Update, Jan. 30, 2023: The last Boeing 747 will be delivered to Atlas Air tomorrow. Below is the story LNA posted on Dec. 6, 2022, when the airplane was ready to roll out of the Everett factory. In it, we exclusively interviewed the grandson of Joe Sutter, the lead engineer of the 747 design.
By Bryan Corliss
Dec. 6, 2022, © Leeham News: The final Boeing 747, line No. 1,574, rolls out of Boeing’s Everett factory tonight. The plane was built for Atlas Air, which is scheduled to take delivery in early 2023 – almost 52 years after the first 747 entered service with Pan Am in January 1970.
“It’s kind of a sad occasion,” said Jon Sutter, the grandson of legendary Boeing aircraft designer Joe Sutter, the father of the 747.
Jon Sutter – who now works at Boeing in the same Boeing Field building where his grandfather designed the Queen of the Skies – hadn’t been born when the first 747 flew.
And his grandfather, who passed away in 2016, didn’t live to see the end of the program he’s most closely associated with.
However, even with the end of the 747 program, Joe Sutter’s legacy lives on, his grandson said.
“His baby, Boeing, is still going,” Jon Sutter said in a recent interview with LNA. “You can see his influence in every other plane out there.”
The morning of the first flight — Feb. 9, 1969 — was cold and gray in Everett. Heavy clouds pressed down. Along the runway, snow that had fallen a few days before had melted into a frigid slush that soaked the feet of thousands of people who had come to watch: VIPs, school children, scores of airline customers, and long ranks of “The Incredibles” — Boeing stalwarts who had built the world’s largest airplane and world’s largest factory almost simultaneously.
There were a fair number of people who didn’t believe the 367-ton behemoth would fly. Legendary Boeing designer Joe Sutter, in a 2004 interview with the Everett Herald, said his wife had been stopped by people at the grocery store who questioned whether her husband had lost his mind.
Jon Sutter said his grandfather had brought his grandmother that morning to the spot alongside the Paine Field runway where his team had calculated the giant “Spirit of Everett” would leave the ground – 4,200 feet down.
Takeoff was delayed for a while. Co-pilot Brian Wygle said they were waiting for a break in the clouds because they didn’t want to take off for the first time on instruments. As pilot Jack Waddell started the massive jet rolling down the runway, observers said it seemed to move slowly, even though the records show it was going 184 mph when it lifted off.
“It must have taken a half-hour till it got to the point where it rotated and took off,” John Monroe, a junior Boeing engineer who would eventually become a lead economic development recruiter for Snohomish County, told the Herald in 2004.
Waddell climbed up to 15,500 feet. He handed over the controls to Wygle, who said they both were pleasantly surprised with how easily the 747 handled in the air. Back on the ground, Waddell would later say it was a “two-finger airplane,” meaning he could fly it with only his forefinger and thumb on the controls.
The two pilots flew the plane for 110 minutes before landing. Joe Sutter later admitted he was apprehensive about landing the big bird, but it “sort of eased into the ground.”
“When I watched the first landing,” he told the Herald, “that’s when I knew we had a good airplane.”
Sutter told the Herald that after the plane landed, he slipped away from the VIP area to find his wife. She was crying, he said. “I had to give her a hug.”
Many of the people who saw the first flight shed tears of relief. There was a lot riding on the first flight. Boeing had literally bet the company on the 747, which had been kind of a Plan B.
Boeing had intended for the Supersonic Transport (for which the late, great Seattle Supersonics basketball team was named) to be its cutting-edge passenger jet for the second half of the 20th century.
It had drawn up the 747 as a long-haul cargo jet – its fuselage dimensions were determined by the amount of space needed to fit two rows of 20-foot cargo containers side by side. The cockpit was raised – creating the ‘Four-Seven’s iconic profile – mainly to get it up above the cargo hold.
Likewise, Everett was not Boeing’s first choice to be the home of the 747 program, according to T.M. Sell, a professor of political economy at Highline College and an author of a book, “Wings of Power” that looked at how the company wielded influence in its home state during the 20th century.
There was no room to assemble a jumbo jet at Boeing’s Renton plant, or at Plant 2 in Seattle, where it had built bombers during World War II. The new plane was more than twice the size of the 707, and it would require a new building.
Boeing’s site-selection team originally came back with recommendations for putting the new program in Cleveland, Denver, or San Diego. Moses Lake, Wash., was another strong contender. Boeing went as far as to take an option on land near Walnut Creek, Calif., in today’s Silicon Valley.
But in the end, top Boeing management worried it couldn’t get enough key personnel to relocate and decided it didn’t want to trust its make-or-break airplane program to an inexperienced team of engineers, techs, and mechanics. Paine Field, which had been well down the list of potential sites, was the final pick.
While Jon Sutter wasn’t yet born in 1969, he said his sister was 3 months old, and their grandfather pulled some strings so she could be brought into the factory to see the first 747 before it flew.
But for all his notoriety in the aviation world, Joe Sutter was “pretty much a standard grandfather,” his grandson said.
With one exception: When the family spent weekends at their beach cabin out on Hood Canal, sometimes some of grandpa’s work friends – CEOs of various airlines – would come to join them for cocktails and oysters grilled on the half-shell over a fire. “That was part of our life,” Jon Sutter said.
Family members are sad to see their grandfather’s airplane program coming to an end, and some think it’s a strategic mistake, he said. With all of the problems Boeing’s had with the 737, 777, and 787 programs, the 747 has been a reliable performer. “They’re shutting down lines on the airplane they can deliver.”
