Joe Sutter with a 747-8 model: Boeing photo
Joe Sutter with a 747-8 model: Boeing photo

Joe Sutter, one of the quiet yet giant achievers of 20th century aerospace, and the man often called the ‘father of the 747’ has died aged 95.

Of all the tributes being paid in the US media, this, by Guy Norris, on ATW Online, is the one to read as news of Sutter’s death spreads. As the article explains, Joe Sutter contributed even more to the illustrious history of Boeing, and world aviation, than the 747, but it is the iconic and unmistakeable ‘jumbo’ jet that will always be associated with his career.

Joe Sutter was the hands on driving force of the 747 as the manager of the design team lead by its project head Malcolm T. Stamper (1925-2005) who was also the longest serving president of Boeing.

The Boeing 747 had an intriguing history too, in the very different post war, cold war times in which the Jumbo jet project began. It was almost, in its early stages, seen as a one airline creation, launched with an order by Pan American World Airways, which in that era had been in many respects an extension of US foreign policy in relation to trade and influence and prestige.

It was an era of airlines that if not nationally owned, were decidedly nationally directed or co-opted, and protected financially within a framework of widely officially fixed fares and route and frequency structures.  When the 747 story began the international carriers were instruments of privilege and power rather than mass public transport.

The 747 was also initially seen as a sort of holding design pending the then imminent age of supersonic intercontinental travel. The design of the jet envisaged its primary role as that of a large capacity front loaded freighter once supersonic flight took over. The ‘bubble’ at the top of the 747-100s and -200s (the classics) was where the pilots, flight engineer and load master, would travel, rather than the upstairs lounge it became for early adopters like Pan Am, B.O.A.C, and Qantas, which at one stage, flew nothing but later models of the huge jet.

Today the 747 has returned to being a predominantly freighter flown aircraft, either in conversions of passenger carrying models or brand new purpose built 747-8Fs, and it is generally considered unlikely to be operated as a passenger aircraft for all but a few rare applications beyond the middle of the next decade.

It could be that the last passenger carrying version of the 747 will be the replacements for the current Presidential 747s, which fly as Air Force One when carrying the US President, and are based on the 747-200 airframe, but with all sorts of special refinements.

There will no doubt be analysis elsewhere of the relevance of rugged and gifted and driven individuals like Joe Sutter in the early 21st century, and indeed, in the very different corporate structures and cultures that apply in business today.

The jet age began with designs that variously owed little, if anything, to massive computing power and short term investor goals. The world changed, perhaps much for the better, yet not always so. The lives of the aerospace giants and those they served in the second half of the last century command reverence and close study.

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