MIAMI — Perhaps no aircraft in commercial aviation history has better captured the romance and imagination of air travel as well as the iconic Boeing 747.
As the 747 family nears the end of its life as orders for the 747-8 dry up, the symbolism of Joe Sutter’s death Tuesday is both fitting and devastating. Sutter, who led the 747’s development and worked on a variety of Boeing programs including the 707, 727, and 737, passed away in the morning of August 30, 2016. He was 95.
Sutter got his start at Boeing just before World War II, when he took a summer job during his education as an aerospace engineer at the University of Washington. Then, he joined Boeing full time at the conclusion of World War II in 1946 after leaving the Navy, and his first project was working on the Stratocruiser, Boeing’s last prop airliner.
Sutter also worked on the Dash 80 jet program that would eventually become the 707, even riding along with airline officials on demonstration flights for the ground-breaking variant.
Sutter also worked on the 727 and 737 narrowbody programs during the early 1960s, and his star at the company was rising. What put him over the top was his leadership of the design and production team that would build the Boeing 747, the innovative double decker and widebody jet that would change the face of global aviation.
Responding to surging air traffic volumes in the early 1960s, Boeing’s set an audacious goal to build an aircraft that would produce a step change in commercial aviation passenger volumes.
As the lead engineer in a design team of more than 4,500 members, Sutter was instrumental in making several of the design decisions that would make the 747 an indelible landmark in commercial aviation history. While Sutter and Boeing initially examined a high wing aircraft design similar to the Lockheed C-141, they also began investigating a variety of double-decker designs at the behest of Pan Am, mainly its hands-on CEO Juan Trippe.
Boeing briefly considered a full double decker plane (essentially a precursor to the A380’s design), but rejected that due to concerns over evacuation time and cargo capacity. Instead, Boeing’s focus quickly honed in on a longer and wider single deck with a hump on top of the fuselage to house the cockpit. The hump became the 747’s most distinctive and well known feature.
The 747’s design team had to work at an incredible speed, with the project spanning just 29 months from project concept to rollout. This inhuman effort caused Sutter and his team to be dubbed “The Incredibles,” a moniker that was later expanded to include the nearly 50,000 people who worked on the 747 program in some form or fashion when they took the aircraft from rollout to delivery just 16 months later.
The 747’s first flight took place on February 9, 1969 and despite several issues with the engines during flight testing, the 747 had its EIS on January 22, 1970 with Pan Am. Over the next three decades, the 747 would evolve into perhaps the most important commercial aircraft ever built. And Sutter’s success in leading Boeing through the program made him an aviation legend and gave him the title “Father of the 747.”
By the end of Sutter’s career at Boeing, he was the executive vice president of aircraft development, and presided over the beginning of development of the single most successful widebody variant ever built – the 747-400. He also won one of the first National Medals of Technology and was named to the commission in charge of investigating the Challenger tragedy in 1986. Even after retiring from Boeing in 1986, Sutter continued to consult with Boeing Commercial Airplanes, most recently working on the deal to sell 747-8 Freighters to Volga-Dnepr Airlines.
Sutter is survived by his three children. He will be missed by this avgeek, and avgeeks around the world. We all owe a debt to his vision, skill, and courage in creating this industry that we love.