Design trends, we can argue, speak to their time. In particular, the shapes of our flying machines always have reflected the moods and desires of an age. Thus the latest generation of commercial and corporate flying machines serves up a troubling diagnosis. Seen through the aesthetic of our aircraft, we’re definitely a manic lot: either aggressively self-conscious or, more commonly, numbingly uninspired.
Some of us—loosely categorized as stubborn romantics—long for the rakish sensuality of the early jetliners: the first Boeings, for instance, or the long-forgotten Caravelle, a French-built jetliner of the 1960s with softly sculpted curves. Over the past 30 years, we’ve witnessed the devolution of aircraft aesthetics; airliners have become generic to the point of near total anonymity. Today, watching from a terminal window, I would need a field guide to recognize the subtleties between countless variants of the 737 or the A320, none of which is particularly attractive or engaging.
Among business jets, the progression has not been much better. The field’s prime contenders once could be effortlessly identified by their idiosyncratic profiles—from the dartlike Lears to the Rockwell Sabreliner to the strange bulk of Lockheed’s four-engine JetStar (the latter being one of only three planes ever to sport twin pairs of aft-mounted motors.) Although no sensible person ever would describe the Sabreliner or the JetStar as beautiful, each was, if nothing else, an eye-catcher. With their clientele in mind, builders of corporate jets, even more so than those who built their commercial cousins, took pains to impart style, flair, and personality.
Alas, style has become neglected. We care ever more deeply about creature comforts and the high-tech gadgetry around us, but we’re less concerned with the images they project. It’s not that we don’t care how a product looks, exactly, but our criteria have coarsened. We want fast, powerful, and efficient. But those features can come at the expense of grace, subtlety, and refinement. The end result is a tarmac full of business jets that are perfectly functional and ably suited to the task at hand, but most are as anonymous as those Boeings and Airbuses.
The statements our corporate jets do make, when they make any, tend to be over-the-top. Consider the Gulfstream, the archetypal executive transport. It’s true that today’s G-IVs and G-Vs, with their telltale oval windows and winglets, trace their lineage back more than 40 years, but for all their capabilities, there’s something steroidal, oversized, and swaggering about them. Distinctive, yes. Distinguished? I’m not so sure.
But what is the driving force behind modern-day aero-aesthetics? Is it taste, or lack thereof, or aerodynamic necessity? Conventional wisdom paints these two schools as mutually exclusive: Beauty or efficiency? Pick one. “Air does not yield to style” is a refrain first spoken by an Airbus engineer some years ago. True to this sentiment, the Airbus line has achieved ultimate ignominy with its double-decked A380, a gargantuan technological marvel and perhaps the most hideous airliner in history. We expect better from the French, who carved out that Caravelle so many years ago as well as that most haughtily unmistakable 20th-century flying machine, Concorde.
The A380 notwithstanding, aircraft from the French are the ones today that stand apart and best please the eye when you scope the apron at Teterboro or Westchester. Particularly pleasing are the aircraft from Dassault, which cobuilt the Mirage fighter and more recently has been producing the Falcon series of business jets. The Falcon, unlike the majority of its competitors, balances form with function to an impeccable, dare we say erudite, standard.
The company’s founder, Marcel Dassault, would have had no patience for that Airbus design philosophy. “For a plane to fly well,” he once insisted, “it has to be beautiful.” Rather than viewing the wind tunnel as an impediment, the company has found it to be an inspiration for its designs, as evidenced by the daggerlike minimalism of the Mirage and, most recently, the muscular grace of the upcoming Falcon 7X.
The 7X, the largest and most advanced of the Falcon line, borrows the basic planform and engine configuration of the Falcon 50 and 900, the Western world’s only corporate jets equipped with a threesome of aft-mounted powerplants. (The Falcon 2000, a two-engine adaptation of the 50/900, retains much of the trijet’s handsomeness, though the tapered rear fuselage leaves the plane looking pinched.) Distinguished by their center engine intake ducts and brazenly sculpted tailplanes, these aircraft recall the confident profiles of the Boeing 727, Hawker Trident, and Tupolev Tu-154. The shape is one of civil aviation’s few classic motifs, and it is worn by the Falcon with an almost Gothic surety.
“That middle turbofan, the intake perched beneath the fin—there’s something smart, aggressive, and just plain different about it,” agrees Ralph Aceti, spokesman for Dassault Falcon Jet Corp., Dassault’s American satellite headquartered in Little Ferry, N.J. “At the same time, it provides some unbelievable advantages.” Pilots understand that the benefit of three engines over two does not involve a raw quantity of power, but rather how that power is shared, which matters when you take off and land. Should an engine fail on takeoff, you will have lost only a third of your thrust, versus half on a traditional two-engine jet.
“We like to think aesthetics are born from aerodynamics and not so much the other way around,” submits Aceti, sounding as though he’s channeling Marcel Dassault. He then tells an oft-repeated story of Dassault breaking out a crayon to tweak the blueprints of an early tailfin design “because it didn’t look right.” Regardless of whether the anecdote is apocryphal, the company goes to substantial lengths to cultivate the spirit that it illustrates. “Passion” is a word that comes up again and again in Dassault’s promotional literature, along with the occasional Monet painting. It’s a touch pretentious, perhaps, but neatly apropos.
“Our engineers would give me a dirty look if I used a word like ‘stylish’ to describe their aircraft,” says Aceti. “Style is a marketing term. Still, there’s a mind-set here that directly inspires our aesthetics.” And it does so with lasting consequence. Viewing old pictures of the eldest Falcons, one is struck by their agelessness. The lines of the Mystère 20, now more than four decades old, don’t seem the least bit anachronistic among the latest designs.
Down on the flight line, whether any of this might be important depends on whom you’re asking. Pilots, for one, aren’t apt to put much stock in an airframe’s superficials. A cross-section of Falcon pilots surveyed for this article boasted solely about the gee-whiz technology of the aircraft’s cockpit. I can’t deny that Falcon’s state-of-the-art EASy flight deck gets the juices flowing, but this would be too narrow a critique. A pilot exalting his cockpit isn’t unlike an artist hailing the fibers of his brush and ignoring the beauty of the painting. Not so obvious to crew members is the way Monsieur Dassault’s commitment reveals itself in the smoothness of the Falcon’s wing: a variable-geometry airfoil able to achieve superlative performance without the help of aerodynamic accoutrements such as vortex generators, stall strips, or winglets.
As for passengers, again the preoccupation seems to be with onboard tangibles. The executive en route to Dubai is liable to savor that mahogany credenza and satellite fax before fetishizing the sensuality of an engine duct. But regardless of whether he’s aware of it, he’s flying on one of the best-looking planes in the air.
Perhaps how beautiful a plane is depends only on how much devotion goes into making it so. It’s possible that air does not, in a pure sense, yield to style. But as the Falcon shows, it yields quite nicely to a bit of vision.
Patrick Smith, an erstwhile commercial pilot, is a columnist for Salon.com and author of Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel (Riverhead Books).