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Another way of asking the question:

Are there any distinctly identifiable features of particular modern airliners that are there for design reasons that have less to do with engineering than with appearance?

or:

Could one look at at a modern airliner, and point out something in its design, however small or large, that is there because "it looked good"?

To be clear about a few points:

  • By modern I mean since the 707.

  • In visual aesthetics I only want to include physical form - contours, placement of parts, proportions etc - and specifically want to exclude livery, colour, and so on.

  • I'm not interested in inessential matters like the design of the interior, but in the airframe, engines and so on.

I'd be pretty surprised to discover that any aspects of design allowed aesthetics to trump engineering consideration, but perhaps there are examples where aesthetics played a part because the choices, from an engineering point of view, were equally viable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does the paint job count as one ? $\endgroup$ – Antzi Jul 18 '16 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ No, I specifically excluded that in the question. $\endgroup$ – Daniele Procida Jul 18 '16 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Kämpf mentions the following: Boeing engineers spent several months on optimizing the fuselage-stabilizer intersection of the 767, only to have one manager impose a different geometry "because the optimized one looks like McDonnell-Douglas" in a comment to this answer, so it seems that people do make choices based on aesthetics $\endgroup$ – ROIMaison Jul 19 '16 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ I think the "shades" appearance of the 787 windscreen has some consideration for aesthetics $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Jul 19 '16 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Oops, it was the A-350, not the 787 I was thinking of $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Jul 19 '16 at 18:15
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A friend of mine, who did the design of the Gulfstream G650 canopy, designed the cockpit windows on that jet after the lines of an Aston Martin sports car. I suspect there are a few other features like that in various aircraft.

That being said, despite the aircraft design mantra of 'if it looks good it will fly good' most the the design choices made in aircraft is very utilitarian. Aerospace engineers - and in particular the management at the major OEMs - are some of the most boring, unimaginative SOBs you will ever meet. They generally leave creativity to the marketing departments and make every effort to pound flat any nail that sticks out.

The only exception to that rule that I can think of was Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, who when his own way and designed unique planes as virtual works of art - but also were highly functional with great performance and capabilities. From the Vari-EZ to Spaceship One, that guy is in a league of his own.

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    $\begingroup$ For the record, flat nails exhibit far less drag than ones that stick out. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 21 '16 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ For the record, Burt Rutan was much better at marketing his designs (and himself) than at engineering them. Just witness what happened to his over-hyped Starship design. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Aug 18 '16 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ Well the Starship’s problems weren’t related to performance. Rather it was associated with the expense and complexity of manufacturing an all composite aircraft, same as with the LearAvia LearFan. The end result was a product that cost as much is a jet but only delivered turbo prop performance. That won’t sell too many units. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione 2 days ago
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You may want to check out this article.

Function aside I agree with them that to me the Boeing nose has always been more pointed than the airbus nose.

Airbus Nose enter image description here (source)

Boeing Nose enter image description here (source)

There is of course engineering decisions for this decision, but as to which one is the "correct" way to build a nose you may not find an answer.

Depending on if you consider the cockpit "inessential" since its an interior part of the design there are some very easily identifiable cockpit features when we are talking about the Boeing/Airbus comparison.

If we look over at small planes, the most identifiable feature that I can think of is the inverted shaped rudder on almost every Mooney ever produced. Some think this was done for esthetic reasons but there are actually lots of aerodynamic reasons Al Mooney chose the design.

Since you put the hard cut at the 707, you will get mostly planes that were designed in the modern age where function over form ruled and our knowledge of aerodynamics was far beyond what it was in the 50 years before that. Earlier planes, designed in an era when aerodynamic knowledge was far less are more likely to have "just for esthetic" things.

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Winglets may be a good example. Not entirely aesthetical (hardly anything in aviation is), but the undue attention given to them is certainly driven more by the look rather than use.

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    $\begingroup$ They are quite useful in reducing vortexes etc ... $\endgroup$ – D. Clayton Jul 18 '16 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ Winglets effectively extend the area of the wing without physically extending it. These make the wing produce more lift and less drag, resulting in fuel savings. They are very much functional designs. Winglets are the embodiment of "form follows function". $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jul 18 '16 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @D.Clayton, they are not "quite useful", they are slightly useful. But my point is that what governs their shape (and even presence, to some significant extent) is largely driven by aesthetics rather than aerodynamics. Ron's comment about not extending the wingspan is more valid, but it only applies when there is an actual restriction on it (which is the case for e.g. A380, which got small fences instead of A330-style winglets). Aerodynamically, it's always better just to extend the wingspan. $\endgroup$ – Zeus Jul 19 '16 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeus, aerodynamically extending the wing is better and that is why winglets almost never appear in first iteration of any design. However for upgrades and retrofits extending the wing would require redesigning the whole wing with stronger spar due to the increased root bending moment, while winglets can often be retrofitted, because their effect on bending moment is smaller. That's why they often appear on later iterations of designs. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 24 '16 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeus, the undue attention given to winglets is mainly marketing taking advantage of how they look. But engineering chose them as cheap way to squeeze a bit of performance first and marketing bloated the benefit next. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 24 '16 at 18:28
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I can't speak much to airframe design, but I can say that in the case of the engines, basically zero consideration is given to aesthetics. Some of the designs do end up looking quite visually appealing (e.g. GE90 fan blade in Museum of Modern Art). However, that is entirely a happy coincidence. The biggest three concerns are fuel burn, weight, and cost. Fuel burn is such a huge driver that if the choice were between A) hideously ugly design that made fuel efficiency better by 0.001% or B) beautiful elegant design that made fuel efficiency worse by 0.001%, option A would win every time hands down.

The only engine feature where aesthetics might be given some consideration is the paint scheme on the front of the spinner, but you said you weren't considering paint.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is a saying in aviation that mainly applies to the entire craft but also applies to bits of it, like turbine blades. "If it looks right, it probably is right". $\endgroup$ – Simon May 18 '17 at 14:02

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