The jumbo jet is one of aviation’s greatest achievements. The latest version, the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, is also destined for great things. We visited Joe Sutter, chief engineer of the original design, the man responsible for the jumbo’s phenomenal success
Joe Sutter clearly feels quite at home in the “aquarium.” “I make suggestions,” he remarks casually, narrowing his eyes a little as he speaks. “Sometimes they listen to me, sometimes they don’t.” Did he just wink at me? The aquarium is actually a room overlooking the production hall at the Boeing plant that owes its nickname to its all-glass walls. Joe Sutter probably likes spending time in the aquarium because from here, he can watch as a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental takes shape below. The fact that the latest generation of the legendary jumbo jet is being produced here in Everett, near Seattle, has quite a lot to do with a suggestion Mr. Sutter once made – and the fact that people took his suggestion on board.
Joe Sutter, who was born in 1921, is a member of the Senior Advisory Group at Boeing, but more importantly, he is the father of a legend. Back in the 1960s, he was the chief engineer responsible for building a plane of hitherto unheard-of dimensions. In fact, his giant baby was to set new standards, both as a passenger and a cargo aircraft. The production schedule was breathtakingly tight: It dictated that the 747 be rolled out less than two-and-a-half years after the first technical drawings had been completed. It would be a Herculean task, but then there was Herculean spirit in the air back then. Joe Sutter remembers: “The late sixties were a turbulent time, a bold period in US history. The 747 team was inspired by and filled with the same ‘can do’ attitude that put human beings on the moon.”
Given the methods of the day, this kind of enthusiasm was absolutely crucial. “Think of the scale of the program and then consider how such projects are conducted nowadays, with all these computers,” Sutter adds. Instead of high-performance computers, he only had first-class engineers and, during the most intensive phase of the development program, over 4,500 skilled people on his team. To this day they are reverentially known as “The Incredibles” at Boeing – and justifiably so. After 29 months during which 75,000 technical drawings were completed and ten million working hours invested in its development, the first 747 rolled out of assembly hangar at the Everett facility, which had been purpose-built for the construction of the giant aircraft. The plane that slowly and majestically emerged from the hangar was nothing short of an aviation revolution. The four-jet, long-haul aircraft had twice the number of seats of any of its contemporaries, and its fuselage with the characteristic hump made it unmistakable. As far as safety was concerned, Joe Sutter had gone far beyond all standard requirements of the day. Only one question remained: How would this ultramodern giant perform in the air?
That question was answered on February 9, 1969, a historic day at the Boeing airfield in Everett that Joe Sutter remembers very well. “Patches of snow dotted Paine Field. The clouds bunched thickly but we elected to proceed because of a radio report from a 707 on a test flight over the Olympic Peninsula.” Conditions were far from ideal for the 747’s first test flight and Sutter grew increasingly tense as the time for takeoff drew nearer. “There was no doubt in my mind that the 747 would fly; the only question was, how well.” It would be up to the “three W’s” in the cockpit, pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle, and flight engineer Jess Wallick, to assess this. Only after they had gently touched down again and reported back were Sutter’s doubts dispelled. “In an hour and a quarter aloft, Waddell, Wygle and Wallick had learned that the 747 flew well, was stable and had light controls with well-balanced forces,” he recalls.
The Boeing 747’s outstanding handling capabilities would very soon make it a pilots’ favorite. But the jumbo jet’s cost effi- ciency and safety were also excellent selling points. Lufthansa was the first European airline to operate the Boeing 747 on long-haul flights back in 1970. By 2013, Boeing’s customers had taken delivery of more than 1400 jumbo jets of different types, each one an updated version of the last; and more than 3.5 billion passengers – the equivalent of half the world’s population – had traveled on board a 747. What began as a high-risk financial venture became an economic success story.
The enduring success of the Boeing 747 was possible only because its basic design was developed with the future in mind. As Joe Sutter says, “it has been able to absorb technology in every area – structure, aerodynamics, power plant, cockpit systems. It’s just as modern as any airplane flying out there because Boeing has continued to invest in the product and the basic product was right, so the investment pays off.”
When the father of the 747 looks down from the aquarium onto today’s jumbo production line, he sees an old, familiar aircraft and at the same time, one that is entirely new. “If you look at the latest version, the 747-8, it looks just like the original airplane, except for the stretched upper deck. Technically, the new generation is far more advanced, of course, but the basic design has survived. It’s absolutely amazing, so my comment is: Those guys working with me, they did the right thing.”
But the man who got it right above all others was Joe Sutter, because he listened very carefully to Boeing’s airline customers right from the start. He has always maintained that “the most important thing in the early stages of a development program is to ask questions. If you don’t understand what a customer wants, you won’t end up with a successful product.” Whereas Pan American World Airways was the driving force on the customer side at the time of the original 747, it was Lufthansa that urged Boeing to develop the latest generation plane. Long before 2005, when Boeing decided to develop the new “dash 8” series, Lufthansa had specified that it was looking for a larger aircraft than the 747-400 that should be more efficient, and technically and environmentally superior to the then current version. Once the 747-8 Intercontinental’s development program was launched, the airline worked alongside Boeing to create an almost entirely new aircraft.
So does Joe Sutter consider this kind of involvement mere meddling? Does it hurt his pride? On the contrary. “The best development results are born of dialogue with the customers,” he says. A man of his caliber has no time for petty jealousy or sensitivities; he is only interested in the end result. And the current version of “his” 747 looks set to make history.