Ask the pilot

Ode to the humpbacked 747 (and a shout out to the svelte Brazilian Embraer). Plus: Why do jetliner wings always have to block the view?

Patrick Smith
March 1, 2003 1:30AM (UTC)

In the second grade my two favorite toys both were Boeing 747s.

The first was an inflatable replica -- similar to one of those novelty balloons you buy at parades -- with rubbery wings that drooped in such violation of the real thing (an angle called "dihedral," I'd learn in time), that I taped them into the proper position. To this 7-year-old, the oversize toy seemed enormous, almost like my own personal Macy's float. I can still remember the gritty scratch of its decals against my fingernails.


The second was a small plastic airplane about a foot long with rubber wheels. Rolled along for takeoff, its gears would make a sound like a blender. Like the balloon, it was decked out in the livery of Pan Am, and even carried the name and registration of the airline's flagship jumbo, Clipper America. But one side of the fuselage was transparent, made of clear polystyrene through which an entire 747 interior, row by row and seat by seat, could be viewed. I can still picture the blue and red pastels of the tiny rows of seats exactly as they were.

But what most infatuated me was the spiral staircase, modeled in perfect plastic miniature near the toy plane's nose. Early version 747s were always outfitted with a set of spiral stairs, leading from the forward left boarding door to the plane's famous upper deck, a design quirk that became a kind of iconic representation of the airplane.

When, in the early 1980s, I took my first trip on a real 747, I beamed at the sight of the winding column of steps, materializing just beyond the El Al purser who greeted me at the end of the jetway. It gave the entranceway the look and feel of a lobby, like the grand vestibule of a cruise ship.


To this day the association is one I can't escape. When I notice the twisting iron fire escape of an old factory, I think: 747. Or reading the At Home section of the Sunday paper, with a photo spread of some chic downtown loft. There it is again: 747. Those stairs are in my blood -- a genetic helix wending upward to a kind of pilot Nirvana. (Not entirely far-fetched, as a captain can make upward of 20 grand a month up there in the left seat, if he lives that long and his career doesn't implode along the way.)

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That's an excerpt from a book I'm pretending to write, and it gives the answer to the "What's your favorite plane?" question so often thrown at me. My subjectivity is influenced by a certain emotional-memory connection. Not that I've ever flown a 747 myself, or ever will, but that doesn't mean it can't be my favorite. (Alas, updated 747s, with their extended upper decks, adopted a traditional, ladder-style staircase further aft along the cabin.)


Anyway, while the humpbacked 747 is often readily distinguishable even to casual flyers, most airplanes are not. As I've lamented in the past, designs have grown insipidly generic. In grade school I was adept at pointing out the differences between a DC-9 and a 727 from six miles out, a skill that both amazed (occasionally) and annoyed (always) the other kids. This has become a lost art, and a much more challenging one thanks to the palling similarities of newer-generation jetliners.

Whether the aesthetics of the modern airliner have evolved in deference to physics or bad taste is something we can argue, but in the meantime what somebody needs to do is illustrate a definitive field guide -- something in the vein of a Peterson's bird-watching guide, showing our aluminum friends in all their colors, shades, profiles and typical patterns of migration. This has been attempted a few times, but the products haven't been very comprehensive. You can invest in "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," but at $630 a copy and about 9 pounds "Jane's" is the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, and hardly the thing for a little gateside time killing.


A rundown for neophytes:

Current jetliners are built by two camps, Seattle-grown Boeing and the Euro consortium Airbus Industrie. It wasn't always this way. For years we had McDonnell Douglas, and a few throw-ins from both North America and abroad: Lockheed, Convair, Hawker-Siddeley, British Aerospace, Fokker.

America's first jet was the Boeing 707 (third in the world behind the Brits and the Soviets), which debuted between Idlewild and Orly with Pan Am in 1959. Since then Boeing has delivered the 727, 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777. They skipped the 717 (see below). Before McDonnell Douglas was taken over by Boeing, we had their DC-8, DC-9 and DC-10. The DC-9 was later redesigned as the MD-80, and the DC-10 became the MD-11.


Airbus has sent us the A300 through A340. The bulbous new superjumbo the company is fine-tuning will be the A380. Nobody knows what happened to the A350 through A370. There are enough minor variations of the Airbus types to make even a veteran plane-spotter insane: The A300-600 is really just an extended A310. An A319 is nothing more (or less) than a slightly smaller A320, further reduced into the A318. Then there's the A321. The new-style mishmash of numbers, in this traditionalist's opinion, cheapens everything. That each model wasn't simply given a "dash" suffix is irritating.

On our own side of the ocean, at least a 737-800 is still a 737. But then, when Boeing ate up McDonnell Douglas, it took the MD-90, which was really just a souped-up DC-9, and rechristened it, lo and behold, the Boeing 717. So much for numerical chronology. Thus the DC-9, first flown in 1965, is now brand-new again as the 717. You can sample one at AirTran.

Of course, we shan't neglect the Russians. Things are quiet now, but the design bureaus at Antonov, Ilyushin and Tupolev produced many thousands of jetliners over the decades. While the bulk of these were Western knockoffs that have turned into post-Cold War pumpkins, many examples are still flying successfully in certain parts of the world, namely the former Russian republics. A couple of newer prototypes were recently introduced, destined for sale to ex-Aeroflot directorates within these same nations.


Regional aircraft have come from a slew of builders and countries. Canada's Canadair and Brazil's Embraer make the two most popular regional jets, or "RJs," while various turboprops have been exported from Sweden, Spain, France, and Indonesia, among others. Even the Czechs manufactured a popular 17-seater.