The plane will be one of three to bear a ‘60s-style cartoon drawing of Joe Sutter and a 747 on its tail. Cargolux and UPS already are flying the other two “Joe Sutter Editions.”
Today’s factory roll-out isn’t the last step. The plane will be towed across Washington State Route 526 to the flight line, for field testing and work to correct any squawks before flight testing. Atlas will “take the keys” in a delivery ceremony sometime in early next year. (Jet aircraft don’t need keys to turn on the ignition: Boeing typically provides customers with ceremonial keys to lock and unlock cockpit doors at delivery ceremonies.)
Jon Sutter said that while his grandfather would also be able to take pride in the success that was well beyond what anyone ever expected. The Queen of the Skies was supposed to be Boeing’s 2707, the Supersonic Transport, not the 747.
The 234-seat, delta-winged SST was intended as America’s answer to the European Concorde. The FAA itself picked the design over proposals from Lockheed and North American in 1966, and by 1971, the program had 122 orders from 26 airlines, including Alitalia, Canadian Pacific, Delta, Iberia, KLM, Northwest, and World Airways.
But the program, which was two years’ behind schedule by then, was reliant on federal funding, and in 1971, Congress canceled that cash stream, citing environmental concerns (including noise) and marginal economics.
Already teetering due to cuts to military contracts as the Vietnam War wound down, lost NASA contracts as the Apollo program ended, and a drop in commercial orders during a recession, the end of federal funding for the SST was catastrophic for Boeing, leading to the layoff of two-thirds of its workforce, some 60,000 people.
The 747 has been remarkably successful as a cargo jet, as projected, but its impact on passengers was greater. The huge wings needed to lift the heavy jet could carry enough fuel to cross oceans, and packing the cargo holds with people instead of pallets dropped seat-mile costs by some 30%. For the first time, trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific travel was within the reach of the global middle class.
“You think of everything that airplane has done. It’s carried the space shuttle, It’s airlifted a thousand refugees at a time,” Jon Sutter said, adding that 747s have been outfitted for fire fighting, carried airborne lasers and telescopes, and – since 1986 – have carried U.S. presidents.
“It’s actually hard to imagine the world without it,” Jon Sutter said. “There’s not much out there that can replace it.”
Boeing isn’t planning to replace the 747 any time soon. In the company’s recent briefing on its air cargo market projections, Vice President of Commercial Marketing Darren Hulst said Boeing expects the 747-8Fs will fly “well into the middle of this century.”
Boeing expects cargo carriers will focus on 777 freighters and conversions, which have higher payload capabilities than older model 747-400s, Hulst said.
Boeing will provide aftermarket support for the 747s as long as they are flying, and when those days are done, “then we’ll see what happens beyond that,” Hulst said. “But it’s a long time away.”
The 747 has been refurbished eight times. The last iteration, the 747-8, was built to take advantage of new engines and avionics developed for the 787. The greater thrust would allow for a 19-foot stretch of the fuselage – the only time Sutter’s original design was made longer. (The 747 SP was developed in the 1970s as an extended-range passenger jet; it was 48 feet shorter. Forty-five of them were built.)
The 747-8 program was launched in 2004, and Boeing executives at the time expected it to be an easy refit, and forecast a market for 300 planes, split between passenger and cargo versions.
However, the myriad delays on the 787 program siphoned engineering talent away from the Dash 8. Production didn’t begin until August 2008, and in February 2009, then-CEO Jim McNerney said the company was reassessing whether to continue with the program, particularly because it had only won one order for passenger planes.
Like Airbus, which struggled to find buyers for its A380 passenger plane, Boeing found that airlines weren’t interested in planes with more than 400 hard-to-fill seats. Boeing’s 777s and 787s and Airbus’ A330s and A350s had similar ranges to the 747 and A380, which allowed them to serve similar city pairs with more frequency.
Boeing ended up pushing back the program another year – taking a billion-dollar charge against earnings in the process. But early customers Cargolux and Lufthansa reaffirmed their commitments, and Korean Air placed an order for five-passenger models. (KAL would later add two cargo jets to the order.)
In February 2010, the first 747-8 flew. Cargolux took the first of its planes in 2011; Lufthansa took its first passenger model in 2012. Boeing sold 155 Dash 8s; with freighters outselling cargo jets roughly 2-to-1.
UPS ended up being the biggest buyer of 747-8s, with 28 cargo jets. Atlas Air, Cargolux, and Cathay Pacific each took 14 for their cargo fleets.
Lufthansa operates the biggest 747-8 passenger fleet, with 19; KAL has 10, plus seven cargo versions.
While the plane most associated with his grandfather was the 747, Joe Sutter also was a senior member of the team that designed the 737, which is the airplane that set the standard for aerospace design for more than half-century. With its conventional tail, underslung wing and engines mounted in pods, Jon Sutter said, “that basic ‘Three-Seven configuration is the cookie cutter for every plane that’s come after.”
Joe Sutter believed in the 737 even when sales were so poor that management considered selling the entire program to Japanese interests. At 54 years old, the 737 already has outlived the Queen of the Skies.
Jon Sutter said his grandfather was one of the greats who defined what Boeing was and what the industry could be, listing him alongside Ed Wells (who designed the B-17 and 707) and Malcolm Stamper (Sutter’s boss on the 747 program, who would go on to be Boeing’s longest-serving president).
“You really can take it down to just a few engineers at Boeing,” Jon Sutter said, “and he was part of that group.”