Father of the Boeing 747, Joe Sutter, dies aged 95

written by australianaviation.com.au | August 31, 2016
Joe Sutter. (Boeing)
Joe Sutter on the flightdeck of a 747. (Boeing)

Joe Sutter, the chief engineer of the legendary Boeing 747, died on Tuesday, August 30, aged 95.

The Seattle native spent four decades at Boeing where his work in bringing what is unarguably the most distinctive sight in all of aviation – the four-engine jet with its hump – led to him being known around the world as the ‘Father of the 747’.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Ray Connor said Sutter was a “beloved member of the Boeing family”.

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“This morning we lost one of the giants of aerospace,” Connor said in a statement on the Boeing website.

“Joe lived an amazing life and was an inspiration – not just to those of us at Boeing, but to the entire aerospace industry.

“He personified the ingenuity and passion for excellence that made Boeing airplanes synonymous with quality the world over.”

Joe Sutter. (Boeing)
Joe Sutter standing in front of a 747 engine. (Boeing)

Connor noted Sutter also worked on a number of different commercial aircraft projects, such as the Dash 80, the 707 and the 737.

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However it was the 747 where Sutter “secured his place in history”, given the aircraft –  which could carry up to 350 passengers or almost twice the number on the 707 – ushered in an era where air travel was made more accessible to millions of people around the world.

“His team, along with thousands of other Boeing employees involved in the project, became known as the Incredibles for producing what was then the world’s largest airplane in record time – 29 months from conception to rollout,” Connor said.

“It remains a staggering achievement and a testament to Joe’s ‘incredible’ determination.”

One of Sutter’s last public appearances was at Boeing’s Founders Day weekend, held on July 15, where he joined in celebrations for the company’s 100th birthday.

"Father of the Boeing 747". (Boeing)
“Father of the Boeing 747”. (Boeing)

Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia told Bloomberg: “The aircraft was iconic and so was he. It was a time of moonshots.”

Sutter graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

He served in the US Navy on the destroyer escort Edward H Allen during World War 2 and had a short stint at Douglas Aircraft Co before joining Boeing.

President Ronald Reagan awarded Sutter the National Medal of Technology in 1985.

“Joe was loved. He made a difference in the world. He made a difference to us. We will miss him and cherish our time with him,” Connor said.

Locally, Qantas has operated most major 747 variants, including the 747-200, 747SP, 747-300 and 747-400, with the -400 and its -400ER sub-variant still in service today.

A Qantas 747-200 wearing the flying kangaroo livery introduced in 1967. (Eric Allen)
A Qantas 747-200 wearing the iconic flying kangaroo livery. (Eric Allen)

Air New Zealand, meanwhile, retired its last 747-400 in September 2014, having operated the 747 since 1980 when it took delivery of its first 747-200. Both Ansett International (747-300 and 747-400) and Air Pacific (747-200 and -400) also flew the type.

An Air NZ 747 in older livery. (Air New Zealand)
Air NZ operated both the 747-200 and -400. (Air New Zealand)

The latest iteration of the ‘Queen of the Skies’, the 747-8, faces an uncertain future amid weak demand and the growing preference for big twins such as the 777 and Airbus A350.

Lenn Bayliss Cathay Pacific 747-8 arrival Wellcamp Airport 223 Nov 15-10
Cathay Pacific is among those carriers who have ordered the freighter variant of the 747-8. (Lenn Bayliss)

While Airbus claimed the title of the world’s largest commercial passenger jet when the A380 entered service in 2007, Sutter told Seattle PI in a 2006 interview at the Farnborough Airshow: “Maybe I’m biased, but I think our solution is more elegant than theirs.”

Sutter’s wife died in 1997. He is survived by three children.

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15 Comments

  • Charles

    says:

    What a shame, a true pioneer in aviation.

  • Jo R

    says:

    RIP Joe, your amazing legacy lives on in the skies X

  • Aden O'Keefe-Buckton

    says:

    R.I.P. : (

  • John Harrison

    says:

    Thanks Joe for all your work in bringing us the wonderful Boeing 747. We as air travellers all give thanks to Joe for all his efforts. RIP Joe and again Thankyou.

  • Jeff Atkinson

    says:

    Vale Joe. As big as the wright brothers

  • Marc

    says:

    R.I.P Joe, what a Magnificat legacy you have left behind for us to remember you by!

  • Ben

    says:

    RIP.

    The 747 will forever have it’s place in history as one of the most revolutionary aircraft ever invented.

    My first ever flight was on a 747 as an 8 year old child (With Singapore Airlines back in 1987) It started an enthusiasm for aviation that has remained unabated to this day.

    The mighty 747 may finally be losing ground to the more fuel efficient big twins. However for me, it will always be the Queen of the skies. The fact that it’s still in production 50 years after it’s launch, is testament to a magnificent feat of design and engineering.

    Joe, I salute salute you Sir. You are a giant and a true legend of the industry.

  • random

    says:

    Two good reads about Joe Sutter – “747 – Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation” (2006 by Sutter) and “Widebody – the Making of the 747” (1993 by Clive Irving). Both excellent in describing the wonder years of Boeing under Bill Allen and T Wilson. The books are true purveyors of aviation nostalgia.

    Joe Sutter was of a different era but never seemed to tire as an advocate of aviation itself. His career spanned teo very different eras of aircraft manufacturing – from business based on engineers (like him), to one based on bankers and corporatism. Ironically it was the scale and complexity of the 747 program that ushered in that change.

  • Fabian

    says:

    We thank you so much. We thank all the other pioneers who served by joe. RIP joe ?

  • David Bell

    says:

    I had the privilege of meeting Joe only very briefly in Seattle, after his retirement from Boeing. A true honour and never to be forgotten. His name will live long in aviation history. Rest well Joe.

  • Jesse

    says:

    Oh no, such a fabulous Guy sad to see him go. I hope they name a 747 after him.????

  • Rich DC

    says:

    Good to see the Slovenian genes serving him well until 95!

  • aviatorman

    says:

    It might be said that ‘given enough time anything can be invented’…. but in this case the 747 was developed in 2 years from go-ahead to prototype… truly remarkable… which just goes to show what team work must have existed between Joe Sutter and his small group.

  • Francisco Miguez Vaca

    says:

    David Massey-Greene and Joe Sutter. Two names always gracefully related with the most iconic passenger aircraft ever built, the mighty Boeing 747. Thank-you for building and flying this air beauty
    RIP David and Joe

  • I was one of the lucky ones to fly the 707 and the 200, 300 and 400 versions of the 747. What a thrill and pleasure they were to fly. RIP Joe…thanks for the memory.

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