Five gems:

The Boeing 747. The beautiful brute. See above (and ad nauseam throughout prior columns). Northwest and United are presently the only U.S. operators of the 747, but overseas they are very common. In fact, according to 2002 numbers there are more 747s worldwide than 757s or 767s.

Concorde. Predictable, but impossible to pass up. "A cross between an origami crane and the space shuttle."


The Airbus A340. The consortium's only head-turner. Like Concorde, the A340 has a certain anthropomorphic quality, with its proudly graceful posture and coyly upturned winglets.

The Embraer 135/145. The sexiest RJ around, this svelte little hot rod shames the more squate Canadair.

The Ilyushin IL-18. Good luck spotting this obsolete four-motor Soviet turboprop, but I always loved its pure utilitarian handsomeness.

Are pilots trained to fly more than one type of airplane at a time? Can the pilot of a 747 also fly a 757?


Yes and no. Mostly no. There are often enormous differences between airplane types, each requiring its own lengthy syllabus of classroom and simulator training. But with safety and cost benefits in mind, commonality is increasing, and in some cases the ratings to fly different models are the same, as with the Airbus A330/A340 or the Boeing 757/767. But for now this isn't the norm. Management pilots and training personnel are sometimes cross-qualified, but the rank and file are assigned to specific aircraft.

Like everything else in the pilot's world, seniority bidding determines which machine he drives. Thence, transitioning to another model, or upgrading from first officer to captain of the same model, he undergoes the complete training regimen yet again. Even if previously qualified on a particular plane, a pilot will normally sweat out the full program, just as a first-timer would.

757s always seem to reach their destination quickly. Should I look for a specific plane to get me to my destination faster?

Unless you're planning to fly to London or Paris, in which case you can splurge for a ride on Concorde, there's no need to hassle your travel agent. The speed of the airplane itself, while a factor over long distances along straight courses, is not going to make a difference, generally, with on-time status. The assigned routings, high-level winds, and air-traffic situation are the determining factors.


Most jets cruise at roughly the same speed, give or take a few knots, measured at higher altitudes as "mach," which is a percentage of the speed of sound. On a 12-hour run between New York and Tokyo, the difference between, say, .80 mach and .88 mach indeed would be relevant, but long-haul wide-bodies tend to fly a few knots faster with this in mind. Domestically it's not worth worrying about.

The border between subsonic and supersonic is not an aerodynamic triviality. For this reason, despite all the other technological advances we've seen, the cruising speeds of jets have not really changed since their inception. If anything, today's airliners travel slightly more slowly than those of 30 years ago.

How can I find out the age of the plane I'm traveling on? And will I then be able to tell how far from retirement the plane is?

Many jets have a small plaque, about the size of a greeting card, mounted near the most forward boarding door, listing its date of manufacture. It can be hard to find, but the next time you're stuck in the bottleneck at the end of the jetway, see if you can spot it. Normally it's bolted to the frame itself, inside the sill where it will be covered once the door is closed. There really is no way to tell how close a plane is to retirement. Planes are retired for various reasons, and age, strictly speaking, isn't always one of them.

Wasn't there a law mandating that jets crossing the ocean had to have at least three engines? How did the 767 and 777 get around this?

Back in the 1980s something called ETOPS or Extended (range) Twin-Engine Operations came about, by which aircraft with fewer than three power plants were allowed to fly transoceanic routes if certain conditions were met. These conditions include demonstrated engine reliability and maximum allowable distances to diversion airports. (A full rundown of the rules would be tedious; these are the gist.)

Currently there are ETOPS procedures across both the Atlantic and Pacific, applicable to a wide range of aircraft. Even the 737 now makes Hawaii-to-California flights (for Aloha Airlines). Each company must apply for the right to conduct such operations, and has to meet the various requirements.

While the four-engine 747 was once the premier airliner to Europe, the much smaller 767 is now the trans-Atlantic aircraft of choice (well, the airlines' choice at least). In the Pacific, the 777 is gaining ground on a market still dominated by the 747. I have no qualms about flying across the ocean in a twin-engine airliner. Trying to argue two vs. four in the name of safety is a real hairsplitter.

In perhaps the ultimate demonstration of ETOPS' ability, Continental Airlines started flying its 777s nonstop between Newark, N.J., and Hong Kong. This routing, over Canada, the north pole and Siberia, actually covers less ocean than many shorter intercontinental flights, but ETOPS is predicated on distance from available airports, not necessarily exposure to the open sea.

Most passenger aircraft have their wings affixed to the bottom of the fuselage, where they offer the greatest possible hindrance to my view of the world passing beneath. On the other hand, whenever I see a big military cargo plane on the news, the wings join the fuselage at the top. Why the difference, and why not the other way around?

For one thing there are many passenger airplanes, both new and old, with wings affixed to the top -- the ATR, Dash-8, Dornier 328, and the Avro RJ (BAe 146) among them. I could list a dozen. But they tend to be smaller ones.

The placement of the wings dictates placement of things like cargo compartments and assorted hardware. For any larger passenger plane, it's not practical to have this stuff -- cargo especially -- located anywhere other than below the passengers. So the wings go on the bottom, the floor passing over them and allowing lower-deck cargo space both forward and aft. (With those aircraft listed above, cargo carriage is minimal.)

On a military transport there is usually only one deck for troops and material. With top-mounted wings, the floor is set lower and is not encumbered with wing attachment structures and so forth, allowing more practical and efficient carriage of vehicles, oversize freight, etc., often loaded directly through a nose or tail-mounted ramp.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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