Dinosaur Ballet

A Lufthansa 747 at Frankfurt Airport in 2010. Photo by the author.

(This was written in the winter of 2010.)

I’m sitting at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany, waiting for my flight to San Francisco. I’ve secured an excellent spot for myself, a window seat in the terminal overlooking the apron. This section of the airport is where the big birds live. The density of 747s is mind-blowing.

I’m looking at a Lufthansa machine right now, a B747-400 christened “München” according to lettering on its nose. As I admire its lines, another one takes off just behind it and climbs elegantly into the cold, gray clouds hanging low over the airport, pregnant with snow.

Just to the left of it sits the United 747 I’m flying out on in a couple of hours. The two giants perch, motionless, side by side, like birds on a wire.

That is, until the Lufthansa machine suddenly shudders, and starts moving backwards, slowly. The push back tractor swings it around 90 degrees and stops, leaving it broadside to my window. It’s a humpback, so it should look awkward, compromised. Instead, the lines sweep from nose to tail, every detail underlining the facts of its existence yet melding into an elegant whole. This is a gigantic machine, designed to cut cleanly and efficiently through the air. Did the designers intend for it to look beautiful too, or was that a lucky coincidence?

“This bird is coming to life, it’s moving around restlessly on the wire and readying its wings to fly.”

Those of us who remember the earlier versions, with the shorter humps, may feel the current incarnation of this decades old design looks a little short. If the old girl has a flaw, this is it. It looks a little skinny and short in the tail, but then again, this just brings out the resemblance to birds even more.

A small puff of blue smoke appears under the wing, and then another. This bird is coming to life, it’s moving around restlessly on the wire and readying its wings to fly. I can hear the giant General Electric turbines spooling up, giving the beautiful aircraft purpose and intent.

For they are beautiful, the majestic 747s. The Airbus A380 may be larger, and the Airbus A340 may be sleeker, but no airliner beats the 747 for presence, personality and sheer beauty of design. Compared, the A380 looks like a giant vulture, with heavy wings half unfurled, hovering over its prey, waiting for it to die.

The A340 is a much more pleasing design. It looks like a nervous falcon, a thoroughbred racer eager to rise into its element and set new speed records. In fact, it looks like they could make it supersonic with just a few tweaks here and there, unleashing its potential.

Just as the Lufthansa machine is ready to start taxiing, an Airbus A319 sticks its impertinent-looking nose around the corner and crosses in front of “München”. The A319 looks nervous, as well it should. Four hundred tons of American made, built like-a-tank engineering sits there, under power, staring it down as it makes haste to get clear.

Finally, the coast is clear of lesser plumage and the giant moves forward under its own power. The sight reminds me that paleontologists have discovered in recent years that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs. This makes perfect sense to me as I watch this bird move, forcing the ground to quiver under its massive wheels.

“It reminds me of nothing as much as one of the many dinosaur-themed disaster movies, with a huge T. Rex walking between buildings, snapping its tail around corners.”

As it hits a minor bump in the tarmac, the wing facing me sways and dips in slow motion, massively, inexorably. It passes out of view behind a building, but just as it does, it turns, the massive tail sweeping imperviously in a large arc around the corner. The last I see of it is the giant tail fin with the Lufthansa logo disappearing out of view.

It reminds me of nothing as much as one of the many dinosaur-themed disaster movies, with a huge T. Rex walking between buildings, snapping its tail around corners.

These are dinosaurs indeed. Large, heavy, clumsy at rest, but built for speed and awe-inspiring when in motion. And they are out of time. The planet which they roam can no longer sustain them. The 747s, the A380s, even the modest workhorse the Boeing 737, they’re all survivors from a different time, a time when CO2 was just the stuff that made our sodas pop. A time when oil was limitless.

I think of this as I board my flight, wondering how many more years until the cost of running them becomes too high. Already over half the price of my ticket is taxes. Soon it will become even more, as each of us will undoubtedly be forced to pay directly for the pollution we cause. At some point, then, the price of boarding one of these magnificent machines will become too high and we’ll simply stop.

I’m seated aft of the wing, so when the throttles open wide, the roar of the engines envelopes me and causes my world to shake, rattle and roll. The airplane accelerates impossibly hard and we go screaming down the runway like a demented pterodactyl intent on rising aloft with its flock.

“No other bird can soar like the venerable Boeing 747.”

Soon we’re moving so fast I can feel the huge airplane start to sway and buffet with the airflow, even as the wheels are still connected to the ground. I look out the window and see the wing lifting itself, straining towards the sky as we transition from clumsily moving in two dimensions to gracefully soaring in three.

I settle in for the flight, knowing that I’ve just been part of one of the most inspiring experiences in aviation, a sight that has been with us for decades and will be with us for a while still, but whose days are numbered. No other bird can soar like the venerable Boeing 747.

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