Joe Sutter at his West Seattle home on June 11. Sutter is credited as the driving force behind the creation of Boeing’s 747, the Jumbo Jet that transformed air travel in the late 1960s.
Joe Sutter and the 747: A homegrown story that changed the way we fly
Joe Sutter was born on March 21, 1921 of modest means, the son of a first generation Slovenian immigrant who worked in the meat packing industry. Living directly under the flight path of planes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of south Seattle, as he grew older he became fascinated with those flying objects high in the sky but, unlike most boys his age, he didn’t imagine himself inside the cockpit.
“I wanted to build them more than I wanted to fly them,” Sutter, now 92 and living on Fauntleroy Way S.W. in West Seattle, said in an interview with the Herald at his home on June 11.
Sutter is known these days as the “Father of the 747,” dubbed so by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He was the chief engineer and leader of a group collectively known as “The Incredibles” who made high-capacity passenger travel a reality in the late 1960s by designing the unmistakable wide-berth jet with a bulbous hump on top and four engines under the wings commonly referred to at the Jumbo Jet or Queen of Skies. They rolled out their first 747 in just 29 months, a record turnaround time.
He’s been a West Seattle resident ever since he returned from World War II, a Boeing employee for 67 years (even working as a consultant to this day), and is credited with changing the way people fly forever.
From looking up at planes to designing them
Sutter’s fascination with planes took hold early and never let go. He started building model airplanes – even designing a few himself – and decided once he was of age he was going to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington. He paid for the first semester, which by the way ran you $32.50 in the 1940s, by saving up money from his paper route, and worked part time bucking rivets at the Boeing plant to pay for the rest.
World War II was in full swing by the time Sutter graduated in 1943, and he was part of the Navy ROTC program. He’d met and married his college sweetheart Nancy, a West Seattle native, as well.
“The trouble is when I graduated the war was humping along and I wanted to be a pilot like all young guys, but they needed deck officers for destroyers so I ended up … on a new destroyer escort chasing submarines.”
For two years Sutter chased enemy subs on the USS Edward H. Allen, but with the war coming to an end in 1945 he found himself back on dry land and going to the Navy’s aviation engineering school. He soon received two letters offering him a job – one from Douglas in California and the other from Boeing.
“I almost took the Douglas job because they offered me a little more money, but Nancy was pregnant with that gal (pointing to his daughter, Gabrielle) and so when I got home she decided she’d like to stay here,” he said, explaining further, “I married a West Seattle girl, and those West Seattle girls wouldn’t leave West Seattle.”
It’s safe to say Nancy and Gabrielle played a critical role in the Boeing 747’s creation.
“I took a job at Boeing temporarily, and stayed there for 40 years,” said Sutter.
Working through the ranks to the big gig
Although Sutter had aeronautical knowhow under his belt from school, he’s the first to admit he still had plenty to learn, and his first job at Boeing provided that opportunity to really dig into a plane and step away from the textbooks. Boeing was getting ready for the “jet age,” he said, and “All the hot shots that were there got those choice assignments and my first job was to clean up the (Boeing 377) Stratocruiser.”
It had a lot of problems and as Sutter fixed them one by one, he said he learned a lot. His higher-ups also took notice, keying in on Sutter’s knack for aerodynamic designs and ability to work within the certification rules of the CA (the FAA of the time).
Sutter became a go-to-guy to get things done at Boeing and worked on several planes over the next handful of years, including the 367-80, 727, and 737 - with its engine-under-the-wing design that would play an important role in his next project: the 747.
It was the mid 1960s and airplane travel was booming, but Pan Am leader Juan Trippe wanted it to boom even louder. He told the three big manufacturers at the time – Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing – to present him with a prototype for a much larger plane than the predominantly flow 707 and an order would follow. Trippe said he wanted 350 passengers, two and a half times the capacity of the 707.
“And so they gave me a few engineers and we started studying how the hell to build a big airplane and that was what resulted in the 747 concept, the concept of the wide body that has been copied now by a lot of people,” Sutter said. While others thought the only way to get that many seats into a jet was to build a double-decker, Sutter and his team went a different direction and created the wide body that would not only fit 350 passengers, but could also double as a freighter large enough to carry several containers. Sutter said he knew they would have to move the engines from the tail of the plane to under the wings. Pan Am liked the design and the project was given the go.
At the same time, Sutter explained, Boeing had a government contract to develop supersonic transports, planes that would break the sound barrier and were thought to be the next big thing in passenger travel. The supersonic Concorde had been developed in Europe, and the U.S. government was eager to prove we could do it too.
There was no government money backing the 747 project, so Boeing had to finance it themselves with massive bank loans. “It was a big gamble, and I think the only reason that it happened is that Bill Allen (Boeing president) was a forward seeking guy, and Juan Trippe from Pan-Am also had that characteristic, so the two of them said, ‘We are going to do it,’” Sutter recalled.
