Joe Sutter (1921-2016)

Of Sutter’s two “babies”, the Boeing 737 is the bestselling commercial aircraft ever, while the Boeing 747 has carried nearly the world’s entire population by number over its lifespan

Issue: 2 / 2017By Joseph Noronha

When the Boeing 747 made its commercial debut in 1970, it was acclaimed as one of the most marvellous engineering feats in the history of air transportation. The huge four-engine “Queen of the Skies” or “Jumbo Jet” was one-and-a-half times bigger than the largest aircraft then in service and could carry 360 passengers compared to just 140 in the Boeing 707.

It retained its status as the world’s largest passenger aircraft for 37 years, till the Airbus A380 claimed that honour. And the chief of the design team of this iconic plane was Joe Sutter, aptly called “Father of the 747” by Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine.

Joseph Frederick Sutter was born on March 21, 1921, in Seattle. After serving on an American antisubmarine vessel during World War II, he graduated from the US Navy’s aviation engineering school and took up a job with Boeing, turning down a more financially lucrative offer from Douglas Aircraft. The decision made at the behest of his wife Nancy proved providential. He was immediately tasked to improve the piston-engine Stratocruiser, which was then a losing proposition. That’s how he learned the value of tenacity and honed his never-say-die attitude. His first important project was on the design team of the 737 where he made the crucial decision to move the jet engines from the tail and sling them under the wing.

In the mid-1960s, air transportation was booming. The world expected its craze for speed to continue into supersonic travel and that subsonic jets would eventually be scrapped. Boeing began work on the supersonic transport (SST), forecast to dominate the airways of the future. Sutter was put in charge of a less glamorous project — to design the Boeing 747, thought to be only a passing fad till the supersonics flew in. It emerged in response to a request by Pan Am’s chief Juan Trippe for a much larger airliner than the Boeing 707. Sutter changed the initial design from a full-length double decker to an extra wide single deck that could accommodate two freight pallets. He convinced Juan Trippe of the merit of his proposal and was given the goahead with a tight deadline. The mammoth airliner would have twin aisles and ten passengers seated abreast, which made it the world’s first widebody design. The flight deck would be above the main deck, thus creating the 747’s famous humped upper deck. The five cabin sections made journeys far more comfortable and the upper deck also served as a first-class lounge, complete with live entertainment, a cocktail bar or a restaurant.

Joe Sutter went on a hiring spree to meet the deadline, ultimately reaching 4,500 engineers. They toiled night and day on various parts of the gigantic project: “75,000 drawings, 4.5 million parts, 218 km of electrical wiring, five landing gear legs, four hydraulic systems and ten million labour hours,” as Sutter put it. But Boeing had to finance the project with its own funds and went deeper into debt. With bankruptcy staring Boeing in the face, there was a showdown and Sutter was pressured to lay off 1,000 engineers. He flatly refused. His dedicated team was later called “The Incredibles” for producing a veritable luxury ocean liner of the sky in just 29 months from conception till rollout. Boeing’s rivals gasped at the sheer size of the plane and the rapidity of its rollout and many critics predicted it would either never fly or come to grief if it did. But Sutter said, “I was determined to give an airplane the ability to survive bad circumstances. Everything won’t be great all the time. That’s why the 747 has four flight control systems, four hydraulic systems, four landing gears. You know things are going to happen and sometimes it’s going to be severe. You still should be able to come home.”

Home – that’s where his heart truly was. He later said, “I couldn’t have done it without my late wife, Nancy. When I’d come home beaten down with problems for which there seemed no solution, Nancy was always there to help lift me out of the dumps. Intelligent, beautiful, full of humour and life, she shared the burden of the 747’s development.”

Finally, on February 9, 1969, the first Boeing 747 got airborne. It left the runway at the precise point Joe Sutter’s calculations had indicated and flew uneventfully for two hours. He had his moment of tension as the plane came in to land since no pilot had ever landed still perched 29 feet above the runway. The landing was flawless.

The Boeing 747 entered service on January 22, 1970, on Pan Am’s New York–London route. It took some time for sales to pick up but the 747 then became one of Boeing’s biggest commercial successes. The customers of the 1,528 B747s delivered included Air India which purchased 19 aircraft and still has five in service. It would eventually transform civil aviation and shrink the globe.

Of Sutter’s two “babies”, the 737 is the bestselling commercial aircraft ever, while the 747 has carried nearly the world’s entire population by number over its lifespan. The 747’s high capacity and low operating cost made it truly affordable for ordinary people and signified the launch of the long-haul commercial jet age. Meanwhile, the SST was consigned to the dung heap of history. Later, Sutter was also closely involved in development of the highly successful Boeing 757 and 767 models. He retired in 1986 and died on August 30, 2016. In his eulogy, Boeing’s CEO Ray Conner called Sutter “one of the giants of aerospace.” Joe Sutter richly deserved the tribute.