Soaring Beauty

A television ad for the Fargo Air Museum showcased vintage planes, but small town local commercial production couldn’t hide the craftsmanship and artistic design of the old propeller driven aircraft. Even with cheap on-screen banners obscuring the planes and promoting the season’s deals I was struck by gorgeous design of yesteryear, a time when when beauty was intrinsic to manufacturing.

I’ve often mused to myself how strange it seems that aircraft design and it’s aesthetics reflect the era in which it was designed (much like cars) when principles of lift and aerodynamics are constant. That in mind, the pure beauty of aircraft suffered horribly once we entered the jet age. At least (some) cars got pretty again after the 1970s ended- planes have had very few gorgeous jet powered examples. The SR-71. Concorde. The ill-fated XB-70 Valkyrie. There’s an elemental simplicity to their design that could be rendered in a coffee table art deco sculpture and still be recognized. Some of the X-planes were pretty, with the X-29 being my personal favorite.

But the Handley Page Victor is perhaps my current favorite airborne beauty, mostly because I’ve only recently discovered it’s existence.

One of the prettiest planes I didn't know was real.

One of the prettiest planes I didn’t know was real.

I spent over an hour after typing that last sentence searching for an image of a comic book cover (to no avail). I think it was something written by Alan Moore between 2001-2003, during his America’s Best Comics years, and I could swear the cover depicted this very plane. At the time I thought it was just a beautiful example of an artist copying a paleofuture style. It was so striking I always considered buying the issue for the cover alone, despite having no interest at all in it’s content. Who knew the plane was real?

My British friends likely did- the Victor served the RAF for 35 years. But just look at it! The engine integrated into the wing. The five distinct angles of the intake (not visible in this shot). The cockpit shaped like a rocket straight out of a Buck Rogers serial. It’s unlike anything else and utterly gorgeous because of it.

A road-going car isn’t dependant upon it’s bodywork for functionality, that’s what a frame, suspension, etc. are for. Which is why we’ve seen a return to aesthetically pleasing cars like the retro Mustang and Camaro, C7 Corvette, and basically any Ferrari or Aston Martin. But airplanes depend on their shape, and specifically their wing, more than anything else. The function literally dictates the form of an aircraft and in the age of high technology we’ve seen fewer a fewer true beauties take to the sky. It’s totally understandable, but still a shame. We may see modern retro Beetles, Thunderbirds and Minis, but the heydey of iconic design in aviation looks to be long since passed. We’re poorer for it.

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