One of the most beloved passenger planes of modern times – the A380 – is being phased out by many airlines, due to its hefty running costs in this point-to-point travel age, as well as due to the fact that COVID-19 has forced many airlines to look at their balance sheets with ruthless eyes. The result? A few airlines, like Emirates and Singapore Airlines, are keeping the A380, which is profitable for them because they run a lot of long haul flights (with a large number of customers), but most are scrapping it in favour for smaller, ultra fuel-efficient fleets.
But did you know the A380 could have been stymied before it even got started? Or at least, it could have had a lot more competition in the early days. How so? Well, it was recently brought to our attention (via Simple Flying) that Lockheed Martin almost brought out a bigger plane than the A380 in the mid 1990s, before the A380 was even a twinkle in its designers eyes. This plane was was so big and heavy it would have crushed most runways at the time. In fact, it was thought (by some of the Lockheed boffins) they might create an aircraft that could fit up to 950 (950!) customers.
To put this into perspective, the Airbus A380 is certified for up to 868 passengers (538 on the main deck and 330 on the upper), however it would be extremely rare for this number of passengers to actually be flown, with business and premium economy meaning that usually an Airbus A380 will contain 544 passengers.
So, how come there aren’t huge old Lockheed planes flying thousands of people at a time from Sydney to London? First, a little background. Lockheed Martin’s super transport plane, which would have been bigger than a 747, and would have carried more passengers than an A380 (and would have dominated the skies), was designed in 1996.
The idea behind the plane (which was part of a program called “large subsonic transport”) was to solve the problem of there being limited (and increasingly expensive) landing spots at airports (and cater to rising demand for air travel in places like China), as well as to be the next military aircraft for the US Air Force, which had a lot of fleets approaching retirement age. The report for this would-be jet is now in the hands of NASA.
For this reason, Lockheed was aiming to create a jet that could either be used to fit some 800 passengers, or alternatively be used as a freighter.
According to Found & Explained, it was literally called the Lockheed Very Large Aeroplane. Also according to Found & Explained it had a takeoff weight of 1.4 million pounds and had four very powerful engines. The wingspan was 282 feet (with folding wingtips that brought it down to 211 feet of wingspan), and the length was 262ft.
The passenger version would have had four aisles. In the design document a fairly major design flaw is also revealed however. That flaw? It had, compared to the A380 which came later (and the 747), quite a limited range. It’s range was just 3,200 nautical miles (5,900 kilometres).
To put this into perspective, the Boeing 747 has a range of 7,730 nautical miles and the Airbus A380 can fly 8,000 nautical miles.
So although the Lockheed Very Large Aeroplane could have flown the London to New York route (3008 nautical miles) it wouldn’t have been able to fly over the pacific without stopping in Hawaii. This would have meant it wouldn’t be very useful to carriers in the Middle East and Asia (like Qatar Airways, Emirates and Singapore Airlines).
This wasn’t the reason the Very Large Aeroplane plan was scrapped though. In fact, initially Lockheed Martin thought they’d have a market for 280-370 of them. Each one was projected to cost US $200-300 million (a number which equates to about half a billion dollars in 2022).
In the report, Lockheed Martin admitted they didn’t have the resources or technical expertise to build the plane, and said they would have to seek help from Boeing and Airbus to bring it to market. The total development cost was projected to be around (US) $18 billion.
There were other problems too. It would be super noisy during takeoff and landing, and it would create an air vortex that would delay planes taking off or landing behind it.
It would also (as happened a few years later with the A380) require all new gates to be built and new service vehicles to perform turnaround tasks. Additionally, it would take a long time to board passengers.
Oh and – on top of that – it was predicted that, were they to be built, the Very Large Aeroplanes of this kind might have trouble getting FAA approval, because if they landed in the ocean in an accident, they would sink almost immediately. Also, being so wide, middle passengers would not be very close to the exits in any kind of emergency situation.
Looking back, it was probably the right call for Lockheed Martin not to go ahead with the Very Large Aeroplane. With the A380 now in decline and with the aviation industry going through a crisis in 2001 (and 2020) the designers are probably glad they never went further.
Further reasons some people are thanking god this would-have-been A380 killer never got built are “Ryanair would have found a way to pack in 1,300 passengers” (comment by Youtube user Beef Supreme on Found & Explained) and because of the horrendous amount of noise it would have produced.