Sponsor Message:

The Shock of the Old

By Glenn Johnson
November 6, 2008

Many of the most innovative designs in aviation will come in the next century. However, many older, seemingly dated designs are even more revolutionary. Glenn Johnson shows how 20th century innovations like the Blended Wing Body and Twin Decks will shape 21st century aviation design.


This article draws attention to two aspects of retro design that continue to enjoy relevance in the creative arsenal of many designers. It does this by exploring three areas from the past with particular currency in today’s world of aircraft interior design and ends with a glimpse of recent technological developments from which designers can seek inspiration.

Another facet is the author’s wish to bring wider attention to notable design innovations that are little known and deserve greater recognition.

The dawn of a new century has historically been associated with a sea change in the arts. The start of the 20th Century was marked by questioning of the aesthetic traditionalism of the previous century in relation to the emerging machine age.

Famous design movements that are still used as reference points—Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Futurism, Dynamism—all came into existence (more or less) as part of the renewal process in moving from one era to another.

The beginning of our century has not been as creatively auspicious, however. September 11th—the aircraft industry’s nadir—only served to compound an aura of negativity that has been a fact of life for many design professionals. The Year 2000 is often referred to in the media as ‘the year that never happened.’

The aero-cars, the jet packs and the ‘floating’ vehicles that we were all supposed to use on a daily basis have simply not transpired. The biggest event, the much-anticipated Y2K technological disaster was not the watershed it was predicted to be.

Looking for inspiration, retro design, in such product design as the recent Ford Mustang is alive and well. In similar vein, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is holding an exhibition entitled “Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser,” from which this article takes its title (with thanks). The theme of the exhibition is to show how advanced Dresser’s design concepts were in the 19th Century, and yet he is not as well known amongst contemporary designers, as his work so rightly deserves.

Dresser looked to the future, and it is partly in tribute to all designers and innovators that take this stance that we have the possibility to see beyond the current environment and dream again of new ways to travel.

Twin Decks

Firstly, twin deck aircraft are not in themselves a new idea. The last sizeable company with such an idea was McDonnell Douglas and the MD-12 “triple aisle” aircraft.

Arguably, the most complete concept before that was the Saunders Roe SR-45 Princess flying boat. Whilst other aircraft—before and since—have had two decks, these were either part decks or non-pressurized decks. Saunders Roe was the first to propose an intercontinental twin deck pressurized commercial aircraft. The Princess also held the title of worlds largest all metal airplane for a considerable period of time.

The main issue for the Princess design was sufficient power—it required five gas turbine engines per wing, and the development efforts were still hampered by a lack of performance.

In terms of interiors, the Princesses and flying boats in general had several design features we are re-investigating today: separate cabins, spiral staircases, and lounge-bars.

The Princess was created after the Second World War, but displays the pre-war approach to flying that signified the privileged situation of most intercontinental passengers. It is interesting to note the proximity of the tourist class passengers to the ten very large propellers.

Even with this split configuration, the tourist cabin had a dressing room as well as a ‘bar-lounge.’ The First Class passengers had seats as well as berths, with some passengers afforded the luxury of lower deck berths, and a substantial ‘lounge-bar’ area.

Even more interestingly, BOAC, the original airline scheduled to operate the aircraft, had opted to use a twin class configuration, for what was proposed as a primarily transatlantic route. This cabin layout is still in vogue with many wide-bodied aircraft on the same routes. Unfortunately, the mass arrival of runways from the war effort, doomed flying boats in general and the rapid speed of turbojet development made the Princess obsolete before its time.

The Princess did bring some very important developments to Europe. One of these was the structural feasibility of large twin deck pressurized metal aircraft. The other and more important one was that a large metal aircraft could be manufactured from major sub assemblies transported to the central Saunders Roe Company, an inspiration to European aviation manufacturers.

Blended Wing Body Design (BWB)

Several aircraft design institutions are campaigning for the use of fuselage designs, which incorporate a lifting body aircraft or Blended Wing Body (BWB). Such aircraft have had many proponents over the last century, including the famous designers Norman Belle Geddes, Luigi Colani and Tom Karen.

In the 1920s a Texan named Vincent Julius Burnelli designed and patented the concept of the lifting body fuselage, and pioneered the use of stressed skin aircraft construction in the United States. He would continue to explore his ideas until he had created true harbingers of the BWB concepts being promoted today.

Interestingly, Burnelli started his career as an exhibition designer and remains one of the lesser-known pioneers of commercial aviation design.

Using the fuselage to help lift the aircraft, Burnelli found he could create approximately 10 percent weight advantage and considerably larger cabin volumes than the conventional aircraft designs of the time.

Designers should take more note of his concept, as the first effect of such a fuselage is to have more freedom of movement. This paradigm shift from a cylindrical tube profile also allows a designer to create passenger layouts with very different spatial relationships to the row upon row seating layouts we see today.

One particularly unusual idea pioneered by Burnelli was that of the flying car showroom, complete with a ‘flying’ Ford Model T. This is one of the most amazing aircraft interior concepts I have ever come across. The idea he later developed to include a ‘car ferry’ from 1952.

As a side note: how many design agencies would be so radical given the current climate?

