Editor’s Note: In memoriam of Joe Sutter, who led the engineering team that developed the iconic Boeing 747, Airways brings back a story written by Jason Rabinowitz on November 19, 2013, in which German carrier Lufthansa, a major 747 operator, gave Sutter a lifetime achievement award, recognizing his legacy in the industry.

Goodbye and Godspeed Joe Sutter

NEW YORK — Nothing says “iconic aircraft” quite like the Boeing 747. Dubbed the “Queen of the Skies,” the 747 began charming passengers in 1970, and decades later still manages to retain its iconic status. This magnificent aircraft, along with the 727 and 737, were designed in part by Joe Sutter.

Now 92 years old, Sutter was honored this month at an internal Lufthansa ceremony, given a lifetime achievement award recognizing his many contributions to the aviation industry. This is the very first time such an award has been given by the airline, and it was well deserved: the 737 is by far the best selling aircraft in history, while the 747 has transported the equivalent of nearly the world’s entire population over its lifespan.

Joe Sutter signing his book. "747: Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation." (Credits: Author)
Joe Sutter signing his book. “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation.” (Credits: Author)

The ceremony was held on November 4, 2013, at Lufthansa’s U.S. headquarters in East Meadow, NY, allowing the carrier’s local employees to share in the celebration and exchange stories with the “Father of the 747.”

The “Father of the 747”

After attending college and spending some time on a destroyer escort during World War II, Sutter was originally offered a position at Douglas Aircraft Corporation. However, he chose to join Boeing instead, even though the job paid all of $10 less, at $200 per month.

His first task at Boeing would be the 377 Stratocruiser, as “all of the youngsters at Boeing wanted to go to the jets” said Sutter. “Being a short-termer, they put me on the Stratocruiser, which they all looked at me like like ‘well, yeah, that’s a lost cause.’ But the thing is the Stratocruiser had a lot of problems, so I worked on all kinds of engineering problems, and I learned more about airplanes than those guys working on the jets, and that’s what started me as an aeronautical engineer.”

Sutter is thankful he started on the Stratocruiser, adding “an airplane is a whole thing, and you have to make the whole thing work right, and I learned a lot on that old airplane.”

With many lessons learned from working on the Stratocruiser, Sutter began studying the jet powered aircraft, and was the first Boeing employee to fly out to Hamburg and make a presentation on a jet to Lufthansa.

After the 707, Lufthansa also purchased the 727, and played a role in helping to shape the design the 737 along with Sutter.

Finally, the need to design an aircraft bigger than the 707 came into focus once Pan American wanted a 350 seat aircraft. Sutter remarked that initially, “the more we studied it [the double decker idea], the more we decided it is not going to go. Very late in the game, we came to our management, people like Pan Am, and said ‘we don’t think it’s the right kind of an airplane.'” After a “big struggle,” Boeing opted for a “wide single-deck concept.”

Over time, however, the engineers at Boeing pushed harder and harder to make a double deck aircraft a reality. Boeing engineers built plywood mockups of different designs and invited executives from airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa to see the double-decker and wide single-deck concept side by side, but they still opted for the single-deck option.

Finally, the designers settled upon a wide-body aircraft with shortened upper deck. Due to concern that supersonic transport would make the 747 obsolete in just a matter of years, the upper deck was added to provide for a raised cockpit and increased cargo capacity in the event the 747 became relegated to cargo only duties.

Decades later, the 747 is still the longhaul backbone of many large airlines around the globe. Lufthansa is one of the largest operators of the 747-400 in the world, and is currently an operator of the 747-8i.

Joe Sutter, posing in front of the first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, during the Handover Ceremony to Lufthansa on May 1, 2012. (Credits: Chris Sloan)
Joe Sutter, posing in front of the first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, during the Handover Ceremony to Lufthansa on May 1, 2012. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

Below is the transcript of an interview hosted by Mary Kirby of the Runway Girl Network, where Joe discusses his life, time designing the 747, and so much more.

Mary Kirby:  Where did you end of going to college?

Joe Sutter:  I went to the University of Washington.  You won’t believe this but money was tight in those days, like it always is I guess and my family had, we had a good life, we were fed well & there weren’t many patches on our denims. But then I found out I could go to the University of Washington and they had quarters, 3 quarters for 1 years’ work, $32 a quarter so 1 year was a little less than $100.

Now it is probably $20,000 so I went to the University of Washington because it was economic for me to get an engineering degree, but it was a very different experience because they were tied in with Boeing, so it was a good way to lean aeronautics.

And so that is how it all started.

