A while ago I bought a book called 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation by Joe Sutter. Actually I bought it at Hong Kong airport to read on the way home – ironically not by 747 (I don’t know what kind of plane it was – so no, I’m not an airplane geek). I bought the book because I was curious to see if the reaction I’d get was “Oh, that’s exactly like in embedded software!” or “Oh, so that’s how they do it in aeronautical engineering!”. It turned out to be the former.
Joe Sutter, the author of the book (although he probably had a lot of help writing it), lead the engineering effort to design the plane, which does seem like the most interesting point of view to me. Beside the main story of how the 747’s design came to be, he also tells some quite interesting tidbits from the history of aviation and from the aviation industry. These fit in nicely and makes the pages fly by. Unfortunately, there are a few too many autobiographical digressions that I didn’t like, and also the literary quality of the book is very poor, with many repetitions, and sometimes even contradictions. Anyway, not bad for an engineer.
So yes, designing and delivering jumbo jets seems to be very similar to designing and delivering embedded software. The scales are, of course, completely different though. Not only physical scales – where they measure time in months and years, we measure in hours and days – and costs are similarly orders of magnitude higher in aviation.
What struck me as the biggest difference though, when I was sitting on a modern airliner somewhere over the South China Sea while reading the book’s introductory chapters on aviation history, was that the jet airplanes he described in the early 1950s (such as the Dash 80), are exactly the same as the jet airplanes now, 50 years later! They fly at the same speed, same altitude, and use basically the same engines. That’s really terrible! Commercial aviation has surely come a long way since the Wright Brothers flew, but it did so in the first 50 years of its history. I’m glad I work with software.
Even more sad is that even if you double the speed of an airplane, it would hardly make any difference today anyway. The Americans (I didn’t know that before reading the book), Europeans, and Russians all had their fun trying to make realistic supersonic commercial airplanes. But even if they had succeeded, how much of the total time spent traveling is really spent in the air, at cruise speed, anyway?
For example: from my home in central Tokyo to somewhere in central Hong Kong, which seems like a fairly typical scenario, the flight time is on average about 4 hours. Say you have to be at the airport 1.5 h before the flight, and it takes 1 h to get from the airplane out of the airport, 1.5 h for me to go to Narita airport, and 30 min to get to/from Hong Kong airport, and an extra 15 min in either end to go between stations/taxis etc – that’s 5 hours! So even if the speed of the airplane doubled, you’d only get between where you are and where you want to go 20% faster. No, if anything close to aviation, I’d like to be an airport architect, city planner, and anti-anti-terrorist consultant. That would speed things up.
PS. I always thought of the Jumbo Jet as the airplane with two floors, but a significant part of the book is spent revealing how it came to be that the 747 ended up basically not having two floors! How strange.