Supersonic Transport (SST)

The 2003 demise of Concorde has ended the notion that we shall fly faster than sound again commercially. Some writers have commented that it might mark the peak of our technological development as a society, especially if taken together with the end of the Apollo missions.

During the era of Concorde there were several other super sonic transport (SST) concepts and military aircraft not as well known to many designers. Two SSTs spring to mind—the Mach 2 Tupolev Tu-144 and the Mach 3 North American XB-70. Both planes continue to inspire the sense of dramatic aesthetic witnessed in the film and television cult classics ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Thunderbirds’. The angularity of such aesthetics as the Tu-144 and XB- 70 often reappear in products such as the new Cadillac and hi tech performance sports equipment.

Plans for the XB-70 began in 1955, but by the time of its rollout in 1964, military issues had moved on. However, the fuselage length of 189 feet, the delta wing of 105 feet, and its operating characteristics, made it an excellent SST prototype. NASA and the US Air Force began a cooperative test program with the XB-70 in 1966. Flying at Mach 3 meant a structure requiring exotic alloys, because the aluminum used in Concorde would not survive the aerodynamic heating at such speeds. One problem not foreseen was the simple logistics of operating a Mach 3 aircraft with the existing air traffic control system. For example, the plane completed turns that required hundreds of kilometers, and it was difficult tracking a plane moving at three times the speed of conventional aircraft on the radar screens.

The Rockwell aircraft derivative of the SST project is shown with 170 seats. The projected plane might well have been a very serious commercial contender to Concorde. It had greater seating capacity than the European plane, with a very low drag ratio of 8, at Mach 3 and a range of 6500 miles. In fact such performance should still be admired in aerospace engineering.

To Infinity and Beyond

Continuing with the theme of lesser known innovators, it seems relevant to remind readers that the world did not give due credit to the Wright brother’s flight until many years after the fact.

It could be argued that the Wright brothers’ success was due in part to the extremely methodical approach they brought to the study of flight and overcoming their problems creating sufficient power. It is a sobering experience to witness the engine block they designed and built for their own plane designs, all developed at their own expense.

A century after the anniversary of their flight, we have had two similar events occur recently.

The successful run of the Pratt & Whitney ISTAR Ground Development Engine between September 2002 and June 2003, and more recently, the Integrated Powerhead Demonstrator space engine from Aerojet Corporation illustrate how future aircraft might soon be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

The P & W engine will enable aircraft to travel at 6.5 - 7 times the speed of sound and breathe air. It works at the weight required of a flying engine—150 pounds, burning conventional jet engine fuel. The Aerojet IPD rocket engine works with both oxygen and hydrogen—taking over where the GDE engine leaves off.

Together, two such components could feasibly power an aircraft from our atmosphere and to the stars, a proverbial rocket ship, as it were. One of the biggest problems to overcome for these technologies is the tremendous heat that their extreme operating parameters create.

Like the Wright Brothers, we are again in the methodical process of developing new sources of aviation power that will take us to a new level. The issue was and still is, power to weight. The new engines provide power like we have rarely if ever seen in planes.

Beijing to New York in 90 minutes, or London to Hawaii in 120 minutes is a notion few would have dreamed of at Kittyhawk 100 years ago. One could arrive a day previously, enabling very unusual business meetings to be held. For example, senior management could hold the same meeting at the same time on the same day in several places and select the best version for public release.

In other words, our civilization is on track to build vehicles that will fly into space at several times the speed of sound and I wish to suggest they will probably do this in the first quarter of this century. In a similar way in which the Princess designers were overtaken by the speed at which the turbojet replaced the turboprop, it is astonishing to believe that we are now on the threshold of design for interplanetary transport.

The retro-future approach is a source of great inspiration for designers as they consider the “shock of the old.” However, the designer risks future failure on his or her own part if such a glance becomes too dogmatic.

It is time once more for designers to look ahead.

For further inspiration, readers can visit the following pages:

The author wishes to express his thanks and gratitude to Bob Wealthy of Solent Aeromarine Enterprises UK, Brian Riddle of the Royal Aeronautical Society library UK, Mark Dowty of B/E Aerospace Inc. US, and Laurie Olivieri of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum US.

Written by
Glenn Johnson

Since 1998, Glenn Johnson has been the Design Studio Director at B/E Aerospace Inc., the world's leading manufacturer of cabin interior products for commercial aircraft and business jets. He also worked in the Design Studio at Airbus Industrie for several years (including work on the A380), and at British Aerospace (now BAE systems) on civil and military aircraft. He received his education at the Royal College of Art London.

1 User Comments:
Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-01 09:30:04 and read 32768 times.

cool article!!

Post your comments on this article:

No username? Sign up now!
  • Article related posts only. Other topics here.
  • No adverts of any kind. This includes web pages.
  • No hostile language or criticizing of others.
  • Back all your opinions with facts.
  • Do not post copyright protected material
  • Check your spelling!             Detailed Rules...

Forgot Password? Be reminded.

Read how to include links, pictures and smilies! (opens in new window)

Please check your spelling before
pressing the Post button once.

Discuss other aviation issues in our active Discussion forums!

Publish your article on Airliners.net!    
Recommend this article
to a friend!
    Read more articles!