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November 30, 2006

Sensual Aircraft

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The first duty of an airplane is to fly. That rules out many possible shapes that might otherwise be attempted.

Assuming a designated role or function (cargo carrier, bomber, interceptor, etc.), adequate power, a structural system, aerodynamic and other constraints, the aircraft designer still has some aesthetic freedom to shape the airplane.

Therefore some airplanes appear pugnacious, some are fussy, some are bland and some are downright ugly.

Others are beautiful ... sensual, even.

Below are examples of planes I find sensual:

2Blowhards Airplane "Centerfold"

De Havilland Albatross.
The DH.91, first flown in 1937, was not a commercial success. It experienced serious technical problems, the final ones in service being written off due to wood-rot (they were largely of wooden construction).

Constellation C-121.jpg
Lockheed Constellation.
Shown is a C-121 military version of the famed civilian transport that served from the mid-1940s into the 1960s. Early "Connies" were shorter than the one pictured, and had round windows; they also had the most voluptuous fuselages. Later versions had lengthened fuselages and larger wings, making them a bit less attractive.

Rutan SpaceShipOne.jpg
Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne launch aircraft.
Nearly all of Rutan's designs appear delicate, feminine. SpaceShipOne was the first non-government man-carrying craft to exceed an altitude of 100 kilometers.

F-86 Sabre.jpg
F-86 Sabre.
America's first swept-wing jet fighter. Served from the late 40s into the late 50s. Famed for dominating Russian and Chinese piloted MiG-15s during the Korean War.

The first three aircraft pictured strike me as being something like haute-couture models (for 7,000-foot runways). Slender. Delicate.

Part of the slenderness has to do with the fact that all three airplanes have what are termed "high aspect ratio" wings. That is, long, narrow wings that are suitable for efficient long-range cruising and not for the violent maneuvering essential for a fighter plane.

The final aircraft is a fighter and a lovely one indeed. Note especially the subtle shaping of the air intake and surrounding parts of the nose. Rather than fashion-model delicacy, the Sabre is more zaftig, but not too zaftig.

Sort of like its 1950s contemporary, Marilyn Monroe



posted by Donald at November 30, 2006


If you trace a line across the top of the Connie from its nose to its tail you will trace an elongated version of the classic S curve of beauty. That is the secret to the Connie's lasting appeal.

Posted by: ricpic on November 30, 2006 7:08 PM

I think the most beautiful airplanes ever to have flown are the F-5 Tiger II(combat version of the T-38 Talon), the FW-190 , and the SR-71 Blackbird.

Oh, and probably the B-1B Lancer, though only with wings fully swept.

There's an argument to be made for the Concorde and the C-47/DC-3, but they don't quite measure up for me.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 30, 2006 7:40 PM

I can't believe that no one has spoken up for the P-38 Lightning yet. (Scroll down one shot here for a good shot).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 30, 2006 11:04 PM

I cast my vote for the P51 Mustang. It may not have the lines that you're looking for, but it is a beautiful aircraft. And it has the personality of a strong, graceful and determined America.
It is not a super model like the SR71, but it is the solid American girl of dreams -- beautiful in a character way and coming through in the clutch. I know it has flaws, but it is going to do its best to overcome those. And hey, a little vulnerability can be appealing. And that vulnerability calls upon the pilot to show some skill in handling her.
Not to mention, it will protect bombers like a momma grizzly protecting its cubs. Damn, Im in love.


Posted by: steve a on December 1, 2006 12:27 AM

I think the B1 Lancer has to be the most sensual plane ever. It's the "femme fatale" of all airplanes.

Posted by: slumlord on December 1, 2006 6:51 AM

Very nice choices! During the spring of 2004, I was running an archaeology project located about 5 miles east of the Mojave (California) airport where Bert Rutan's Scaled Composites has their manufacturing and test facility. We were able to see the SpaceShipOne launch aircraft (I believe he calls it the "White Knight") do test flights several times a week. This was prior to the first launch that fall. Quite a thrill.

Of course, located as we were between Mojave and Edwards Air Force Base, it was like an airshow all day every day. We saw numerous F-15s, F-16s, B-1s, B-52s, C-17s, KC-135s, and an F-117. Also some test flights of the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey. Fun for aircraft enthusiasts!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 1, 2006 7:20 AM

All very interesting suggestions, but on this side of the pond, we all know that the Supermarine Spitfire was the most beautiful machine ever built.

Posted by: Richard Carter, FCD on December 2, 2006 5:51 AM

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