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August 24, 2006

Out of the (Design) Groove

Donald Pittenger writes

Dear Blowhards --

Sitting here near the tip of Baja, cut off from civilization save by the thin, thin wire from the Internet cafe, I siesta and read.

My current read is 747 by Joe Sutter, the engineer in charge of developing the Boeing 747 jetliner.

When Juan Trippe of Pan Am insisted on a 400-passenger aircraft, the Boeing designers automatically assumed the configuration would be a two-decker 707, but scaled up a bit. At the time, Boeing was heavily engaged on a government-funded supersonic transport (the 2707), which most folk assumed would be the plane of the future. The 747 was seen as being an interim step with not much sales potential.

And because they didn't think it would sell well, the engineers and product planners wanted a cargo version as well as a strictly passenger job.

Lots of problems emerged working with the two-deck layout. Cargo could be hard to fget in and out and bulky items might not fit. On the passenger side, 90-second evacuation times would be difficult to attain. Plus there would be other emplaning-deplaning problems. Not to mention aerodynamic issues related to the (proportionally) stubby fuselage.

Eventually it sank in the both the cargo and passenger-related problems would largely go away if the aircraft had only one deck -- but a wide one. With two aisles instead of one.

Thus was born the wide-body airliner.

Boeing went on to have the SST shot out from under them by Congress. So the 747 turned out to be the real future of airliners.

But if Sutter hadn't dragged his feet at the outset regarding the two-level liner ... who knows?

Oh, and now we have the troubled Airbus 380 slowly approaching. A wide-body -- with two decks. We shall see...



posted by Donald at August 24, 2006


There was a two-deck propeller airliner used in the 1950's, I cannot recall its name, though of course it was much smaller than Pan Am's proposed jetliner.

Several months ago in Germany the A380 passed its evacution test with flying colors. A full load of volunteers was able to evacuate the airplane in well under 90 seconds, using just half of the available exits as FAA and EU regulations require. Still, the tests have been criticized as being unrealistic; due to safety considerations the volunteers do not include any children, elderly*, or disabled people.
* = while a certain percentage of the volunteers have to be over age 50, most are *just* over 50.

Posted by: Peter on August 24, 2006 9:54 PM

Interesting. One of the things that makes me marvel about jetliners is the way that they evolved and evolved, and then hit a certain level (of speed and size), and then kinda stopped evolving any longer. I guess people didn't really want or need anything huger or faster, or they couldn't be made to be commercially sensibly, or something. Aren't there biz and tech theorists who say that technologies tend to grow to a kind of optimum point and then stay there? I wonder if that's generally true. I wonder if jetliners will suddenly (punctuated equilibrium?) burst into some new, innovative form. I don't necessarily hope so. I wonder if computers will ever reach their optiumum form and then mostly stop evolving ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2006 12:07 AM

You're in south Baja? You must be only a short distance away from one of my employees, who is on his way to a little spot on the Baja coast in a camper and who will be surfing there for 2 weeks, completely out of touch with civilization. He's in his upper 50s, btw, so you'd probably have a good conversation if you ever met.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 25, 2006 5:00 PM

The double-decker 1950s airliner Peter is thinking of was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, a development of the B-29 bomber. It was fitted for luxurious travel, with lounges and sleeping berths. Considering how much time trans-oceanic trips must have taken at the Stratocruiser's 340 MPH cruise speed, the plush accommodations probably came in handy. I have no idea how much tickets cost, but I'll bet the inflation-adjusted price was high by our standards.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 25, 2006 11:04 PM

Jonathan -- Thanks for helping Peter out regarding the Boeing Stratocruiser details. Only about 55 were built, but it served to keep Boeing in the airliner game in the early postwar days. (Fortunately for the "Lazy B" or "Kiteworks" as we knew in Seattle, around 700 more were built as military transports and aerial refuelling tankers.) One major defect was the motors which, with rapidly diminishing returns, were nearing the limits of reciprocating technology. Later versions of the Constellation and DC liners suffered from the same problem: unreliability.

Michael -- Right. I did a post a while ago contending that aircraft shapes (in a general sense) reached an ideal form in the Douglas DC-3 and later, when jets engines came in, in the form of the Boeing 707. The key factor with jets is the speed of sound. It takes a lot of power, fuel, and a whiff of technology to allow a jet to operate in the low trans-sonic speed range (Mach 0.9 to 0.975, let's say). The short answer is that all the extras overwhelm whatever advantage speed gives for domestic routes, and semi-ditto for many long-distance routes as well. So faster jets aren't economically viable now, and perhaps never will be.

Friedrich -- Brave man you have there, driving a camper all the way through Baja. From my plane window I only saw the east (Sea of Cortez) coast, anad it was pretty much desert till one got near La Paz. Softies that we are, Nancy and I were guests of friends in a nice condo on the outskirts of Cabo San Lucas. When I can, I'll do a post of two about it. Key item: Los Cabos is about as isolated as one can get from the main part of Mexico and it's crawling with gringos.

A hurricane did pass south of Los Cabos around the 23rd. It caused heavy surf and probabaly churned up too much sand for underwater activities for 2-3 days. So I hope your guy made it into town to knock back a few Pacificos at the Cabo Wabo.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 27, 2006 2:49 PM

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