Randy's Journal: Archives

16 August 2006

Father knows best

"You know, this is one of the great ones."

That's what Charles Lindbergh once said to Joe Sutter. He was talking about the 747. He might just as well have said it about Sutter himself, the Boeing engineer who spearheaded the design and construction of the legendary airplane.

747: Creating the World's 

First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation by Joe Sutter and Jay Spenser book cover image

Joe Sutter's new book features a vintage cover photo of the first 747 and the flight attendants of the airlines that ordered the new airplane.

The Lindbergh story is one of many surprising anecdotes in the new book, "747 - Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation." Joe Sutter wrote the book along with aviation writer Jay Spenser. I just finished reading the book over my vacation, and it's fascinating.

Now I've known Joe for many years, but I can say that even I didn't know a lot of the inside story surrounding the 747. Joe - the "father" of the 747, as some have called him - has assisted in many books about the airplane by other authors. But until now he's never sat down and told his own story about the creation of a jetliner that changed the world - transporting more than 3.5 billion passengers, or more than half the world's population.

You may have caught some of the coverage from Farnborough. Joe Sutter traveled with us to the air show and was quite an attraction during the week, at one point signing quite a few copies of his book for fans in the aviation media.

Joe Sutter and Randy Baseler 


Joe Sutter and me, chatting recently in Joe's Boeing Commercial Airplanes office.

Recently Joe and I sat down for a talk in his office here in Seattle. And I'd like to share some of the fascinating conversation with you here in the blog.

Randy: How did you get involved in airplane design?

Joe: I lived on a hill right over here called Beacon Hill. And when I was a kid, there was time to kill sometimes and get on a bike and go down to the old Boeing Field and watch what was going on. The early airplanes were bi-planes. And then the 247 came along and that was a big change in airplane design and I saw all of that. I also saw one of the B-17's land with its brakes on and go on its nose.

R: I've heard you say this comment before, and I know it's in the book: If the airplane looks and feels right, it probably is right.

J: Well, one of my professors out at the U.W. made that statement. A guy named Vic Martin. One of the very brilliant engineers out there. I still think that's true. When you look at the Boeing airplanes, they all look like they've got adequate vertical tails and beautiful wings, and I think that helps make it a good airplane. But anyhow I saw all this as a youngster and I was interested in engineering and took a lot of math and physics courses in high school. I went out to the University of Washington and took aeronautical engineering and I always felt more interested in designing airplanes than flying them.

I never had a real strong desire to be a pilot, although I've done a little flying. I am convinced if you're going to be a designer it's a full-time job. If you're going to be a pilot it's a full-time job. And I think part-time pilots are going to kill themselves and part-time designers are going to make a helluva mess!

R: Ha! I think that's right! So, tell me about your start at Boeing.

J: Well, as soon as I came to Boeing, I realized that I was interested in airplanes carrying people. I wasn't really interested in military airplanes. Boeing was the place to be. I was working on the Stratocruiser at the time, but across the aisle guys were working on the B-47 and B-52. Boeing had a transonic wind tunnel, the only one in the world at a private company, so you get the feeling that this company is looking to the future. I had a real education on the job, because we had to solve all the problems on the Stratocruiser, which were many.

And when they were going to design the 367-80, lo and behold they asked me to run the aerodynamics group. This was not going to be certified, it wasn't going to be delivered to customers, it was a demonstrator. And so it was strictly an engineering development job, and that started me on my career.

Mount Rainier looming over the Flight Test flight line at Boeing Field - May, 1969. Visible in the photo are the first 747, the first 737, and the Dash 80.

Mount Rainier looming over the Flight Test flight line at Boeing Field - May, 1969. Visible in the photo are the first 747, the first 737, and the Dash 80.

R: And of course the "Dash-80" led to the Boeing 707.

J: Yes, now Boeing was not involved in commercial airplane development during the whole of World War II. They had been developing bombers. Douglas, when the war ended, they brought out the DC-4 and DC-6. Boeing worked on the Stratocruiser, and then decided to get into jets, and did the Dash-80. And then I did the aerodynamics on the 707. But not only that, I worked on developing the certification criteria for the 707 and working with customers. At the time the FAA knew nothing about jets, so Boeing really wrote the certification rules that are still the basis for jet transport certification today.

R: Let's jump ahead to the 747 era, and the SST - the supersonic transport.

J: Yes, well, although Boeing was putting money into the 747 program, and lots of it, Boeing had won the contract for the SST, and like all government programs it demanded a lot of attention back in Washington, D.C. It was a titanium airplane with exotic power plants. It used a tremendous amount of engineers, so the 747 was fighting for people all the time. The resources for the 747 were minimal!

R: And yet it came out in one of the shortest program times, including buildings and everything else.

J: Yes, in 29 months we rolled out the first airplane. In the flight test program we certified it in just eleven months. You look at that program and you look at how things are done now with all these computers! You know, we peaked out with 4,500 engineers on the 747 program. Well, I checked the other day, and the 777 peaked out at about 4,500 engineers. And each of those engineers had a high-powered computer! They in effect had 9,000 engineers. And yet they took, what, about four years. So it's amazing what happened on that 747 program.

Joe Sutter Circa 1969 photo

A smiling Joe Sutter back in 1969.

R: It truly is amazing. And it was obviously high-risk. And everybody was willing to go after it and make it work.

J: Yes. But if you look at the latest version of the airplane, the 747-8, when you see it, it looks just like the original airplane, except for the stretched upper deck. The airplane, its architecture, has survived 35 years. It's absolutely amazing, and so my comment is, those guys working with me, they did the right thing.

R: And it will probably survive another 35 years.

J: Well, it really will, yes. And you know, there have been a lot of airplanes designed after the 747. The fastest airplane out there today is the 747. Not one of them has been able to match the cruise speed of the 747. That indicates to me that it's a high-technology airplane. It's 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.

Of course, there's a lot more to our conversation. Including Joe's thoughts about the future of the newest version of the 747, the 747-8, and what he thinks about the Airbus super jumbo. I'll share that part of our discussion later this month.