Sir Norman Foster’s Favourite Building

Graham Coster

  • Wide Body: The Making of the 747 by Clive Irving
    Hodder, 384 pp, £17.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 340 53487 7

‘Four million rivets flying in close formation’: thus RAF folklore on its Shackleton early-warning patrol planes. Aircraft development has been so closely analogous to the century’s historical, political and cultural changes that individual designs have often in retrospect assumed a symbolic weight out of all proportion to then contemporary technological success. The Short Stirling, the first of the RAF’s World War Two heavy bombers, stands as an aerial metaphor of Britain’s half-cock response in the mid Thirties to the Nazi war threat. The Air Ministry thought that all new aircraft should be compact enough to tit into the RAF’s existing hangars, so the Short Stirling was built with wings that were too short to provide an adequate degree of lift; which meant that the undercarriage had to be extended to a flimsy height to give the wings enough rake to get the bomber off the ground; which meant that if Stirling crews weren’t shot out of the sky over Europe they were all too often killed back at their home airfield when the undercarriage gave way on landing. When the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richard talks dismissively about ‘Brabazon bands’ he is alluding to an ill-fated post-war British airliner. A rock band can be beautiful to look at, sound as sleek and smooth as you like, the gnarled Richard is saying, but these days you can’t just rumble endlessly along the runway: you’ve got to get airborne fast and with a great roar. The American B-52 is now for ever pigeon-holed as the sinister visual emblem of car pet-bombing: a sooty pencil-plane excreting strings of bombs like rabbit-droppings.

If one aeroplane has become the ubiquitous motif of the modern age, however, it has to be the Boeing 747 (its elephantine nickname, Clive Irving reveals, was coined by the British press, much to the manufacturer’s disapproval). In a recent television programme in the BBC’s Building Sights series, the architect Sir Norman Foster picked the 747 as his favourite building. ‘With about three thousand square feet of floor space, 15 lavatories, three kitchens and an occupancy of up to 376 guests,’ he mused, as he walked around a Qantas 747 on the parking apron at Heathrow,

this is surely a true building. I suppose it’s the grandeur, the scale. It’s heroic. It’s also pure sculpture. I mean, it doesn’t really need to fly: it could sit on the ground – it could be in a museum. I suspect it’s one of those icons of the late 20th century that in generations hence will still be looked at in wonder.

Already the 747, Foster seems to be saying, has the permanence of a building: it is just as much of a landmark as, say, a shopping precinct is. But unlike the draughty, echoey mall, it hasn’t become in any way a negative symbol of modern life. It is the only passenger aircraft as big as an office block or a block of flats – and yet, as foster pointed out, all those Sixties towers are already being pulled down, while the 747 is likely to be around well into the next century. Its design, unlike those of the Brabazon or the Stirling, has transcended its time.

The advent of the 747 transformed transcontinental air travel. Were we still waiting for the Jumbo to be invented, hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers over the last few years would not have been able to discover Orlando, Florida on their package tours. There would be no bucket-shop deals bringing Australia or Thailand into the compass of student travellers. Paradoxically the plane’s very size may well have helped to conquer many people’s fear of flying by allowing them to cross the world in a flying building rather than a dubious jet-propelled cylinder. In any case, shifting twice as many passengers as any air craft that preceded it, and as fast as any airliner before or since (apart from Concorde), the 747 has brought mass transportation to the airline industry. It has changed continental travel from an expensive privilege to a common right – in one significant way democratising the world.

Clive Irving leaves it to others to map this social revolution: he concentrates on the story of how Sir Norman Foster’s favourite building was put into the air. Wide Body’s generic ancestor would be a book like Tracy Kidder’s 1982 non-fiction techno-thriller about the invention of a new computer, The Soul of a New Machine – but where Kidder’s tale sometimes bears obtrusive homage to the can-do virtues of American macho management, Irving’s is a subtle and Byzantine history that shows the 747 as at one and the same time the product of a natural evolution in aviation technology, the by-product of an unexpected failure to win a military tender and the object of one man’s extravagant caprice. It also reveals that the 747 was merely a stop-gap, intended to have a short shelf-life and then to bow out before the imminently-awaited and far greater transformation in air travel which, thirty years on, is now immeasurably further off.

For the start of its story, Wide Body takes us back to the late Thirties when an aeroplane’s wings joined its fuselage at 90 degrees, its engines powered propellers to move it through the air, and crossing the Atlantic took 26 hours. To understand how the 747 is able to fly, Irving’s account shows, you have to see how its precursor, the 707, Boeing’s first jet airliner, was invented. This means going back to the development of the jet engine and the swept-back wing. Only the jet engine could give an aircraft a speed of the sort we are accustomed to nowadays, and only by angling a wing at between 30 and 40 degrees to the fuselage could you make it possible for an aircraft to reach such speeds without the shock waves breaking it apart. To get to the 707 airliner Boeing had to build the B-47 bomber for the military – its first big jet – and then the far larger B-52. By then it was impossible for the company to go back to propeller-driven aircraft, even though competitors like Douglas and Vickers were continuing to sell successful turboprop airliners. Once the 707 had become a commercial success – though such were its development costs that after several hundred sales Boeing was still losing millions on the project – the challenge, as with all proven aircraft designs, was to stretch it. The 747 was an exercise in stretching the 707 in all three dimensions.

