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Sleek Machines

Sleek Machines

There’s an old saying in aviation, attributed to Marcel Dassault: “For a plane to fly well, it must be beautiful.” Nicole Murrell seeks to define beauty in some of her favourite aircraft. 

Aircraft beauty is subjective, but seriously, what makes an aircraft beautiful? Some aviator buffs love the roar of the Spitfire’s Merlin engine, while others marvel at the hush of the A380 as it takes off and climbs into the clear blue sky. Some love the simplicity of the DC-3, while others stare in awe at the glass cockpit of the contemporary airliner. Some are mesmerised by the stealth capabilities of the modern fighter jet, while others admire the hand-made beauty of the latest homebuilts. Some admire the latest helicopter technology while others find the latest corporate jets irresistible.

There have been so many beautiful aircraft designed and built throughout aviation history that it’s an impossible task to give each and every one the respect they deserve in a single article such as this one. So, I have decided to offer my two cents’ worth, firstly on four of my favourite planes of all time: the Douglas DC-3, Supermarine Spitfire, SR-71 Blackbird and Concorde; followed by a more contemporary look at the Pilatus PC-12, Eurocopter and a couple of worthy made in Australia entries.

While beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, my apologies for the absence of such icons as the Super Constellation, P-51 Mustang, Boeing 747, Beech Staggerwing, Boeing B-29, Pitts Special and Piper Cub (more of “my” favourites), not to mention the many other machines that cause the hearts of lovestruck aviation buffs to flutter uncontrollably. Alas, such is the beauty of aviation.


It was the 1930s and Cyrus Smith, President of American Airlines, telephoned Donald Douglas, head of Douglas Aircraft, with a proposal. Smith was looking for a larger and more comfortable aeroplane than his Condors or Fords, and better than the Boeing 247. He also wanted something bigger than the DC-2 in order to give his customers safe, comfortable, and reliable transportation.

At first, Douglas was indifferent to Smith’s proposal. He was reluctant to take on a new design and the associated headaches. After all, the DC-2 was in full production with 102 machines already manufactured, and another 90 orders on the assembly line. A new model would mean new tooling and starting over another gamble.

But after much discussion and debate, Smith eventually convinced Douglas to modify a DC-2 to Americans’ sleeper requirements. Some have said that if Smith hadn’t persisted and made an offer, Douglas would never have built the DC-3.

On July 8, 1935, Smith sent a telegram to Douglas ordering 10 transports costing US$795,000. The actual specifications for Smith’s proposed aeroplane arrived at Douglas Aircraft on November 14, 1935 (long after construction had begun). Before the first flight of the DC-3, American doubled their initial order to include eight DSTs and 12 DC-3s.

The plan called for using the DC-2 design as a starting point. Widening and rounding the fuselage would allow enough space for the berths, and increasing the power would help lift the larger plane. Engineers had discussed the design and they assured American Airlines powerbrokers that they could easily modify the DC-2’s 855 horsepower engines to meet the carrier’s specific requirements.

“We made the DC-3 without a computer to test it,” said Douglas’s chief power plant engineer, Ivar Shogran. “There was plenty of data from the DC-1 and DC-2 to formulate the design. Often we got down on the floor and worked things out ourselves. There was personal ingenuity, and application, and we made things happen overnight.” 

Ultimately, the lives of millions of people throughout the world were about to change as the DC-3 changed the face of the industry. By the end of production, 10,926 commercial and military transport versions of the DC-3/C-47 had been built, with many are still in operation today; a major testament to the aircraft’s durability and, an attractive trait if ever there was one.


After designing prize-winning racing seaplanes, the British aircraft designer Reginald Mitchell (1895-1937) developed one of the world’s deadliest and most admired fighter aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire. The Spitfire was a decisive weapon for Britain during World War II and until its retirement from active service in 1954.

According to the Design Museum, expectations were high when the Royal Air Force began the search in the early 1930s for a replacement for its Bristol Bulldog fighter plane. The new fighter had to be usable day or night, and to be capable of flying at a level speed of 195 miles per hour and to reach 15,000 feet in no more than eight and a half minutes. It also needed to carry oxygen, wireless equipment, at least four machine guns and 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

Many of Britain’s aircraft manufacturers pitched for the commission, which was won by Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, which specialised in the production of racing seaplanes and had yet to produce a land plane, let alone a fighter plane. Light, speedy and versatile, the Spitfire was distinguished by the sleek lines of Supermarine’s race-winning seaplanes. Not only did it prove to be a powerful weapon for Britain during World War II, the Spitfire had such character that it came to symbolise the nation’s fighting spirit.