“Everybody thought the 747 was going to be an interim airplane that wouldn’t last very long (once the supersonic technology took off), so it was a struggle to get people and wind tunnel time and budgets and we had to do it in a hell of a hurry.”
The design team was gathered: a few hundred at first to do concept work, then up to 400 to start writing requirements, and then Pan Am signed a contract for the 747 and Sutter suddenly had a team of 4,500 amassed.
Designing the 747 dominated Sutter’s life. He worked six to seven days a week and 10 to 12 hour days. Nancy supported him through it all, and his three children (Gabrielle, Jonathan and Adrienne) supported her.
In Sutter’s 2006 memoir entitled 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation, he wrote of his love: “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 humor and life, she shared the burden of the 747's development.”
He figures he almost got fired only once during that tumultuous time. As the project moved along more and more funding was needed, Allen went off to the banks once again to ask for a loan. The bankers were getting weary and it was proposed that Sutter’s team might need to get rid of 1,000 engineers to reduce costs. Sutter knew he couldn’t afford to lose a single guy if they were going to build that plane on time in a very tight 29 month window, and when asked by Allen how the cuts were coming along he said, “Hey, we need 800 more engineers!.”
“I figured that was the day I lost my job at Boeing because I made the presentation under pressure and nobody would talk to me, but I went to work the next day and nobody said anything, so I kept working,” he joked.
The moment of truth
“My wife Nancy would go to the grocery store around here and her friends would say, ‘Does your husband know what he’s doing, will that thing even fly?’” Sutter recalled.
Boeing was the dominant industry and talk of the town at that time, long before Microsoft and Starbucks made their mark in Seattle. Everyone had heard about the big plane Sutter and his team was attempting to create. Sutter said others in the industry were suspect of the 747 as well, concerned that Pan Am was pushing too hard and too fast for a bigger plane. But his team had done their due diligence, building redundancies into every aspect of the design so that if one piece of equipment failed there were three more to back it up.
“It was a February day (Feb. 9, 1969) and there was snow on the edge of the runway, colder than hell,” Sutter said. “Nancy and Gabrielle went up with me to Everett and I had to go up to the radio room to listen to what the pilots were saying and so I took them out to the runway and I took them out to a position … and told Nancy, ‘The airplane’s wheels will leave the ground right here,’ which they did.”
With the whole world watching, the first Boeing 747 left earth.
“I was awestruck, because here was this huge airplane and it very slowly lifted up, it was so majestic,” Sutter’s daughter Gabrielle, who was in college at the time, said. “I was so happy for my dad and mom, of course, and it was so overwhelming.”
When Sutter got back to his wife and daughter, Nancy’s eyes were welling up with tears. “This will show all the doubters,” she said.
The easy part out of the way (“I knew the takeoff would be fine,” Sutter said), next came the landing. Sutter knew the engineering was sound, but the massive plane put pilots 29 feet above the ground as they came in, which was a new experience. “A lot of airline people, pilots were saying, ‘How is anyone ever going to get that airplane on the ground without putting it all over in pieces?’”
It turns out the pilots had no problems at all. “In fact, the 747 is one of the easiest Boeing airplanes to land because of superior engineering by brilliant engineers,” Sutter said with pride.
The 747 was all systems go, and with supersonic technology going by the wayside, the plane became a dominant player in air travel for decades to come. The Incredibles had pulled it off.
The aftermath: Presidents, awards and grandkids
Sutter ran the 747 program for 10 years and then went on to become Boeing’s chief of engineering and product development for the remainder of his career. After retiring, he worked (and still does ) as a consultant for the company. He also served on the Rogers Commission, helping investigate what went wrong in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
The accolades for Sutter’s accomplishments have been many, including a United States Medal of Technology from President Reagan in 1985, and just a few weeks ago, a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Nowadays, at 92, Sutter said his golfing days are over and most of his time is spent traveling for Boeing meetings and the occasional award reception, keeping in contact with other members of the Incredibles team and supporting the dreams and direction of his five grandkids and three great grandchildren.
About once a week, he’ll get a call from a random pilot who just wants to meet and thank the Father of the 747, their favorite plane to fly.
As Sutter and I sat in his Fauntleroy home that doubles as an ever-expanding museum of his life, taking in the Sound view he worked so hard to obtain, I asked – of all that has happened in his career – what he looks back on most fondly.
“Well I tell you, the thing that I enjoyed is that I worked with one hell of a lot of good people and I still get to see them once in a while, and the thing I enjoy is communication with the guys,” he said.
“I think we did something pretty damn good.”
Joe Sutter’s book, 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation, takes this preview to an exponentially deeper level. Beyond the engrossing tale of his life and career, the book has also been picked up by several college professors around the world as a management teaching tool.
Although the details are still being finalized, Hollywood is looking to make a film about Sutter and the 747 as well.