Joe Sutter, Boeing engineer who led project to build the first jumbo jet, dies at 95

Joe Sutter, the chief engineer of the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747, which expanded long-haul air travel to billions of passengers, helped ferry space shuttles back to Earth and, outfitted as Air Force One, became the U.S. president’s personal aircraft, died Aug. 30 at a hospital in Bremerton, Washington. He was 95.

His death was announced by Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing, where Sutter worked for 40 years. He had been hospitalized with pneumonia, said a daughter, Gabrielle Young.

Sutter, who became known as the “father of the 747,” began his Boeing career in 1946, when passenger planes were still powered by propellers. He helped the aircraft manufacturer, long based in his home town of Seattle, move into the jet age as a designer of its 707, 727 and 737 models. (Boeing is now headquartered in Chicago.)

He became best known in the 1960s for leading a team of 4,500, including 2,700 engineers, during the construction of the 747. Sutter’s workers became known as “the Incredibles” for their ingenuity and speed in building what was at the time the largest fixed-wing airplane ever made.

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Originally designed as a long-distance freight carrier, it became an irreplaceable workhorse of passenger flight and is widely considered the most successful commercial jet aircraft in history.

“This is truly an iconic airliner of the jet age and always will be,” said Bob van der Linden, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It was built in 29 months, which is a ridiculously short time for building an airliner. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.”

In early 1966, the 747 existed mostly as a notion. Sutter battled corporate executives who wanted him to cut 1,000 engineers from his staff, fearing that the project would cause Boeing to go bankrupt.

The only customer in line for the new aircraft was Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airways. Sutter scrapped Trippe’s plan for a double-decker plane as too heavy. He ignored Trippe’s idea of a single center aisle, choosing to go instead with a twin-aisle passenger cabin, with 10 seats abreast.

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The instantly recognizable humped cockpit was the result of an engineering decision when the 747 was still considered primarily a cargo plane: The airplane’s nose could open to load freight.

When the 747 was rolled out after less than three years, it was about 232 feet long and 196 feet wide and was powered by four jet engines. The tail was as tall as a six-story building. The airplane weighed more than 700,000 pounds.

“The question ‘Will this thing ever fly?’ was actually asked,” Sutter said in 2005.

Its maiden flight took place on Feb. 9, 1969. Thousands of assembled Boeing workers broke into applause and tears.

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In his 2006 autobiography, “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures From a Life in Aviation,” Sutter wrote, “I saw Boeing’s new jet as 75,000 drawings, 4.5 million parts, 136 miles of electrical wiring, 5 landing gear legs, 4 hydraulic systems, and 10 million labor hours.”

At the time, the future of passenger flight appeared to be supersonic transport. Sutter’s 747 project was considered secondary to Boeing’s effort to build a plane that could fly faster than the speed of sound. But that project collapsed, and other supersonic passenger planes were later grounded as too noisy and costly while the 747 kept flying.

With a capacity of more than 400 passengers, the 747 could carry more than twice as many people as the largest airliner previously in use. Airlines could lower ticket prices, making air travel more widely accessible. Since its first commercial flight in 1970, the 747 has carried more than 3.5 billion passengers.

Boeing went on to build more than 1,500 units of the 747, and it remained the world’s dominant jumbo jet until the European consortium Airbus launched the A380, which can hold more than 500 passengers, in 2005. Specially built 747s have been used as the president’s Air Force One since 1990.

Joseph Frederick Sutter was born March 21, 1921, in Seattle. His father emigrated from Slovenia to prospect for gold in Alaska and later operated a meatpacking business in Seattle.

Sutter grew up fascinated by airplanes, particularly their structure, and studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington. After graduating in 1943, he served in the Navy during World War II.

When his ship nearly sank in an ice storm, he told Investor’s Business Daily in 2006, “I came to the conclusion that most accidents are the result of more than one bad thing happening. That’s where I developed the concept of redundancy, so that a single failure isn’t going to put an airplane in serious jeopardy.”

He was planning to move to California to work for Douglas Aircraft, but he took a temporary job at Boeing to allow his wife to give birth in their home town of Seattle. He never left Boeing or Seattle.

He helped design several of Boeing’s first jetliners before working on a project for the 737 in the early 1960s. With a pair of scissors, Sutter cut up a drawing of the prototype of the new airplane and, on a hunch, moved the engines from the tail and mounted them directly under the wings. It was a major advance in aircraft engineering and a key element of the later 747.

Sutter worked on refinements of the 747 throughout his career at Boeing and became vice president of commercial airplane engineering and product development before his retirement in 1986. He maintained an office at Boeing until shortly before his death.

In 1986, he was part of the presidentially appointed commission that examined the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Reportedly aghast at NASA’s casual oversight, he advocated for more-stringent safety standards. He received the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for aeronautical achievement in 2013.

His wife of 54 years, Nancy French Sutter, died in 1997. Survivors include three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Sutter was a popular figure at Boeing, especially among engineers who valued his no-nonsense style and his ability to solve problems.

“Sometimes, people are afraid to upset the apple cart,” he said in 2006. “They don’t want to make anyone angry. But if there’s a better solution, you have to find it, no matter what the crowd thinks.”