Even so, the 747 only reached the drawing board because Boeing didn’t get the chance to build the jumbo it really wanted. The giant C-5 Galaxy cargo planes last seen ferrying armoured cars and supplies to the US Marines in Somalia were, back in the Sixties, Boeing’s idea. The Seattle company approached the Pentagon; the specification was put out to official tender and, thanks to some heavy lobbying from a Georgia Senator to whom Lockheed had promised a new factory for his State if the contract went to them, Boeing, to its chagrin, found that its own idea had been hi-jacked. The loss of the C-5 left Boeing not only with a design team briefed to think big, but also with a corporate mindset similarly scaled-up in ambition.

The final, multi-faceted irony Wide Body reveals is the role of the airline Pan-Am, and particularly of its maverick president Juan Trippe, in the conception of the 747. Trippe wanted an airliner as unprecedentedly enormous as the 747 so badly that he ordered the first 25 of the production run off the drawing board – a financial gamble so great as effectively to stake the future of his airline on its success, thus inviting Boeing to take a similar gamble by going ahead to build the planes. But Trippe’s sights were set on a further horizon. He only wanted the 747 as a short-term workhorse – ‘a Mack truck with wings’, Irving suggests – to see out what he reckoned was the twilight era of subsonic flight. What he passionately wanted was for Boeing to build a supersonic airliner – the SST project – that would compete with and supplant the Anglo-French Concorde as surely as the 707 had displaced the Comet. Instead, the American Government, who had contracted the project to Boeing, eventually cancelled the SST as its costs rose, and with most countries still refusing to allow supersonic passenger flights over their territory, the Boeing 747 remains in 1993 the fastest and most cost-effective long-haul airliner. Pan-Am, meanwhile, went bust in 1991 – not least, Irving contends, because ‘it had been crippled by its over-buying of 747s.’ In the Seventies Boeing itself was nearly bankrupted by the cost of putting the first 747s in the sky. It had to sell four hundred planes to break even: Boeing has since seen its order book pass the thousand mark.

Irving is able to point up such odd ironies precisely because he has resisted the temptation to make his tale in any way homiletic: for once the story of taking to the air is occasion not for airy dreaming or a cracker-motto design for living, but rather for conscientious elucidation. He considers, for example, the implications of the Boeing company’s location in Seattle – whether its geographical and political isolation within the US has shaped its corporate culture, or whether the ‘clannishness’ he sees is ‘less a geographical condition than a vocational one’. He quotes Boeing’s president during the 747 development years, Bill Allen, testifying that he’d had ‘a whole new liberal education at the expense of the Boeing company’. Whether Boeing was dangerously introverted, admirably self-reliant, or simply blessed with an enlightened management tradition, you nevertheless gain a sense that only by not having America and the world watching you (and making you aware of the extent of your undertaking) would you be able to carry through a project as vast as the 747.

Irving keeps a careful eye throughout Wide Body on Boeing’s principal competitors, Lockheed and Douglas. With the 747 Boeing was boldly second-guessing the potential market for transcontinental air travel; airlines which currently transported around 150 people per plane across the Atlantic would have to be able to fill 380 seats on a Jumbo. Lockheed and Douglas chose to follow Boeing with the wide-body designs, but nevertheless to hedge their bets: their Tristar and DC-10 airliners were aimed cautiously at giving American airlines more seats on their domestic routes. ‘In a sense, the divergence in the philosophies of the three companies came down to this: Douglas (and later Lockheed) decided to satisfy a market that was there; Boeing decided, far more dangerously, to create a market – a market that could only be defined by the airline itself.’

With the delivery of the first production 747 to Pan-Am on 12 December 1970 Irvine’s book makes an abrupt, slightly premature landing. Twenty more pages of notes-in-conclusion wind up the loose ends of what came after, and the sense of painstaking, incremental composition gives way to a quick lick of paint to finish the thing off. I suspect that at this point the mortified author suddenly saw the next three hundred, even three thousand, terrifyingly encyclopaedic pages waiting to be written on the subsequent twenty-year history of the 747. By the end, certainly, the reader has joined the chase. You know why small pellets of uranium are lodged as ballast within every Jumbo’s engine nacelles; why it needs steerable landing gear; that, unlike the 707, for some happy reason it refuses to yaw and pitch in a ‘Dutch Roll’ when a pilot overdoes it on the rudder controls; that the attempt to provide movie headphones, piped music, call buttons and reading lights to all of the 747’s 380 seats led, until the system was debugged – it took several years – to ‘dying movies, overlapping music channels and imbecilic flashing lights’. All of which combines to remake Sir Norman Foster’s ergonomic, crystalline icon into something of a Borgesian library in which every question you haven’t even thought of asking must already have received scientific attention and an intricate technological solution. So why, monkish curiosity demands of Wide Body’s necessary sequel, do the newest 747s have those curious turned-up wing-tips as if the aircraft’s fingers are cocked in stately curtsey – and are these anything to do with them being able to fly non-stop to Australia? How is it that a bomb concealed in a tiny tape-recorder could scatter a Pan Am 747 miles wide over Scotland? What will the Boeing 797 be? Is there a Super-Jumbo on the drawing board in Seattle twice the size of a 747, and if not, why not?