So you moved then right from college to Boeing?

No, there was a little fracas in the world and I ended up on a destroyer escort the middle of the Atlantic in a bad winter storm that scared the hell out of me.  The North Atlantic in the middle of winter in an ice storm is something you don’t want to experience, and I had to do that once.  It taught me that ships were not for me.

So when did you land at Boeing?

After the war, I received a letter from Douglas out in California and Boeing in Seattle. Douglas offered me $210 a month and Boeing offered me $200 a month, but my wife Nancy was getting close to having our first daughter, Gabe, so we decided to stay in Seattle and take a $10 loss.

Are you glad you did?

You bet!

So, tell us about your years at Boeing.

When I went to work at Boeing, my first job was on the Stratocruiser, which was a big reciprocating engine powered engine airplane. It had a lot of problems.

All of the youngsters at Boeing were given the jets – being a short-termer, they gave me the Stratocruiser. They all looked at me like yeah it’s a lost cause, but the things is the Stratocruiser had a lot of problems. So I worked on all kinds of engineering problems and I learned more about airplanes than those guys working on the jets.

And that’s what started me as an aeronautical engineer – an airplane is a whole thing and you better make the whole thing work right, and I learned a lot with that airplane.

How many years were you at Boeing before the 747 began to be brought on?

After the Stratocruiser, I began studying jets for Boeing, the first Jet Transport, the 707.  I was the first Boeing person to come to Hamburg and make a presentation on a jet to the consulate. I stood up there for an hour describing the airplane to him and he asked me a lot of searching questions. He was the leader of Lufthansa and I was a low grade engineer, and he never once put me down.

He asked me questions that I answered. After that session, within a few months, Lufthansa bought the 707 and they were the first airline in Europe to buy the aircraft.  They were the leaders in the jet transport era.

And the 747?

After the 707, Lufthansa bought the 727, which I was involved with. Then, Lufthansa was the leader in designing the 737, and it was a tough decision for them to make because it was a different kind of airplane that was being developed, and there were a lot of questions about if it was the right thing for Lufthansa to do.  But today, Boeing is building 38 airplanes a month, — they’ve built about 7,000 of them and it’s made Boeing a hell of a lot of money.  Lufthansa is flying both it and the A320 in that configuration, so they  knew what they were doing.

So, Joe, the 747. Talk about what that was like, those early meetings when everybody was sitting down at the table & conceptualizing?

[Brien] Wylge was about letting the engineers dream, based on facts and I had a good team of all kinds of engineers that were studying what we needed to do.  Airlines like Pan American & Lufthansa knew they needed an airplane bigger than the 707 [the market] was growing very fast, so they wanted a bigger airplane.

We visited airlines like Lufthansa, and we were discussing the requirements, how big, how far it flies, and what does it look like. Pan American wanted a double deck airplane of about 350 seats that is about 2 ½ times bigger than a 707.  We figured they wanted that size, fine – this double decker idea, the more we looked at it the more we decided it was not going to go.

So very late in the game, we came to our management and said we don’t think it’s the right kind of an airplane. And after a long struggle we went to what we called a “wide single deck concept” which resulted in putting a cockpit up above the freighter version of the airplane.  But if we had not have changed to the wide single decker there would be no 747 today.

The double decker airplane at that time had no cargo capability and no growth capability, and it had a lot of technical problems too like emergency egress, but we engineers knew all that, but trying to convince management when they didn’t want to hear it, is a tough struggle.

How did you end up with the fabulous configuration that is the 747?

What we did is to built some plywood mock-ups and we invited airline executives, to take Juan Trippe and the heads of Lufthansa and British Airways to Seattle, and we just showed them the various concepts, and after they saw the two concepts side by side, they decided the wide single deck airplane was the right answer and it was a struggle to even build those mock-ups because nobody would give us a budget to build them.

Joe, was it really necessary for the 747 to have steering on the rear wheels?

I guess that answer is the 747 taxiing around airports like Los Angeles and New York Kennedy, and what not actually taxi just like smaller airplanes. We can get away with it, but your scrubbing tires, and using engine power and making a lot of noise, and it’s just a nicety which resulted in an easier airplane for pilots to fly.

What happened there is we, the engineers, realized we had to do it, so we built one set of gear and put it on the shelf and that first flighted airplane we’d done without body gear steering and the only negative comment coming from the pilot on the first flight is he had a hell of a lot of power.

You need a lot of power to go around the corners and your scrubbing tires and so after our management heard that they said you better design a new body gear. We had it on the shelf the next day, we put it on and boy it went! Sometimes you have to be a little innovative in management.

