Legendary aircraft designer Joe Sutter, dubbed ‘Father of the 747’ has died of complications from pneumonia. He was 95.

Joe Sutter. RAeS (NAL).

Though Sutter played a role in the design of every Boeing commercial jet airliner from the 707 to the 767, he will be best remembered for leading the development of the 747, the world’s first widebody aircraft. Developed in an unprecedented 29 months, the 747 ruled unchallenged for more than three decades and made international travel affordable for millions.

When Pan Am, the dominant US airline of the time, challenged Boeing in 1965 to develop a larger airliner than the 707, Sutter was tasked with defining the size of the new concept. Armed with notional configurations created by his engineering team, Sutter toured the major airlines and was stunned when nearly all of them voted for the largest design seating 350. “It was a sort of shock because the 707 carried 120 people and suddenly they wanted an airplane two-and-a-half times the size of it,” he later recalled.

Sutter resisted the initial concepts of full-length double-deckers, describing them as ‘clumsy’. Instead he pushed for the adoption of the then radical idea of a very wide single deck with twin aisles – the first widebody. The cross-section, which was large enough to seat ten passengers across with two aisles, was drawn around the space required to accommodate two 8ft by 8ft freight pallets side-by-side on the main deck.

Designing the 747 for cargo was considered more important than passengers. At the time, with a supersonic transport (SST) aircraft on the drawing board in Europe and the US, the 747 was expected to be quickly relegated to a freighter role. The decision to make the new aircraft capable of loading cargo directly through a hinging nose door also led to the positioning of the flight deck above the main deck, creating the 747’s hallmark humped upper deck.

The supersonic spectre even haunted Sutter’s attempts to recruit his engineering team. “People would come up to me and say, ‘keep working on the 747, and when you get done there might be a place for you on the SST,” he remembered.

Born on 21 March 1921, Sutter was the son of a first-generation Slovenian immigrant working in the Seattle meat-packing industry. Growing up in an area known as Beacon Hill, close to Boeing Field, Sutter became fascinated by aviation as a boy. He funded a place studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington by saving money from a paper round and working for Boeing as a part-time production-line employee.

Shortly after graduating, Sutter served for two years with the US Navy during WW2, much of which was spent on submarine-hunting duties aboard the destroyer escort USS Edward H Allen. With the end of the war Sutter enrolled in the Navy’s aviation engineering school before applying for work as an aerodynamicist with Boeing and Douglas. Despite being offered a better paying job at Douglas, Sutter accepted an offer from Boeing at the request of his then pregnant wife Nancy, a Seattle native.

Sutter was initially tasked with the difficult job of improving the aerodynamics of the bulky Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, before working on Boeing’s first jet transport, the 367-80, or ‘Dash 80’. By now increasingly recognised for his engineering abilities, Sutter took larger roles in the design and development of the company’s commercial jetliner family. Sutter was involved in developing an innovative wing-glove modification to increase the critical Mach number of the 707 wing for the 720B development. The change enabled the 720B to compete more effectively with the Convair CV-990 without a huge redesign of the whole wing.

Sutter was also closely associated with the 727, Boeing’s first short-haul jet, and in particular the design of the aircraft’s sophisticated flap configuration. He also played an instrumental role in the design and development of the 737, the world’s most successful jet transport. Working with Boeing designer Jack Steiner on the configuration of the small twinjet, it was Sutter who made the pivotal decision to place the engines beneath the wing rather than at the tail. Sutter and Steiner each received the then-standard $50 payment for the patent on the 737 – Sutter for the engine placement and Steiner for the decision to make the cabin wide enough for six passengers abreast.

After a decade of leading the 747 programme, a period which culminated with the launch of the long-range, short-bodied 747SP, Sutter became Boeing Vice President of Operations and Product Development. Later, as Executive Vice President for Engineering and Product Development, he was closely involved in development of the 757 and 767.

Joe Sutter in front of the iconic Boeing 747. Boeing.

In 1985, Sutter received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Ronald Reagan. The following year Sutter retired from full-time work at Boeing after a career spanning four decades.

Joe Sutter, right, receives his Honorary Fellowship from the RAeS President, Tom Kerr. RAeS (NAL).

Also in 1985, the Royal Aeronautical Society awarded Sutter with Honorary Fellowship, its highest award. Later, after the Society formed its Seattle Branch in 1999, the Branch’s named lecture and black-tie dinner was named in honour of Joe Sutter (the 15th Joe Sutter Lecture will be given on 12 November by this author).

Sutter served on the Presidential Commission which investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and continued to work as a consultant to Boeing right up until recent weeks. He was closely involved with advising Boeing on further developments of the 747, such as the 747-400 and 747-8, and for many years continued in an ambassadorial role to visit airlines and discuss their future requirements, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Guy Norris
Senior Editor, Aviation Week & Space Technology

1 September 2016