the 747, at least in cultural terms, without taking its unique appearance into account.

Sir Norman loved the Jumbo for its design coherence, even down to the door handles on the lavatories. But why is the Jumbo so attractive to the rest of us? It certainly isn't beautiful in any conventional sense. Its identifying hump, which marks it out for even the most aeronautically colour-blind traveller, seems to go against the streamlining grain (though Boeing's wind-tunnels would almost certainly argue the opposite). And it isn't even the style grace-note it appears to be. When Juan Trippe, the visionary founder of Pan Am, first commissioned the plane, he insisted that it could operate both as a passenger jet and a cargo-carrier. In order to maximise space (and to protect the pilots from being rear-ended by cargo pallets in the event of a hard landing) Boeing's designers lifted the flight deck above the line of the fuselage. Noticing the vacant space that was thus created immediately behind the cabin, Trippe instinctively thought of the perfect payload... glamour. These planes, he announced, would offer a cocktail bar in the sky - a return to the elegant luxury of Pan Am's Sky Clippers which first marked out passenger routes across the Pacific.

Trippe features as a villain in Martin Scorsese's new film The Aviator, where he's played by Alec Baldwin as a ruthless corporate assassin. In truth, Trippe has a far better claim to be a hero of aviation than Howard Hughes, whose own exercise in gigantism, the Spruce Goose, turned into a flightless white elephant. By contrast, Trippe's Jumbo (and it would never have been built without his advocacy and determination) soared, and the man who had already battled to make tourist-class flying a possibility used it to bring international travel to the masses - rather than flying piano lounges for a wealthy minority.

It surely helped that all those new travellers will have felt they were being transported by a machine with character. The Jumbo is easily the most anthropomorphic jet ever built, and it is so in a much more appealing way than the hydrocephalic Airbus 380. With its Chief Mekon profile and frowning fenestration, the Airbus certainly looks coldly efficient, but from the start the Jumbo appeared lovable and accessible. The force of that famous picture from Lockerbie - of the nose section lying crumpled in a Scottish field - derived at least in part from the sense that the plane had a life to lose too. Like all truly great machines, it wasn't just metal.

However successful the Airbus is economically, I doubt it will worm its way into fliers' hearts to anything like the same degree. For some of us the Jumbo will always be the biggest - whatever the tape measure says.