September 1, 2016.   Remembering Joe Sutter.

Joe Sutter, the visionary creator of the Boeing 747, died on August 30th. He was 95 years-old. I don’t have many heroes, but Joe Sutter is one of them. The sheer improbability of the 747 program is hard to fathom. Sutter led a team of more than four thousand engineers, and turned what began as a napkin doodle into the most important and most iconic jetliner ever built — in less than thirty months! When the 747 entered service with Pan Am in January, 1970, it was double the size of any existing plane, and its stupendous economies of scale ushered in the era of affordable long-range jet travel. And it did so in style. The 747 wasn’t just big, it was beautiful.

More than 1,500 747s have been sold over five decades — more than any other Boeing save for the much smaller 737. It was the largest jet in the sky for some forty years, until finally being eclipsed by the double-decked Airbus A380. The tragedy there is that the A380, for all of its size and technological prowess, was engineered without a shred of the 747’s grace. A sort of anti-747, it’s possibly the ugliest commercial plane ever conceived. The 747 remains in production, but for how long is anyone’s guess. The latest derivative, the 747-8, hasn’t sold very well and there’s talk of shutting down the line. More than four hundred are still in service, however, and the jet won’t be going extinct any time soon. The way I describe it, the 747 is the Empire State Building of airplanes: It’s no longer the biggest, or the flashiest. But it’s still the classiest, the most elegant and dignified.

Sutter

Joe Sutter and the prototype 747. Note the insignias of the jet’s first customers. We see the logos of Pan Am, TWA, American, United, Continental, Lufthansa, JAL, Air France, Aer Lingus and World Airways, among others. And a little-known fact: the 747 that made the inaugural commercial flight, from JFK to Heathrow on January 21st, 1970, was Pan Am’s Clipper Victor. As fate would have it, this was the same aircraft destroyed at Tenerife seven years later.

Sutter looks like Pat Buchanan’s long-lost twin.

Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!