Joe Sutter, 95, Dies; Guided Creation of the Boeing 747
Written by JT on September 3, 2016
Joe Sutter, whose team of 4,500 engineers took just 29 months to design and build the first jumbo Boeing 747 jetliner, creating a gleaming late-20th-century airborne answer to the luxury ocean liner, died on Tuesday in Bremerton, Wash. He was 95.
His son, Jonathan, said Mr. Sutter had been hospitalized for pneumonia.
In less time than Magellan spent circumnavigating the globe, Boeing engineers transformed Mr. Sutter’s napkin doodles into the humpbacked, wide-bodied behemoth passenger and cargo plane known as the 747. The plane would transform commercial aviation and shrink the world for millions of passengers by traveling faster and farther than other, conventional jetliners, without having to refuel.
It dwarfed its predecessor, the 707, which had been introduced in 1958. The 707 came in many configurations — as the 747 later did — but it was originally about 144 feet long and its fuselage was 12 feet wide. It had a range of about 2,300 miles and could carry about 110 passengers.
The 747-100, the original version of the jumbo plane, was two and a half times as big as any aircraft in regular service at the time. It stretched 231 feet (two-thirds the length of a football field, longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight) and had a 20-foot-wide cabin. It could fly more than 5,300 miles nonstop and carry more than 360 passengers. (The latest incarnation can range 8,000 miles and carry nearly 500 passengers.)
Boeing has sold more than 1,500 747s since the first model, priced at $22 million, rolled out of its hangar in Everett, Wash., on Sept. 30, 1968. The 747 was placed in service 16 months later between New York and London by Pan American World Airways, in what was called the beginning of the second jet age.
The aircraft was engineered so meticulously that before the first test flight, on Feb. 9, 1969, Mr. Sutter identified the precise spot on the runway where the wheels of the plane would leave the ground.
“Flying it was never a concern of mine,” he later said. “The real concern was landing something this large.”
But when it touched down safely after flying around Washington State for an hour and 16 minutes, the test pilot, Jack Waddell, said, “It almost lands itself.”
Before being named to lead the 747 team, Mr. Sutter had been lauded for contributing to a unique wing design to improve lift on the three-engine 727, which had been built to serve smaller cities. Working on the 737, he helped come up with a design that placed its engines under the wings, allowing for a wider fuselage and greater cargo capacity. That innovation brought him his first patent.
But with air travel booming in the early 1960s, the 747 presented Boeing with its biggest challenge. The company faced increasing foreign competition and the likelihood that its latest prototypes would be overtaken by the development of a supersonic transport, which the federal government was subsidizing (though it later abandoned the program).
Boeing had just lost the contract for a jumbo military cargo plane to Lockheed. But Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am, wanted a passenger version. As Boeing’s biggest potential inaugural customer, Mr. Trippe was in a unique position to influence the design.
“If ever a program seemed set up for failure, it was mine,” Mr. Sutter said in his 2006 autobiography, “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures From a Life in Aviation,” written with Jay Spenser.
Armed with a plywood prototype, Mr. Sutter persuaded Mr. Trippe to abandon his preferred double-decker configuration for a 20-foot-wide, twin-aisle cabin interior (with an upper lounge) that would be more than seven feet wider than the original 707s. (Mr. Sutter’s favorite seat was 3A in first class.) He also provided space for eight-foot-square cargo containers, a size eventually adopted uniformly by freight shippers.
In 1966, when Pan Am ordered 25 of the 747-100 models for $525 million (almost $4 billion in 2016 dollars), Boeing had to erect the world’s largest building to manufacture the planes. Mr. Trippe predicted that the 747 would be “a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind’s destiny.”
Adam Bruckner of the University of Washington’s department of aeronautics and astronautics later described the 747 as “one of the great engineering wonders of the world, like the pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower or the Panama Canal.”
Joseph Frederick Sutter was born in Seattle on March 21, 1921, to the former Rose Plesik, who was born in Austria-Hungary, and Frank Sutter, a Slovenian immigrant who, he said, had been born Franc Suhadolc. The father came to America as a gold prospector in the Klondike early in the 20th century, sold his stake for about $350,000 in today’s dollars, and became a meat cutter.
Young Joe grew up not far from a factory and field belonging to a fledgling airplane company founded by William E. Boeing.
“Aviators were more than mere mortals to us,” Mr. Sutter recalled in his autobiography. “They were a different breed, intrepid demigods in silk scarves, puttees and leather flying helmets with goggles.”
After working for Boeing during summer vacations, he became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington in 1943. During World War II he served on a Navy destroyer escort in the South Pacific. Afterward, with a job offer from Boeing, he settled in Seattle with his wife and college classmate, the former Nancy French. She died in 1997.
In addition to his son, Mr. Sutter is survived by two daughters, Gabrielle Sutter Young and Adrienne Sutter Craig; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
At Boeing, his first assignment was solving flight control and engine challenges on the propeller-driven Stratocruiser. He later served as the aerodynamics chief on the 367-80 and the chief of technology on the 727.
In 1986 President Ronald Reagan appointed him to a panel investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. At the time, he expressed amazement that safety standards and management controls in the commercial aviation industry were stronger than those governing NASA.
In an interview with Air & Space magazine in 2007, he reflected on the safety features that his team had incorporated into the 747, acknowledging, proudly, that they were often redundant.
“You know things are going to happen,” he explained, “and sometimes it’s going to be severe. You still should be able to come home.”