Some airlines obviously experimented with the upper deck and did some interesting and fun things. Did you ever get the opportunity to fly in a piano bar or disco?

I’ve flown in a lot of 747s, and the beauty of it is that you have zones to put first class, business class, high fare expensive passengers, and lower fare tourists. It has a tremendous amount flexibility, and that’s one of the beauties of the 747, and on top of all that it’s got a lot of good freight capability.

It’s a very flexible airplane. You mentioned piano bars, one of my sort of disappointments in life was when the upstairs was first being developed as a lounge, we had a piano up there. They decided to take the piano out and put first class seats to make more money.  Here were those pianos up there and I really tried hard to get them because I would have had the only FAA certified piano in the world. But they took those pianos out and chopped them up and threw them away. It was a tragedy.

What’s your favorite seat on the 747?

Row 3A—left hand side of the first class. You can get up there; it’s quiet, away from everything. If you want to read a book, you can. If you want to get up a roam around, you can. Man, that’s the way to fly

Absolutely, absolutely.  Any other questions?

Audience Question: Mr. Sutter, even the most modern Dreamliner or A350 is actually just the derived from the 747, so very conventional concept, conventional engines and so on, more efficient but a very conventional concept. What do you expect from the future. The Concorde wasn’t the end.  What we can have in let’s say 20 or 30 years?

You gotta’ realize your taking to a 90 year old guy very, very conservative.

If you look at the airplanes that are flying today, they all look the same. They have a tube to carry the passengers. A swept wing and into engines. There have been many, many studies, and a lot of money spent on putting propellers back in the back of airplanes and doing all kinds of weird things.

The concept of the wide single deck with the engines on a swept wing it could be around for another 50 to one hundred years because you’ve reached a plateau on how much you can get out of an airplane, and the gains are going to be more efficient engines, a little bit better aerodynamics, better structures, and airplane design in the market, closer… there is just so much you can get out of an airplane.

The 787, which has had a lot of development troubles, reduces the fuel consumption per passenger by 20%. That is a spectacular improvement, but it took billions of dollars to get there. So you gotta look to the future and wonder where it is going.

Congratulations on your award.  I’m just curious, when you were designing the plane in 1967 and Boeing asked you to cut 1,000 engineers, and you stood firm against it. That was a difficult time. How were your engineers organized?  Were they sort of all in one place, or were you able to go around and meet with them, or were they spread out and what do you think about the need to have engineers together or far apart, or this sort of global sourcing? What’s your thought on that?

If you can have all your engineers in one place, you would do a better job. We had engineers in four or five places, so, I was on the road a lot, coordinating. You can have a lot of that. But this business of spreading the work loads all over the world is not the right way to do it. You gotta’ fight for what you got, and you gotta’ work with what you got. The best thing to do is realize the situation and work like hell to get your job done, which is what we did.

Mr. Sutter, you were involved in both the Boeing 737, which has sold more aircraft than any other commercial jet, ever. You were involved with the Boeing 747 at a fundamental level, which everybody reckons revolutionized flying for the masses. What’s your biggest achievement where that is concerned?

I think, from an engineering standpoint, my biggest achievement was convincing Boeing management and the airlines that the wide single deck concept was the right way to go.

From an engineering standpoint, the gentleman mentioned this before; I was asked to drop 1,000 engineers. I had 4,500 engineers working for me right at the peak of designing the airplane, and I was put under pressure by my management to drop 1,000 engineers. Could you imagine what the hell would have happened to the program if I did that? It would have been a disaster.

And I’ll never forget the results of that meeting where I got up and told them I can’t give up 1,000 engineers, in fact my people said they needed 800 more that’s why we’re using overtime and weekends.

When I walked out of that meeting, nobody would look at me, and I went out in the hall and me, Tex, President of commercial and Steve Wilson the President of the commission, they were walking down together and I can see them talking to each other and I said, well, **** Boeing.

Next day I went to work and nobody said a word.

Do you think any aircraft out there still has the wow factor of the 747, still to this day?

I don’t think so, no, but I’m biased.

I have two questions:

The first question is do you feel with all the press about what the 747 has accomplished, it is sort of well known what it is known for, but is there something that the 747 has accomplished in aviation history that you feel hasn’t been explored? That’s my first question.

I think it’s got a lot of notoriety which it deserves.  It’s done a good job for the industry, but the thing that the 747 did is it allows anyone that wants to buy an airline ticket to fly, and see their relatives or cross the ocean, and that’s a remarkable achievement. The 747 now has hauled about the equivalent to the entire world’s population and anybody that wants to fly long distances probably can do it, so just what it has done for the entire world.

