Whatever your position on the EU might be, the bigness of the A380 is not of the bossy, domineering kind.1 While the supersized cabin of the European jumbo embodies the boom in mass tourism that began in the late 1990s,2 its bullyboy predecessor – with its fat head in the form of a cudgel – is an obvious symbol of Yankee imperialism.
At the Paris Air Show last year the Airbus consortium seemed keen to portray the A380 as a benign monster, unassuming, really, despite its gargantuan size, and as the aircraft commenced its display to a swelling musical accompaniment, the gallic announcer, primed no doubt by their PR representatives, launched into a lavish encomium on the plane’s docility and sweetness of temper.
This modesty might well appear false, but is consistent in fact with the bland and unassuming image Airbus has always sought to project, and although it resembles a Russian doll quite capable of enclosing all the others, the A380 is actually the 14th product in a series, and results from a scaling up of the same basic design.3
Its lines, moreover, are generic, and do not greatly distinguish it from other airliners in service today. This is not to disparage the majesty of the A380. Indeed, if the beauty of a thing – be it of a lyric poem or a commercial airliner, or any other form one could think of – belongs to a quality of rightness, or of suitedness to function or purpose, then the increasing standardization of airframe designs would suggest that the passenger planes of today are the most beautiful ever to have ever graced the skies.
Having said that, its bumper size is the main reason, no doubt, why the A380 never fails to wow the crowds, inspiring the reverence one feels for the biggest fish in the pond that has outgrown or gobbled up the others.
There is no ignoring its bigness when it is still on the ground, but once it has lumbered up the runway and taken to the skies – and the A380 does not just ‘take-off’ – it takes to the skies, – once – unbelievably – we behold it in flight, it looks even larger.
The wings seem to hug the air to heave the plane skywards, but only the blasted grass on either side of the runway reveals the forces in presence, and it doesn’t really inspire the word ‘mighty,’ despite the combined 400,000 pounds of thrust delivered by its four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofan engines, or the fact that each one of them is large enough for a full-grown man to stand up in. A reason for this could be how quiet those engines are, producing a faint whistling sound, like that of a hailstorm softened by distance or heard through a Lexomile haze.
Following on from the wicked jet fighters and their ear-splitting roar, the Airbus all but steals their thunder, assuming in its porcelain whiteness the role of ambassador, cooling the passions after the fury just unleashed.4
Huge though it is, the A380 seems to glide like an airship,5 and its low speed too is uncanny, its evolutions through the sky as smooth and graceful as the hand movements in tai chi.
Taking its time, that Ultrabrite sparkle edging around the engine cowls and moving up its glossy, streamlined hull, it flaunts its beauty from every angle, and as it banks and turns, with a low rumbling sound like water coming to the boil, a band of shadow cast by the fuselage inwardly contracts or lengthens out along a pearl-grey wing.
As it weaves its figures in the skies of Le Bourget, each circuit binding us closer, the plane performs a kind of nuptial dance before the lovelorn crowd. Cool and playful by turns, it teases us with nearness, rolling over to expose a smooth white underbelly, then gives us the cold shoulder, exposing as it does that shapely orifice at her hindermost extremity,6 so that, weirdly and sub-consciously, one feels like a lone bull whale glimpsing a prospective mate in the vast oceanic depths.
Watching her head off, we fear she won’t come back. We feel cheated too, and as the sound of her recedes we feel bereft. Afflicted by our loss and fatally deceived, we fancy some sinister design, as though there were an evil in this taunting and, like Melville’s Moby Dick, the plane were leading us to perdition.
As it begins its silent descent against the gathering clouds, still quite far away, the great white craft again transmutes, birdlike now, flaps and ailerons aflutter like the moon-bright plumage of an owl, then, completing its final approach and coming in to land, it is a lovebird once more, subsiding on cushions of air or a plump and billowy bedspread, – our buxom bride, naked and yielding now, offering at last her sumptuous charms!
1) The news that Airbus, a consortium of EU member countries, would cease production of the A380 – the obvious flagship for a serene, expansive, and self-confident Europe – was obviously significant at a time when that same union was coming apart at the seams.
2) and – despite the 2-tier cabin layout, and 1st, ‘Business,’ and ‘Economy’ classes – the relative democratization of commercial air travel.
3) To employ a culinary metaphor, if one were to compare aircraft designs to the sausage-making process, the A380 would be the bockwurst of the Airbus family.
4) As an emissary of peace the A380 is questionable at best. Preferring suasion over violence, it does indeed stand out at a show bristling with military hardware, but it is no less bent on domination, and although it doesn’t bare its claws, this fat cat fully intends to get fatter.
5) or, to use a less flattering analogy, like a somnambulant whale.
6) This is in fact the exhaust pipe of her APU, or Auxiliary Power Unit.