Ask the pilot

The good, the bad and the ugliest, ungainliest, silliest-looking passenger airplanes of the world.

Published September 17, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

There used to be a lunch counter place, the Tasty, over in Harvard Square, right at the corner of Mass. Avenue and JFK Street. Mounted on the back wall was a great big Rand McNally of the world. The place was popular with college kids, and whenever a foreign student came in they'd mark his or her home city with a pin. After a while there were so many pins you could hardly see the borders between countries -- Europe and Asia were just a mass of red tacks.

Or maybe they were black, I can't remember, but I bring this up because I'd like to do the same thing. The amount of overseas e-mail I get seems to be growing, with a sudden surge of letters from as far afield as Johannesburg, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Kiev. One reader, in New Zealand, is bold enough to propose that most of Ask the Pilot's regular readership exists outside the United States. That's a bit extravagant (and how would he know?), but nonetheless I'm so flattered that I plan to start marking up an atlas, Tasty style, with little pins. The result should be similar to the map already hanging in my dining room, part of which you can see here. Except those are places I've traveled to; this will work in reverse.

So, to those of you reading from beyond Fortress America, tell us where you are. What I wouldn't give for a Muscat or a Mogadishu. And no cheating. I'll need one of those strange-looking e-mail suffixes for proof.

Just imagine readers on six continents simultaneously tuning in to hear me reminisce about the baguettes on Air France or complain about security; the sun never sets on Ask the Pilot. This propels an ego like you wouldn't believe, especially for a maladjusted wretch like me, so be careful. Temper your adulation, lest I start to take "cult following" (somebody said it, I forget who) too literally and go Jim Jones on you.

Now, if I could just get a hundred of my well-heeled devotees to PayPal their life savings into my offshore bank account, we could, um, lease a 747 and fly around the world on a grand tour -- your beloved columnist/aeroguru confidently at the controls.

But that's getting ahead.

Many of those chiming in from overseas have been doing so in response to my recent column about Soviet airliners. The gripe seems to be that I've forgotten or ignored the many other airplane makers out there, past and present. Enough with Boeing, Airbus and the Russians. What about Holland? What about aviation powerhouses like Ireland or the Czech Republic?

This is all very lite and geeky, sure, but my therapist says it's a good idea to take a few weeks of "recovery columns" after that mind-bending summer of Annie Jacobsen.

Me: She haunts me. She lives in my head! Every night, these awful dreams...

Therapist: Now, now, try not to think about Annie. Think about Mr. Tupolev instead. Or the Short Brothers.

So, in the interest of mental health and as homage to my distant fans, it's time for a synopsis of some foreign-bred firsts, worsts and novelties.

The first-ever passenger jet came not from Seattle, Toulouse or Moscow, but from Hatfield, England. Indeed, Frank Whittle and the Brits were inventors of the turbine engine itself. What I like best about the de Havilland Comet, launched with BOAC between London and Johannesburg in 1952, is its confused, vestigial innocence. This is aviation's missing link -- a hybrid, malformed thing unable to make the full aesthetic leap from propliner to jet. The prototype, with its unswept tail and rectangular windows, looked more like a DC-6 than a 707. The engineers hadn't gotten the evolution quite right, and when Comets began disintegrating in flight they were pulled from service and redesigned. (Changes that included reshaping those windows.)

England had better luck with the Viscount, the first civil turboprop; the forgotten Vanguard; or beauties like the VC-10 and Bristol Britannia. The words "beautiful," "airplane" and "England" don't often appear in close succession, and to understand why see the BAC One-Eleven, the Hawker-Siddeley Trident, or the British Aerospace BAe-146 (derisively referred to as the "Smurf jet" or "potato plane.") Teaming up with France, of course, the British saved face by co-sculpting one of aviation's most iconic works of art, the BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde. (No picture required. Everyone knows what it looked like).

