I was reading up on the Paris Air Show, which led me to wikipedia to look at airplanes. I’m a little bit of a nerd, so I got pretty excited looking up all the planes I used to draw and do school research papers on when I was smaller. Eventually I ended up on the page of one of my all-time favorite airplanes, the A-10 Thunderbolt (aka Warthog). I love it because it’s so unique. If I told you to think of an airplane, you’d probably think of any number of things that don’t look quite like this:
Sure, it’s got a fuselage and 2 wings, but the wings look too skinny, the engines are huge and in a weird place, and the tail has these crazy big ear-lookin’ things on it. So what gives?
Let’s start with the goals of the design: “the ideal aircraft should have long loiter time, low-speed maneuverability, massive cannon firepower, … extreme survivability [and short-takeoff capability].” All of these led to biggest design move on this airplane: the location of the engines. They’re above the wings and way towards the back of the plane, whereas a typical airplane might have the engines below the wings or centrally located underneath the fuselage. Why change? Well, the aircraft was designed to operate out of hastily erected airfields in dirty, dusty areas. Having the engines be much higher means that they won’t suck up rocks during takeoff and landing. Also, having the engines below the wings exposes them to fire from below. Having them up where they are makes it much more difficult to target the engines from the ground. Also, the engine exhaust is designed to pass over the rear stabilizers, which deflect some of the heat and make it harder to target the plane with heat-seeking missiles. In one bold, simple move, the designers were able to deliver on much of the design criteria.
Without getting too technical, the skinny wings and vertical stabilizers (ear-lookin’ things) are there so that the plane can fly very slowly, making it easier to hit things on the ground. Despite being long and skinny, the wings are virtually indestructible due to their internal honeycomb structure, which also allows huge payloads to be attached to the wings. What I probably like best about the design is how rugged it is. The plane was designed to fly with “one engine, one tail, one elevator, and half of one wing missing.” The pilots are protected from below by titanium that is 1.5 inches thick in some places. Fuel tanks seal themselves with foam when damaged, and the landing gear doesn’t even have to be down to land. Basically, this thing is totally badass.
If you’ve ever been confused by the phrase “form follows function”, this is exactly what it means. This airplane looks so weird because it has to in order to do its job so well. This is also true of F-1 race cars and beavers. So don’t dismiss something just because it doesn’t look normal; try to think about what it would be like to use it, and whether or not it does its job.
To be clear, I should also say that bad design looks weird, too, but for different reasons.