The man who led the design team that developed the Spitfire did not live to see it in action. Reginald Mitchell was fighting cancer for most of the time he worked on the project, but lived to see the successful test flight in March 1936 and to start the preparations for the Spitfire’s production after the Air Ministry commissioned 310 aircraft in the largest aircraft order ever placed in Britain. Reginald Mitchell died at the age of 42 on 11 June 1936, a year after the Spitfire order was placed.

In 15 years of designing seaplanes for Supermarine in the intensely competitive arena of international racing, Mitchell had refined the defining characteristics of his work. Having entered aircraft design at a time when the industry was still relatively young, he relished the opportunity to experiment with emerging materials, design concepts and production processes. By necessity all aircraft are designed to exacting specifications, but the demands of racing seaplane design were exceptionally rigorous. Mitchell was schooled in a field where performance had to be optimised with even a few seconds making the difference between success and failure in a race. The relationship between shape and weight was critical, and every advance in technology had to be analysed for possible exploitation. The collaboration with Rolls-Royce had enabled Mitchell to work closely with exceptionally skilled engineers, while the showy side of international racing had encouraged him to design aircraft which were aesthetically pleasing, as well as supremely functional.

Impressed by Mitchell’s achievements in racing seaplane design, the Air Ministry invited Supermarine to tender for the replacement to the Bristol Bulldog fighter aircraft. Supermarine submitted his first design, the Type 224, in February 1932. It was a low-wing monoplane with cranked wings which met the demands of the Air Ministry for speed, weight and functionality. Yet Mitchell realised that other manufacturers had produced superior designs and insisted on overhauling the Type 224 into the more advanced Type 300.

In 1933 the Air Ministry sanctioned Supermarine to develop the Type 300 for production and gave the company £10,000 to produce a prototype aircraft. Mitchell, who was already seriously ill with cancer, ignored his illness to concentrate on his work. However after one operation he was forced to convalesce and travelled to Germany where he observed the Luftwaffe’s new fighter aircraft. Aware that Germany was better prepared and equipped for war than Britain, he redoubled his efforts on his return to work at Supermarine.

Rolls-Royce developed a sophisticated new engine for Mitchell’s plane, the PV-12, later named the Merlin. The powerful Merlin not only enabled the Type 300 to fly faster, but to carry more ammunition, notably eight machine guns, rather than the four originally specified by the Air Ministry. The prototype emerged with a stressed skin construction, which was lighter and stronger than the original stick and fabric version, light alloy monocoque fuselage and elliptical wings that enhanced its aerodynamic efficiency. DeHavilland provided a two blade wooden propeller for the prototype. Mitchell preserved the sleek silhouette of his aircraft by concealing the radiator beneath the starboard wing. The ministry decided to call it the Spitfire, a name that Mitchell is said to have dismissed as “silly”.

By spring 1937, a year after the test flight, Mitchell’s cancer was so advanced that he was given only a few months to live. He died on 11 June 1937, and Joseph Smith, who had worked on the Spitfire project since the outset, succeeded him as Supermarine’s chief designer. Smith oversaw the evolution of the Spitfire’s design throughout World War II when it served in every area of combat as a fighter and fighter-bomber, in reconnaissance and as a carrier-based fighter aircraft for the Royal Navy.

Conceived by Mitchell as a work in progress, the Spitfire was constantly upgraded and refined. The aircraft’s maximum speed increased by a quarter and its weight doubled during the development of 40 different versions of Reginald Mitchell’s original design. By the time it retired from active service in 1954, more than 20,000 Spitfires had been manufactured in Britain. Truly one of the greats and definitely one of the most handsome aircraft ever built.


Few weapon systems have ever entered the military arena with such blinding superiority as did the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. No weapon system has ever maintained that same degree of superiority over a period of four decades. Today, the Blackbird is still the fastest, highest-flying, most-effective reconnaissance aircraft in history, even though budgetary considerations caused it to be withdrawn from active service in the late 1990s.

Like the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is a perfect expression of Kelly Johnson’s genius and his leadership of a brilliant team of fewer than 200 engineers. Apart from the SR-71, Johnson contributed to the design of several Lockheed aircraft, including the Super Constellation, Electra, P-38 Lightning, and F117A Nighthawk.

