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An appreciation of Joe Sutter (1921–2016)

Institution News Team

Joe Sutter. Image courtesy of Boeing
Joe Sutter. Image courtesy of Boeing

Joseph F “Joe” Sutter, known as the ‘Father of the 747’, has passed away at the age of 95.


In the 1960s, Sutter and his team of 4,500 engineers had taken just 29 months to design and build the first jumbo Boeing 747 jetliner, which made its test flight in 1969. The team became known as ‘The Incredibles’. Boeing has sold more than 1,500 747s since that time.

Joe Sutter worked for Boeing for 40 years, retiring as executive vice president for commercial aeroplane engineering and product development in 1986. He was then appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Rogers Commission, investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

In a statement released by Boeing, Raymond L. Conner, Vice Chairman, The Boeing Company and President and Chief Executive Officer, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said: “Joe lived an amazing life and was an inspiration – not just to those of us at Boeing, but to the entire aerospace industry.”

Joe Sutter 1921-2016. Image courtesy of Boeing
The 747’s distinctive and celebrated humpbacked, wide-bodied design transformed commercial aviation. It travelled faster and farther than other, conventional jetliners, without having to refuel. In 1970 it went into service for Pan American World Airways, between New York and London, heralding the second jet age.

Joe Sutter once said: “Flying it was never a concern of mine. The real concern was landing something this large.”

Adam Bruckner of the University of Washington’s department of aeronautics and astronautics described the 747 as “one of the great engineering wonders of the world, like the pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower or the Panama Canal.”

Joseph Frederick Sutter was born in Seattle in March 1921. He worked for Boeing during summer holidays, and was the first member of his immediate family to graduate, with a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington in 1943. He served in the Navy in the South Pacific in the Second World War. Married, and with a job offer from Boeing, he settled in Seattle.

Joe Sutter in the cockpit. Image courtesy of Boeing
Engineer John Kilian worked at Boeing, and recalls the impression that Joe Sutter made on him: “In early January 1965 I arrived in Seattle as a 25-year-old graduate aerospace engineer, the day before my first day at Boeing. The AIAA was having a meeting at the Hyatt house across from SEA-TAC airport. I was a member, so I dropped by to attend the meeting.

"There were very few people around but as I stood aimlessly in the lobby I was approached almost immediately by a gentleman who asked if he could help me. I briefly told him my story and what I was doing. He smiled and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to Seattle. My name is Joe Sutter. Come with me. I’ll introduce you around’.

“For the next hour I shook many hands; some people I recognized as icons of the aerospace world. This introduction to my new world as a graduate engineer was exciting and extremely motivating. I eagerly went on to a 46-year career with Boeing, including my involvement in the development and certification testing of Joe’s 747.

“It was not until the next morning at work, as I mentioned my prior evening, that I realized who Joe Sutter was, and the esteem my co-workers held for him. I have never forgotten that evening and the gentleman who welcomed me to Seattle and my new career. I am deeply saddened by Joe’s passing and I celebrate his life well lived."

For his contributions to the development of commercial jet aircraft, Joe Sutter was awarded the United States Medal of Technology in 1985.

In 2016 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Institution and was personally presented with the prestigious Honorary Fellowship by Jon Hilton, President of the Institution, after his recent trip to Canada.

Jon Hilton said: “As a young engineer I had the pleasure to briefly meet Sir Frank Whittle and Joe is the airframe equivalent in so many ways.”

Joe Sutter’s proposers were Isobel Pollock-Hulf OBE FIMechE FCGI, Past-President of the Institution, and Mark Odgers PE CEng FIMechE PMP. Mark said: “Joe Sutter, Chief Engineer for the Boeing 747 Project, was quite the engineering role model and inspiration to me. The 747-8 is still in production at Everett. He received many awards for his achievements, and we are proud and delighted that he graciously accepted the Honorary Fellowship of the Institution.”

Joe Sutter (21 March 1921 – 30 August 2016)

Read Boeing’s announcement

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