Joe Sutter – Remembering an ‘Incredible’ Legend

Father of Boeing’s famous 747 Jumbo Jet dies at 95

He was born in a working-class neighborhood in Seattle and became the father of a queen, the ‘Queen of the Skies’: Joe Sutter. Leading Boeing’s engineering team for the iconic 747jumbo jet in the mid-1960s, Joe Sutter designed the aircraft that changed the entire air transport  industry and transformed the world of air travel. He died August 30, 2016, in his home town Seattle.

Joe Sutter and his group developed the 747 in an unbelievable record time. Therefore his team, along with thousands of other Boeing employees involved in the project, became known as the ‘Incredibles’ for producing what was then the world’s largest airplane in only 29 months, from conception to rollout.

“The 747 flew for the first time on February 9, 1969. It was a cold winter’s day and a highly emotional one for me,” remembers Joe Sutter in his book about the development of the 747. “So it was only when I saw the world’s first Jumbo Jet in the air that I knew my team had done it…”

Joseph F. “Joe” Sutter was born March 21, 1921. While growing up next to Boeing’s Seattle plant, he already could observe as a young boy the ongoing flight tests and the development of new aircraft.

Holding a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington he joined Boeing 1946 after returning from his duties in World War II. Starting with a first assignment on the 377 Stratocruiser, Boeing’s last propeller-driven airliner, Joe Sutter was already a little later among the first engineers working on the 367, better known as  ‘Dash 80’, the testbed for the famous 707 and first U.S. jetliner.

When Boeing, ‘inspired’ by Lufthansa, started the development of the 737, Sutter served as second-in-command on this narrow-body. It was his decision to place the engines under the wing and not at the rear, making it less difficult to stretch the aircraft later on and to develop a family of different versions. Till today, the 737 is still the best sold jetliner.

The Jumbo Jet

But it was the 747 – the world’s first jumbo jet – that secured his place in history. “Each time Sutter made a decision crucial not only to the 747’s success but to the very survival of the Boeing Company, he got it right,” writes Clive Irving in his book ‘Wide-Body: The Triumph of the 747″. In an interview, Phil Condit, a former CEO of Boeing who was once a member of Sutter’s 747 engineering group, remembers Joe very respectfully: “He was a great engineer!”

In 1986 Sutter left Boeing after a 40-year career. “The aircraft was iconic and so was he,” said Richard Aboulafia, Teal’s aerospace analyst. “Long after he retired, Joe remained very active within the company. He continued to serve as a consultant on the Commercial Airplanes Senior Advisory Group, and he was still a familiar sight to many of us working here. By then his hair was white and he moved a little slower, but he always had a twinkle in his eye, a sharp mind and an unwavering devotion to aerospace innovation and The Boeing Company. Fittingly, he was on hand to celebrate our centennial at the Founders Day weekend. He was one of a kind, ” writes Ray Conner, President and CEO, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Joe Sutter

Whoever had the opportunity to meet Joe Sutter was impressed by his modesty and his dedication to aviation. Praising his team he used to say: “We pulled a rhinoceros-sized rabbit out of Boeing’s hat”, hoping this story will inspire and encourage next generations of airplane designers.

Rolf Doerpinghaus