But that we know. What don’t we know.  What legacy don’t we know about the 747?

That’s beyond me.

Let me ask my second question, and if it occurs to you we can come back. My second question is there a Joe Sutter out there, a 3-year old, watching planes fly who’s having an idea about the next 747 and what’s he thinking?

There are a lot of good young people who would like the chance to work on developing airplanes. I’m concerned that they’re distracted now because a lot of them are convinced that if they sit in front of a computer and develop a new software they become millionaires in two weeks and that isn’t the way I think the world should be run. I don’t know where it’s going.

The University of Washington set up a foundation in my name, mainly to put money into the hopper if you will to try to get more people to study engineering and science. We’ve got to develop engineers and scientists, in this world because, you know they’re having a big discussion today about what’s this new gizmo on… Twitter, what the hell is Twitter doing except communicating.

You can talk to your buddies, you can pick up a phone and talk to your buddy. What does Twitter do?  What does it accomplish? Twitter never will be sued because it hasn’t done anything. The chairman of American Airlines Bob Crandall said, a few years ago,“What in the hell would anyone want to run an airline for?” Cause’ all you do, even if you do a good job, if you have one incident, you could get sued.



Mr. Sutter, If I’m not mistaken I think it was the 21st variant of the 747.  What do you think could happen on number 22? You think there will be a number 22?

The 747-8 will be around for about 15 years, because that part of the market now is what you call a niche market. A big part of the market is what would be the 777-300ERs, 777x. But there is going to be a market for the 747, but it’s not very huge and there’s a lot of technology in that airplane.

Now, to make the next step in technology, 10 or 15 years from now is going to be another 10 to 20 billion dollars and the market and there’s going to be a lot of hesitancy on the part of Boeing’s management to spend that money.

It’s going to be around for a long while. The 747 freighter is going to be around for 20 years. Who’s going to buy a 20 billion dollar investment in…  It’s a lesson in economics if you will.

The story you read about, the 777, is being the new jumbo, in fact even replacing the 747. Do you believe the jumbo is going to vanish or if you look at the numbers, I should say it’s a niche player now?  What is your take on this between 4 versus 2 engines, which is so much in favor now in the market place. What is your take on that?

Big twins as I call them like the A330, 777-300ER, are going to be the biggest part of the long haul market, but they are limited in capacity and they have limitations like out of Mexico City as they don’t have the flexibility of the 747. So, there will be a place for the 747 and the A380, but only a small part of the market. Luckily for the 747, the freighter version of it will be around without any competition.

So, there is a place for large, big four-engined airplanes and they are compliments to the 777 type of airplane, in the Lufthansa case they have a choice depending on how their market goes, wither 777 or 747’s. That kind of flexibility is what makes a good airplane I think.

Mr. Sutter, I teach a course to undergraduates who are doing dual degrees in engineering and management on managing innovation. You’ve clearly worked on many revolutionary and incremental innovation in your lifetime. What piece of advice should I give these young people on pursuing a career but also managing innovation?

You know, again, you’re talking to an old guy. The best thing you can do when going to college, or going into engineering is to learn your business. Work hard enough to know you need to have a good grasp on what you’re doing. Work with your colleagues and know what their side of the equation is.

Like I mentioned today, I call him a bean counter, a financial guy. Engineers hate bean counters because engineers want to spend money on development.

Financial people don’t want to spend a dime.  But you gotta understand them, and learn what their side of the equation is. So, understand the whole organization you’re working with.  Don’t put on blinders and don’t think that they don’t have a part of the equation. If you’re going after, going up the ladder, understanding what everyone wants to do is a better way than just becoming an isolated engineer.

First of all, congratulations on your award.  Whenever you go to an airport and you check in and when you check-in people recognize you, do you automatically get upgraded?

When we came from Seattle yesterday, I was treated like every other human being. (laughs)

You have a beautiful family. How did you balance work and life and family life?

First of all, I have a lovely girl named Nancy. You gotta’ have a balance in life, so no matter how hard you work at a place like Boeing, you better be a family. Family life I think is very important to all of us.

I think it’s a good sign that they’re here tonight, don’t you think?

You guys happy to be here?

One final question.  What livery is your favorite on the 747? What is your favorite paint scheme? What was your favorite livery?

One of the airlines that did a hell of a lot of for the airplane was Lufthansa. That blue bird. What kind of bird was it?  The Crane—was one of my favorites.