Two aviation giants - the 747 and Joe Sutter, chief engineer. (Boeing)

Few people in aviation can claim to have changed how the world travels. Boeing's Joe Sutter, the 'Father of the 747' who died this week, aged 95, was one. Was he almost the last of generation of incredible aeronautical engineers? asks TIM ROBINSON.

Here is a quiz for you. Without googling or visiting Aviation Week, Flight Global or the manufacturer‘s webpage - who is the chief designer of the Lockheed Martin F-35? The Airbus A350? Boeing 787? Eurofighter Typhoon? Bombardier CSeries? Anyone? Give up yet? Some of these undoubtedly will have chief engineers, head of programmes and the like. But it might be argued that no large aircraft programme today (military or civil) have one genius designer or aeronautical engineer who can claim to be the inspiration and driving force.

Today, multi-million dollar aircraft development programmes involve highly complex global design teams, collaborating via computer. The scale of these giant projects and the complexity of systems,, suppliers and the market research, operational and certification requirements that drive them – means that development programmes these days typically outlast the tenure of company CEOs who may have greenlighted them in the first place.

Creating the 'Queen of the skies'

The first 747 in 1969. Sutter and his team of 'Incredibles' brought it to market in just four years. (Boeing)

So Boeing’s Joe Sutter, who died this week, is thus significant for two reasons. The first is that the aircraft he was most closely associated with, the Boeing 747, changed air travel in a fundamental way – opening up long-haul jet travel to the masses. Ironically, the 747 jumbo jet in the late 1960s, was not even Boeing’s biggest priority. It was the 2707 SST, a supersonic Concorde-beater designed to whisk jet-setters to their destinations at Mach 2 which was a project of national prestige for the US and its aerospace industry. Though Boeing 'bet the farm' on the 747, it was expected that it would be just a brief detour while the real future of supersonic passenger flight was being created.

Reality turned out differently and while the numerous airlines that had expressed an interest in Concorde backed away, leaving BA and Air France the only operators, the Jumbo Jet became a sales success with airlines all around the world. Although now in its sunset years, and Boeing now sees the end of production (with potentially the US Presidential Air Force One as one of the final deliveries), the 'Queen of the Skies‘ has transcended aviation to become a cultural icon – an image of the the age of global mass, affordable jet travel.

Since it entered service in 1970, Sutter’s hump-backed widebody (the upper deck, originally was a lounge and was located there as Pan Am’s Juan Trippe thought the 747‘s main role would be a freighter and thus Boeing placed the flight deck above the main cabin) has thus brought families together, connected loved ones, delivered cargo, stimulated businesses and shrunk the globe for millions. It is no wonder then that the 747 is so beloved by pilots, passengers and public – and why Sutter’s fame has spread beyond the professional community of aeronautics.

Sutter also had key design inputs on other Boeing designs, such as the T-tail on the 727, the underwing engines on the 737 and even until very recently could still be seen hard at work in a small office advising Boeing.

On the shoulders of giants

Though Reginald Mitchell was depicted in 'First of the Few' as the lone genius behind the Spitfire, he too led a team of 'incredibles'. 

Thus the second reason why Sutter is significant is that he was perhaps almost the last of his kind – an aeronautical engineer whose became a semi-household name around the world. Note the tributes this week in the media – not just in the aviation press, but in the mainstream media as well, a recognition of his fame and importance. Joe Sutter then falls in the same category as the Wright Brothers, Bill Boeing, Sir Thomas Sopwith, Reginald Mitchell, Sir Sydney Camm, Jack Northrop, Geoffrey de Havilland, Howard Hughes, Kelly Johnson or Werner Von Braun. Aerospace engineers and designers who became public names and are linked with particularly iconic aircraft or spacecraft.

Today, the fact that the aerospace industry is reliable, safe and employs thousands of people around the globe rests on shoulders of these engineering legends.

It is, however, important, to recognise that however skilled and creative Sutter and these other aviation pioneers were, all of them (save perhaps the Wright brothers) did not work alone. They inspired, led and focused skilled engineers and workers themselves, whose names are lost to history. For example, while we rightly give credit to R J Mitchell as being the designer of the Spitfire – recent research unearthed by author Paul Beaver suggests Mitchell was far more 'hands off' in its development than popular myth depicts – he was a 'conductor of an orchestra' at Supermarine rather than a 'trumpet soloist'. Even then, by 1936, developing an aircraft was far more than one person could achieve on their own. That he was part of a larger team does not detract from Mitchell's, or any other's achievements - on the contrary - it only magnifies their brilliance further.  

The message here, could be that however brilliant you might be at aerodynamics, software and systems if you cannot inspire, lead and communicate your engineering vision to a team – you will never be able to design and build a 747 all by yourself. You need to surround yourself with other 'Incredibles' too. 


Is Burt Rutan the  last of his breed? (Looking Up, Looking Way Up) 

So was Joe the last of his breed? Today, perhaps the only other aircraft designer that is a 'celebrity' might be Burt Rutan – designer of the record-breaking Voyager and SpaceShipOne – both of which hang in the Smithsonian. After Rutan though, then what? Why become an engineer or study aeronautics if you will never match up to Sutter, Johnson, Mitchell or others?

But there is another way of looking at this. The next Joe Sutter, R J Mitchell, or Kelly Johnson may be already with us. They may be at school in India, studying at university in China, or working in a Silicon Valley tech start-up. They could be in the Air Cadets in the UK, or be in primary school in Africa. Today they might be working in the field of autonomous systems and UAVs – an aeronautical sector that the Wright brothers, Bill Boeing and Thomas Sopwith would immediately recognise as the most dynamic, creative and which could lead to the biggest changes in how society functions, as the early days of fixed-wing flight. They could be working in next-generation morphing aerodynamics, greener engines, 3D printing, hypersonics or low-cost space access. All these things may at some point produce an aircraft, UAV or spacecraft designer or engineer whose ideas will change the world. And while the engineering heroes here are male, the laws of aerodynamics, fuel fractions, escape velocities and avionics software code are blind to gender, race, religion or wealth.  

So if Sutter and the unexpected triumph of the Jumbo Jet over supersonic flight shows anything – it is that the future is what you create and dream – not what the prevailing wisdom is.

In fact, one of them may be already here. Elon Musk, for example, may not be a 'traditional aeronautical engineer' – but in inspiring and conducting an 'orchestra‘ of skilled rocket engineers at SpaceX he is pioneering technology that could potentially put a human on Mars in the near future - despite setbacks along the way. Still think that it is impossible for an aeronautical or aerospace engineer to become world famous? 

Joe Sutter may have left us, but the sky is no longer the limit for those who want to keep aiming high.

From PayPal to Mars. Elon Musk may have had a setback this week, but is blazing a new trail for others to follow.


2 September 2016