The USAF’s SR-71 was a two-seat development of the earlier A-12 aircraft used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and first flew on December 22, 1964. By December 1967, all 31 of the Blackbirds had been delivered to the Air Force.

The Blackbird was both a miracle of design and of production, for its performance (speed of Mach 3.2, more than 90,000 feet of altitude, a 4,000-mile range) had to overcome not only the sound barrier, but also the heat barrier. Skin temperatures of the craft exceeded 565 Degrees Celsius. Special fuels, hydraulic fluids, electronics, and glass had to be developed to match the strength of the aircraft’s titanium structure.

The SR-71 was the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft throughout its career; breaking world records in altitude (85,069 feet) and absolute speed of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph), approximately Mach 3.3.

The SR-71 also flew between New York and London in an elapsed time of one hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds, on 1 September 1974. For comparison, the best Concorde flight time was two hours 52 minutes, while the Boeing 747 averages six hours, 15 minutes.

A truly remarkable bird and good looker to boot, the SR-71 was an invaluable reconnaissance aircraft before succumbing to permanent retirement in 1998.



In 1962, the British and French governments signed an agreement to develop a supersonic transport aircraft (SST). The plane was built jointly by British Aerospace (BAe) and Aerospatiale. Two prototypes were built, and the first flight took place in 1969. A total of 20 Concordes were made and were flown by British Airways and Air France.

The Concorde flew faster and higher than most commercial jets. For example, a Boeing 747 aircraft cruises at about 560 mph (487 knots, or Mach 0.84) at an altitude of 35,000 ft (10,675 m). In contrast, the Concorde could cruise at 1,350 mph (1,173 knots, or Mach 2) at an altitude of 60,000 ft (18,300 m).

Because the Concorde travelled faster than the speed of sound and almost twice as high as other commercial jets, it had several features that set it apart from other aircraft: streamlined design; needle-like fuselage; swept-back delta wing; moveable nose; vertical tail design; engines built into the wing; afterburners; main and auxiliary fuel tanks; and high-reflectivity paint.

As any aircraft approaches the speed of sound (1100 ft/s, 343 m/s), the air pressure builds up in front of the aircraft, forming a “wall” of air. To punch through that wall of air, the Concorde needed to be streamlined. The fuselage of the Concorde was only 9.5 ft (2.7 m) wide (for comparison, a 747 is 20 ft (6.1 m) wide). The length of the Concorde was about 202 ft (61.7 m), just slightly shorter than a 747. The long, narrow shape of the Concorde reduced the drag on the plane as it moved through the air.

The wing of the Concorde was thin, swept back and triangular, whereas a 747′s wing is swept back but rectangular. Also, there was no space between the fuselage and the wing of the Concorde as there is in the 747. The Concorde’s wing was called a delta-wing design and reduced drag by being thin and swept back (55 degrees with the fuselage); provided sufficient lift for takeoff and landing at subsonic speeds; provided stability in flight so that no horizontal stabilisers were needed on the tail.

The Concorde had a longer, needle-shaped nose compared to most commercial jets. The nose helped penetrate the air, and could be tilted down upon takeoff and landing (13 degrees) so that the pilots could see the runway. Also, the Concorde’s nose had a visor to protect the windshield when flying at supersonic speeds.

As mentioned above, because the delta wing provided stability to the aircraft, the Concorde did not require a horizontal stabiliser on the tail like most other aircraft. These designs in the body and wings of the aircraft allowed it to move easily through the air at high speed.

First flown in 1969, Concorde entered service in 1976 and continued commercial flights for 27 years. The plane was retired in 2003 due to a general downturn in the aviation industry after the type’s only crash in 2000, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and a decision by Airbus, the successor firm of Aérospatiale and BAC, to discontinue maintenance support. Truly one of the world’s great aircraft and a beautiful one to boot.


Swiss timepieces are renowned for their inherent quality, exquisite detail and careful craftsmanship. Their makers invest immense thought and countless hours analysing every aspect of the instrument in their pursuit of perfection. Pilatus, the aircraft manufacturer located at the base of Mt Pilatus in Stans, Switzerland, brings the same attitude to the aircraft they build.

Initially, the idea of building a high performance single took everyone by surprise. But through the clear-eyed pragmatism of their engineers, their ability to challenge conventional wisdom, and their belief that one engine was better than two, Pilatus had no doubt that the PC-12 would be a success. While others laughed, this belief had been well demonstrated by the success of the PC-6, PC-7 and PC-9 aircraft in military operations. Pilatus also argued that it made no sense to carry around a spare engine, with the resultant loss of payload and massively increased costs.

