Joe Sutter with the Boeing 747-8.
Joe Sutter, the man widely credited as the father of the iconic Boeing 747 jumbo jet, died on Tuesday at the age of 95. ;
Five decades ago, Sutter led the engineering team tasked with designing the world’s first jumbo jet. In the process, the engineer helped revolutionize the way man kind travel.
In addition to the 747, Sutter also worked on the Boeing 707 and the 737 — which has become the best selling airliner in aviation history.
On Tuesday, in a letter to company employees, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner wrote:
“This morning we lost one of the giants of aerospace and a beloved member of the Boeing family. Joe Sutter, the “Father of the 747,” passed away at the age of 95.
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.”
For more than 40 years, the wide-body jumbo jet ruled the skies. Since its introduction in 1969, the Boeing 747 has transformed the way people travel. With its ability to fly 500 passengers 6,000 miles, the jumbo jet allowed airlines to reach new destinations while achieving profitability by lowering the per-seat cost of operation.
Over the years, Boeing was joined in the long-haul wide-body market by offerings from McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Airbus. In 2005, Airbus introduced the double-deck A380-800 — perhaps the most capable rival the Boeing jumbo jet had ever encountered.
But these days, Boeing and Airbus are having a hard time finding new buyers for both aircraft. The cost of purchasing such a large craft, combined with the fact that they’re relatively energy inefficient, makes them impractical.
Further, airlines are moving away from the hub-and-spoke business model that calls for massive numbers of passengers to be routed through a single mega hub. Smaller, fuel-efficient jets, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, allow airlines to offer passengers nonstop, point-to-point service without transiting through a hub.
Here’s a look at the glorious history of Joe Sutter’s greatest creation:
The Boeing 747 first flew in February 1969.
The big jet and the Everett, Washington, factory in which it was built were designed and constructed in just 29 months by a team of 50,000 Boeing employees.
This group of people became known as the “Incredibles.”
Leading the charge in this effort was Joe Sutter.
The 747 was a major gamble for Boeing. The prevailing thinking at the time was that the world was heading toward supersonic travel.
Boeing bet that people wanted to travel in comfort for less money.
As the legend goes, Pan Am boss Juan Trippe told Boeing that he needed a plane twice the size of …
… the Boeing 707 the airline operated at the time.
To provide customers with more capacity, Boeing added a second aisle to the cabin — thus creating the wide-body jet.
Not to mention unprecedented levels of luxury.
According to Boeing, the 747 could carry 3,400 pieces of luggage and be unloaded in just seven minutes.
With seating for as many as 550 passengers, the 747 truly dwarfs the 707 as well as other workhorse jets of the era, such as …
… the de Havilland Comet.
When it entered service in 1970 with Pan Am, the public was mesmerized by the mighty jumbo jet.
In the 1970s, Boeing was joined by a duo of smaller three-engine wide-body jets: the Lockheed L-1011 and …
… the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.
Boeing followed up the original 747-100 with …
… a new variant in late 1971 with more powerful engines and greater range called the 747-200 series.
A decade later, Boeing updated the 747 again with newer engines and an enlarged second deck. This version was called the “-300.”
The -300 didn’t prove to be as popular as Boeing would have liked. So in 1989, Boeing launched the -400. It featured modern avionics, a fully glass cockpit and greater range. It would go on to be the most popular of the 747 variants.
In 2011, Boeing launched the latest version of the jumbo jet, called the 747-8. At 250 feet, it’s the longest airliner ever built.
Over the years, the 747 has been deployed in a variety of ways, ranging from firefighting water tanker …
… and space shuttle carrier …
… and the official presidential aircraft of China, …
But the 747 really became a cultural icon when it was the plane to have for the world’s major airlines. For many years, it seemed as if you weren’t playing in the big leagues unless you were flying the jumbo.
In addition to Pan Am, everybody else had them as well.
Virgin Atlantic. (And these are just some of the airlines that flew the jumbo jet.)
In total, Boeing has sold more than 1,500 747s.
The venerable Boeing jumbo jet has outlasted the supersonic Concorde, as well as …
… its replacement, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11.
Not to mention Lockheed’s L-1011, which went out of production after selling just 250 planes.
The Airbus A340 ended production in 2011 after selling less than 400 jets.
Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that the jumbo jet will survive its latest slew of challengers, which include Airbus’ double-deck A380 superjumbo and …
… the A350XWB twin-engine “mini-jumbo.”
The 747 has also lost sales to its corporate siblings, the 777 mini-jumbo and …
To compensate, Boeing has slowed down production of the 747 to just one aircraft every two months in an attempt to buy the sales team more time to generate orders.
Even though sales of the new jumbo are slow, with proper maintenance the “Queen of the Skies” can be with us for decades. We’re just at the beginning of the end of the jumbo era, no matter what Boeing decides to do about its most famous plane.
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