My first plane flight was in 1947. Or maybe it was 1946; I can’t remember. I do know it was from London to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. We flew there to spend time with the couple at whose house my father and mother met in 1938. By now the war was over and they had survived, as had we. The plane was a Douglas DC-4.
Flying for me today is more an ordeal than a pleasure; I’d just as soon take the bus. Only they don’t go to Brussels from here.
November 16, 2014, by Robert Wright in New York for The Financial Times.
Airbus’s design for a future aircraft looks less like a conventional airliner and more like something from a 1950s sci-fi comic. If a patent application filed by the European aerospace and defence group takes off, future passengers could fasten their seat belts in cabins shaped like giant doughnuts – or flying saucers.
The UFO-like shape addresses a problem facing aircraft designers. Cylindrical shapes are good at containing the stresses of pressurised cabins but huge pressures on the cylinder’s front and rear ends need to be managed with strong, heavy structures.
“The purpose of the invention is particularly to provide a simple, economic and efficient solution to these problems, or at least partially overcome the . . . disadvantages,” the application says.
Airbus said although the design was worthwhile enough to protect with a patent – like about 6,000 other ideas its engineers devise every year – it was not an immediate prospect for shuttling passengers from Heathrow to JFK. “This is not something that’s currently under active development,” Airbus said.
Other bizarre and futuristic ideas that the company have patented include the idea of an economy class seat for standing passengers shaped like a bicycle saddle; immersive virtual reality helmets for delivering in-flight entertainment; and, most alarmingly of all, a windowless cockpit.
The “flying doughnut”, however, is the company’s most radical reinvention of aircraft structure. The “simple and efficient” solution would involve passengers’ not only receiving their in-flight meals from trolleys negotiating curved aisles but also learning an entirely new way of boarding. Diagrams in the patent application show passengers entering the aircraft through steps leading up to doors arranged around the hole in the doughnut’s middle.
The design fits with the concepts some aerospace companies have been considering as they pursue the next step in fuel efficiency. Chris Lorence, general manager of engineering technologies at GE Aviation, General Electric’s aero engine arm, said designs such as Airbus’s could be aerodynamically more efficient than traditional designs. “It is an approach that reduces the overall fuel burn for the aircraft,” he says.
Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, which receives funding from Airbus’s rival Boeing, expressed the scepticism that many would-be passengers might feel. “I’ve never seen anyone suggest anything like this in a heavier-than-air system,” he said, likening the craft to an airship or space vehicle.