Up until the advent of the PC-12, the undisputed King of General Aviation was the Beech B200 King Air. So it was no surprise that the PC-12 design was similar in size and performance to that aircraft. But that’s where the similarity ends. Rather than being developed as a new model of an existing aircraft, the PC-12 was designed from scratch.

PC-12 designers decided to add extra width to the cabin, making it far more spacious, comfortable and versatile than any of its competitors. Similarly, most of its competitors used only a single, rear mounted door for entry and exit; while Pilatus designed a forward air stair door for passengers, and a huge cargo door at the rear to allow loading of cargo by forklift. To facilitate freight loading and unloading, the cabin received a completely flat floor and a constant cross section, with no interior bulkheads aft of the cockpit divider.

The ability to routinely access short, dirt strips was another desirable feature of the PC-12. The aircraft has a high lift wing, augmented by huge Fowler flaps, which give it a stalling speed of just 67 KIAS at maximum take-off weight. This gives the PC-12 an 808 metre take-off ground run at maximum take-off weight at sea level and ISA conditions. The landing is even more impressive in identical conditions; with an 84 KIAS approach speed and 558 metre landing ground roll. Such features ensure the PC-12 is capable of delivering aid to the most isolated and rugged locations, such as the Australian outback, where the Royal Flying Doctor Service utilises one the largest PC-12 fleets in the world.

As a pressurised single turbine aircraft powered by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67B turboprop engine, the PC-12 is a utility that is as much at home operating at 30,000 feet and 250 knots as it is taking off from or landing on very short dirt runways. It has the range to fly six passengers the width of Australia non-stop with several hours of fuel remaining, or the ability to fly one and a half tonnes of cargo over 400 nautical miles with IFR reserves. First introduced in 1994, the ruggedly handsome PC-12 still turns plenty of heads wherever it goes.

Eurocopter’s Record Breaking Designs

The Eurocopter X3 hybrid helicopter recently opened the frontiers of aviation by attaining a speed milestone of 255 knots in level flight. Several days before this accomplishment, the X3 reached a speed of 263 knots during a descent. With these two successes, the X3 surpassed the unofficial speed record for a helicopter.

The X3 demonstrator is based on a Eurocopter EC155 helicopter with the addition of short span wings each fitted with a tractor propeller. The tractor propellers are gear driven from the two main turboshaft engines which also drive the five-bladed main rotor. The helicopter is designed to prove the concept of a high-speed helicopter which depends on the slowing down of the rotor speed to avoid drag from the advancing blade tip, and to avoid retreating blade stall by unloading the rotor, while a small wing is intended to provide up to 80 per cent lift.

Conventional helicopters use tail rotors to counter the torque effect of the main rotor. To counter the torque effect, the starboard propeller of the X3 has a higher rotational speed than the port propeller.

This is one sleek and swift aircraft.

While the X3 is making waves worldwide, Eurocopter’s “Fenestron” technology continues to be an integral and highly elegant part of the company’s hardware. A Fenestron (or fantail, sometimes called “fan-in-fin”) is a protected tail rotor of a helicopter operating like a ducted fan. Placing the fan within a duct reduces tip vortex losses, shields the tail rotor from damage, shields ground crews from the hazard of a spinning rotor, and is much quieter than a conventional tail rotor. It is especially in use on rescue services helicopters which have to land in crowded areas.

While conventional tail rotors typically have two or four blades, Fenestrons have between eight and 18 blades. These may have variable angular spacing, so that the noise is distributed over different frequencies. The housing allows a higher rotational speed than a conventional rotor, allowing it to have smaller blades.


As a two-seat, side-by-side, high-wing tail-dragger, the Seabird Seeker is an unusual aeroplane. It carries its engine high behind the cabin and its empennage on a boom passing below the pusher propeller. Designer Don Adams created his “beauty” this way to provide an unobstructed field of view through a completely transparent nose.

With such a design, the Seeker perfectly suits its role as a light observation aircraft. The forward fuselage is helicopter-like, the massive amount of perspex providing an outstanding view forward, down and to the side. Instruments and switches are clustered in a central helicopter-style console. The high-set engine means a large propeller can be used without ground clearance being an issue. The low tail-boom follows naturally from the pusher propeller and means the aircraft is best suited to a tailwheel, which adds to its simplicity and ruggedness when operated from unpaved surfaces. The forward fuselage is a tubular-steel “cage” and the rest of the airframe and wing is conventional aluminium, but some fuselage and engine fairings are glass fibre.