For the record, what used to be an American/Anglo domination of the airplane market was first introduced to an upstart multinational consortium (France, U.K., Germany and later Spain) called Airbus Industrie in 1970. Four years later, the consortium's inaugural model, the A300, entered service in the colors of Air France. We all know the rest of the story, with five subsequent types and sub-types rolling from the Airbus assembly lines. Upcoming will be the megajumbo A380, set for debut with Singapore Airlines in 2006. According to Air Transport World, the Airbus order book presently outpaces Boeing's by a score of 1,053 to 843.

The first U.S. buyer of an Airbus, encouraged by an advantageous leasing arrangement offered by the hungry Europeans, was former NASA astronaut Frank Borman, at the helm of Eastern Air Lines in 1978. Eastern deployed the A300 on its busy Air Shuttle network connecting Boston, La Guardia and Washington-National.

Eastern's decision was a historic one, but the carrier was hardly the first to go shopping overseas. Braniff and American had given the BAC One-Eleven a try, while United had looked to France for the Caravelle. The graceful Caravelle was our first rear-engine twin-jet, a layout to inspire mainstay models like the DC-9.

Unfortunately for the French, they also lay claim to one of commercial aviation's most notorious flops, the Mercure. French manufacturer Dassault, best known for its fighters and Falcon executive jets, came up with the idea of a short-range 120-seater akin to the 737. The Mercure is the only jetliner I know of to spend its entire career in the services of a single airline. That'd be Air Inter, the French domestic carrier absorbed by Air France.

Speaking of obscure, how about this? That's the German-built VFW-614, a long-forgotten regional jet that saw (very) limited service in Europe. Yes, the engines are mounted on top of the wing. Beneficial for ground and debris clearance; horrible for cabin noise. And just plain ugly.

On cue, the Short Brothers. From Belfast, Northern Ireland, we have the Shorts 330, 360 and Skyvan (derisively: "cement tub"). With a certain charismatic hideousness, these are the pug dogs of planes. It's hard not to have an affection for these functionalist flying boxes, with their "lifting body" fuselage and simple rectangular wings. (Belfast's greatest export was in fact the '70s-'80s punk band Stiff Little Fingers, but that's for another time.)

The only thing more ungainly than a Shorts might be the Nord 262, like the Mercure another footnote in French obscurity. Though you might get an argument over the CASA 212, a '70s commuter plane from Spain. The Spanish later teamed with Indonesia to produce the CN-235, a 50-seater with an uncanny likeness to the better-known ATR, itself a co-project between France and Italy (derisively: "the French Cessna").

The Japanese, however legendary when it comes automobiles, electronics and meat-flavored ice cream, never invested seriously in planes. One semi-successful exception was the NAMC YS-11, a generic twin turboprop from the mid-'60s. I remember YS-11s flying for the old PBA (Provincetown-Boston Airways) well into the 1980s.

PBA also flew something called the EMB-110 Bandeirante, aka the "Bandit," an unpressurized 15-seater from Embraer, at the time a little-known airplane maker from Brazil. The Bandit debuted in '73, and few knew or expected much from Embraer.

Three decades later, Embraer's ERJ-135/145 is one of the planet's best-selling regional airliners. Introduced in 1998, this sleek little jet (derisively: "jungle jet") is, in this pilot's opinion, one of the sexiest planes around. Continental Express and American Eagle are the largest operators, claiming 229 and 158, respectively. Older sibling to the 135/145 is the Brasilia, a sharp-looking turboprop still in relatively common use. At the 1999 Paris Air Show, Embraer announced its newest product, the 70-seat ERJ-170/190. JetBlue was quickly in the queue, dropping orders for a hundred. (Note: The slashmarks, for example, "135/145" or "170/190," designate stretches of the baseline model. The ERJ-145, for instance, is a slightly larger 135; the 190 a slightly larger 170, etc.)

