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Legendary 747 designer Sutter dies age 95

Air Transport World, 30 August 2016
Joe Sutter, who was dubbed “Father of the 747” by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, has died at age 95. As the former chief engineer of Boeing’s 747, Sutter is credited with leading the birth of the first widebody airliner, which ushered in the globe-shrinking age of mass air travel.

Born on March 21, 1921, Sutter was the son of a first generation Slovenian immigrant working in the Seattle meat packing industry. Fascinated by aviation as a boy, Sutter worked on a paper route and as a part-time production line employee at Boeing to pay for his first semester studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington.

Following post-war studies at the US Navy’s aviation engineering school, Sutter accepted an engineering job with Boeing.

Among other aircraft, Sutter was closely associated with the 727, Boeing’s first short-haul jet, and in particular the aircraft’s sophisticated flap design. Working with legendary Boeing designer Jack Steiner on the configuration of the 737, Sutter also made the pivotal decision to place the engines beneath the wing “where they belonged” rather than at the tail. Sutter and Steiner each received the then-standard $50 payment for the patent on the “baby Boeing”—Sutter for the engine placement and Steiner for the decision to make the cabin wide enough for six abreast.

Sutter will be best remembered, however, for leading the design of the 747 from 1965 onward. It was Sutter who led the design away from the initial concepts of full-length double decker to the very wide single deck with twin aisles—the first widebody. The cross-section, which was large enough to seat 10-across with two aisles, was drawn around the space required to accommodate two freight pallets on the main deck. The decision to make the new aircraft capable of carrying cargo also led to the positioning of the flight deck above the main deck, creating the 747’s famous humped upper deck.

In later years with Boeing, first as vice president of operations and product development, and later as executive vice president for engineering and product development, Sutter was closely involved in development of both the successful and pivotal 757 and 767 models. In 1985 Sutter received the US National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan and in 1986 he retired from full-time work at Boeing after a career spanning four decades.

Sutter also 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 2016. He was closely involved with further developments of the 747 such as the 747-400 and 747-8, and for many years continued to visit airlines and discuss their future requirements, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.