I was sitting waiting to go at an airline airport the other day when I realized how closely I had to look to know if it was a Boeing or an Airbus. Aging descendants of the DC-9 were easy to spot with their fuselage mounted engines, but a Boeing 777 looks a lot like an Airbus A330. An Airbus 320 series looks very much like a Boeing 737 that doesn’t have the graceful Aviation Partners winglets.
Yes, it’s still easy to spot the Boeing 747 with its fuselage hump, and the sheer size of the Airbus A380 is unmistakable, but the overall design of airliners has homogenized. And it’s continuing into the smaller airliners where the new Bombardier C-series jets look very similar to the wildly successful Embraer E-jets. Even the ATR and Bombardier Dash-8 turboprops now look a lot alike as they have stretched under their high wing.
What’s happening is aviation has matured. When different groups design an airplane for the same mission the results come out about the same. People have been designing, building and flying airplanes long enough to know what works best for specific missions.
For example, do you see any low wing bush planes? The Thrush and Air Tractor agplanes that dominate the world of crop spraying look very much alike. And with the exception of the HondaJet the configuration of purpose-built business jets is essentially the same.
The maturity of aviation extends down to personal aviation where the low wing design with conventional horizontal tail placement dominates. And in aerobatic flying a mid-wing design with a very narrow fuselage wins the championships despite the unbelievable air show performances of Sean Tucker in his biplane.
If you want a glimpse of aviation design in its youth before trial and error drove it to maturity just look at the antique airplane area at Oshkosh. There you will see airplanes in all manner of configurations that were certified and built in at least enough numbers for a few to survive. Every design idea got a chance in those early days and the market picked the winners.
You can see the same level of design maturity in the homebuilt area at Oshkosh, too. There you will see one or two examples of just about any airplane design configuration and a vast array of construction materials and techniques. But if you count prop spinners you will see that homebuilding has matured, too, and in maturity it is a Vans RV that dominates.
None of this design maturity has anything to do with what is the best technology but rather what is the best combination of technologies that delivers more of what pilots want than other combinations. A big component of maturity in airplanes–or people for that matter– is compromising on some desires to get more of what we want in other areas of performance and pleasure.
There are still some people creating what engineers call a “point design” because the airplane is focused on a single design point. An example would be an air racer where speed is everything and the only thing. Or extreme short runway capability. Or maximum cabin volume. And so on. But those are niche airplanes.
Decades ago my friend Peter Garrison designed and built a point design with his original Melmoth. Peter’s design point was extreme range with decent cruise speed. He succeeded. Peter flew Melmoth non-stop across the Pacific, to the tip of South America and on other extremely long unrefueled trips.
But few, if any, want to sit in a small single engine airplane over the open ocean for hours on end so there is no copy of Melmoth. And when Melmoth was destroyed when it was hit by an out of control airplane as Peter held short waiting to takeoff even he changed his mind. His second design can carry four instead of two, and has only a fraction of the range. Some aspect of maturity—maybe having been there and done that—removed Peter’s desire to cross vast oceans in his own creation again.
Most new airplane designs are better in useful measurements such as speed, range, cabin room and payload than earlier designs. The gains are not often huge, but cumulatively new airplane designs can deliver more of what the majority seeks than designs of years ago. And those improvements are typically the result of using what worked well before and making it better.
Does this maturity mark the end of aviation innovation? I don’t think so. A long time ago automotive designers settled on four wheels as the optimum for nearly all passenger vehicle missions. Has auto design innovation stopped because all cars have four wheels and use the front two to steer? Of course not.
And then there is the HondaJet. A very big company has invested enormous sums in a different configuration for a business jet with over the wing mounted engines and other unique features. Honda has now told the FAA the airplane design work is complete and has entered the Type Inspection Authorization phase which is the first step in final type certification. Honda expects the airplane to enter service about a year from now. The preliminary numbers from Honda look promising. We will all be watching.