Canada's Bombardier (formerly Canadair) is the other premier player in the regional jet field. Bombardier's CRJ, based on a stretch of a '70s-era executive jet called the Challenger, is for now the record holder in worldwide sales, with 1,100 delivered and some 250 on order. Earlier Canadian designs were the legendary Twin Otter, the four-engine Dash-7, and the twin-engine Dash-8. I have about 350 captain hours in the original model Dash-8, a rugged 37-seater -- with a cockpit larger than a 737's -- that remains my favorite-ever plane. (It is not impossible, by the way, that the figure visible in the left-side window of this photograph is me, since I was flying the Dash-8 for this exact airline at the time this picture was allegedly taken.)

It's somewhat surprising that while U.S. manufacturers (which nowadays means only Boeing) have more or less held their own in the large transport category, the regional field is dominated by imports. The RJ market, one of explosive growth over the past decade and undoubtedly for years to come, includes virtually no U.S. contenders. Americans step aboard sophisticated Embraers and Bombardiers every day, yet how many would venture to guess these planes are almost exclusively the exports of Canada or Brazil?

Or, to some extent, Germany. Way back when, the German builder Dornier gave us the DO-228, a small utility craft (derisively: "doorknob") with exceptional short-field performance. Later came the 328, an advanced turboprop with room for 30. America's Fairchild Aerospace bought an 80 percent stake in Dornier in 1996 and soon afterward launched the Fairchild Dornier DO-328JET, essentially the original 328 with a pair of turbofans replacing the props. Both have nearly the same cockpit, which is one of the coolest you'll see -- a sleek blend of ergonomics and high technology. Fairchild Dornier was declared insolvent in 2002.

We shan't forget Germany's North Sea neighbor, Holland. It's only fitting that the world's oldest airline, KLM, be home to the world's first commercial planemaker, Fokker. Fokker's legacy stretched from biplanes and triplanes to modern jets. The F-27 was a turboprop legend, later reinvented as the F-50. The F-28 was the West's first mass-produced regional jet, reborn as the Fokker 100 and Fokker 70. Past tense; Fokker collapsed and was liquidated in 1996.

SAAB, yes, the same, brought us the SAAB 340 regional liner in 1984. More than 300 examples of this popular 34-seater are still in use. An advanced incarnation, the SAAB 2000, was something of a bust, unable to compete among a burgeoning population of RJs. Only 50 were delivered before production of both lines was called off in 1998.

In Cold War Romania, a small number of BAC One-Elevens were constructed under license as the "ROMBAC One-Eleven." Elsewhere from the Iron Curtain came the 19-passenger LET-410. Made in the Czech Republic to Russian specs, the -410 turboprop became one of the Soviet aerobloc's most widely sold exports, with more than a thousand shipped around the globe.

And so on and so forth. Would you like to hear some specs about Chinese-Ukrainian Y-Z and Y-8?

I don't blame you. And please don't bother pointing out that I've skipped the Jetstreams of Scotland (500 log book hours to my credit), a couple of Hawker-Siddeleys or two, and a scattering of other bit players.

In any event, this whole discussion becomes somewhat academic when you consider the processes of present-day airliner construction. How "American" is a widebody Boeing when several of its crucial components are shipped in from Spain, Taiwan or Israel?

One last example for sheer novelty. This is the de Havilland Heron, a 15-place commuter by way of England. The diminutive Heron was powered by -- yes, you're counting right -- four piston engines. In Puerto Rico in the 1970s Herons were as common as seagulls, buzzing around on inter-island hops for hometown carrier Prinair. I vividly remember the sight and sound of these weird little planes from the El San Juan hotel in December 1980, my parents and sister down at the beach while I sat on the balcony recovering from food poisoning.

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Contest time

Go back to that photograph of the wall map at the beginning of this article. The strange-looking person in the picture is holding a model airplane. Your questions pertain to that model and are as follows:

1. What is the airplane type?

2. What is the airline?

3. What are the jet's meticulously replicated name and registration?

4. Where was it purchased?

The answers are out there, and the first of you to figure them out wins a free copy of my book (preference given to readers from Mongolia, Myanmar or Moldova).

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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.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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