Built by Adams’s Seabird Aviation Australia (and Seabird Aviation Jordan), the plane is powered by a Lycoming O-360 engine and is marketed as a low cost alternative to observation helicopters for military and civilian operators. It can be used in roles such as pipeline inspection, coast watch, environmental duties, aerial photography and security. The Seeker has also had some export success, and is operated by the Iraqi and Royal Jordanian air forces.

The reasoning behind the Seeker’s design is that many of the jobs performed by helicopters don’t actually require vertical landing and takeoff or stationary hover at altitude; they take place near airstrips or roads that can be performed more economically by an aeroplane with similar visibility and a low loiter speed. Many aeroplanes can fly low and slow, but they lack the helicopters’ unimpeded forward visibility and the ability to mount sensors, cameras and searchlights under the nose. The Seeker’s physical similarity to a helicopter is what sets it apart.

A niche design that has gone through several major revisions and had a lot of time to mature, the Seeker is certainly one rare bird.


If you’re looking for sleek, no-nonsense Australian design, the Brumby 600 LSA is certainly worthy of consideration. Designed by Phil Goard and produced by Brumby Aircraft Australia, the 600 was initially developed as the Go Air Trainer in the 1990s, but thanks to some tinkering by Goard, has evolved from a sturdy GA machine to a sleek recreational aeroplane.

The original Go Air was a low-wing monoplane, first flown in July 1995 and powered by an 118hp (88kW) Lycoming O-235 piston engine. It had a fixed tricycle landing gear and an enclosed cockpit for two in side-by-side configuration with a sliding canopy for access.

Flight testing was completed on the Go Air in November 1998 and subsequently a second substantially-modified aircraft was built as the Go Air GT-1 Trainer, using the engine and instruments from the original aircraft. Changes included a wider fuselage and different ailerons and flaps; before eventually being developed into the Brumby 600.

The Brumby retains the compact two-seat design of its predecessor and thanks to its expansive canopy, boasts the same impressive visibility of a Diamond or Airtourer. An all-metal design, the Brumby is a substantial aeroplane capable of accommodating two 85 kg occupants and a full load of 120 litres with ease.

Up front, the 600 is powered by one of three options: the Jabiru J3300, Rotax 912ULS and Lycoming IO-233. With this range of engines, fuel burn and endurance is equally sufficient for cross country touring or having a blast in the training area.

The Brumby’s canopy slides forward and thanks to a centre console that houses the trim wheel and fuel selector, accessibility is easy to a cockpit that offers plenty of personal space for occupants. As expected of an LSA, the Brumby is light on the controls but unlike many recreational types, is also very stable. Ideal as a trainer or touring aircraft, the Brumby has certainly come a long way since the Go Air made its mark all those years ago.

Brumby Aircraft Australia is a family-owned business based at Cowra, a small town in the Central West of NSW. Its associate business, PG Aviation, is the manufacturing arm which takes care of engineering and production. Having everything in-house enables the Goard family to provide a service to their customers that most manufacturers can only dream about.


An 18-month NASA research effort to visualise the passenger aeroplanes of the future has produced some ideas that at first glance may appear to be old fashioned. Instead of exotic new designs seemingly borrowed from science fiction, familiar shapes dominate the pages of advanced concept studies which four industry teams completed for NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program.

To the untrained eye the aircraft look decidely normal. But a closer, in-depth look at these concepts for aeroplanes that may enter service 20 to 25 years from now, reveals many things that are quite different from the aircraft of today.

Just beneath the skin of these concepts lie breakthrough airframe and propulsion technologies designed to help the commercial aircraft of tomorrow fly significantly quieter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficiently, with more passenger comfort, and to more airports worldwide.

You may see ultramodern shape memory alloys, ceramic or fibre composites, carbon nanotube or fibre optic cabling, self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows.

“Standing next to the airplane, you may not be able to tell the difference, but the improvements will be revolutionary,” said Richard Wahls, project scientist for the Fundamental Aeronautics Program’s Subsonic Fixed Wing Project. “Technological beauty is more than skin deep.”

Indeed it is. And as one wise man once said: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

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