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Boeing 747 profile
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Getting the basics right

When the 747-8F takes to the skies from Everett for the first time, Joe Sutter, the programme's original chief engineer, will be standing at the runway's "4,000ft" marker, right where he expects the new Jumbo's wheels to leave the ground.

Joe Sutter & the first 747
© Boeing

Sutter, now 88, still has an office at the company's Renton Longacres complex, where he is active in helping Boeing bring new aircraft to market. Although he formally retired in 1986, 41 years after joining Boeing, Sutter continues to work as a paid consultant to the company.

He has been working closely on the 747-8 programme, while also looking at future product development studies for the 737 and 777.

With 40 years since the 747-100 entered service with Pan Am in 1970, Sutter has finally seen the world's first Jumbo Jet stretched for passenger use beyond the 70.6m (231ft 10in) fuselage, which has been largely unchanged save for the 747SP, a 14m shrink of the original 747. "I always felt the original 747 looked stubby," says Sutter of the -100.

The 747-8 family has a 5.8m stretch over the 747-400, allowing 20% more payload capacity for the freighter and about 51 more seats in a three-class configuration for a total of 467.

Sutter is quick to say that despite his desire to see the aircraft stretched the tenets of aircraft design remain paramount - "you have to match the airplane to the requirements.

"Designing airplanes," he adds, "everything is compromised. If you work on something too hard and neglect the other thing, you don't make a good airplane, that's the fun of airplane design: how you get the whole package right."

Sutter does not mince words about the 747 and why it has lasted as long as it has: "Because it was the right airplane and I listen to a lot of people talking about the future, and they talk about 'we're going to have the best technology' this and that and the other thing, but if you don't figure out what the hell the market wants you can spend all the money in the world and you're gonna have a loser."

He calls the creation of the 747-8 the end of a 10-year "struggle" after fits and starts with the 747-500/600X and 747X/747X Stretch proposals. The key to getting the 747-8 off the ground, he says, was ultimately attributed to the 747's largely composite stablemate, the Dreamliner.

Boeing 747-8F rolls out
© Boeing


"The only reason we got an engine though, we never convinced the engine guys to develop an engine, but the 787 gave us the engine, so we lucked out. Seeing that struggle end up with success, that's the fun of this business."

The 787's General Electric's GEnx-1B engine, a bleedless architecture for the more-electric systems, was adapted to the provide a 67,000lb thrust (298kN) rating and a bleed-air architecture for the GEnx-2B engine.


Sutter believes there is "at least one more step" for the 747 and predicts the -8 will last as long as the -400, about two decades. He maintains that the aircraft can still be stretched to up to 550 passengers and an additional 20% of cargo space with a plug to stretch the upper and main decks, but says that does not necessarily mean there is a market to justify such an aircraft.

Having seen his company evolve since he joined Boeing in 1945, Sutter - a Washington state native - has seen competitors come and go. Lockheed exited the commercial aircraft business following the L-1011 in the 1980s, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, while Airbus began its ascent in 1969, the same year that the 747 first flew.

With the large-jet duopoly shared with Airbus, Sutter believes China poses the biggest threat to Boeing as it develops the Comac C919, a 150- to 200-seat narrowbody twinjet powered by CFM International's Leap-X.

Sutter says the latest programme is a decade-long progression to this point and recalled a 1980 visit to Shanghai when he had an opportunity to observe closely the Y-10, China's reverse-engineered replica of the Boeing 707. Only two were ever built and quietly shelved after flight test, although Sutter asked why the Chinese had undertaken such a project."To learn the business," they replied.

"The Chinese take things very slowly. But they always had in mind way back then that they were going to get into the airplane business," says Sutter of the nation's ambition.

With the ever increasing share of outsourced aircraft manufacturing, Sutter believes that "the only thing Boeing's got left is its edge. If you look at the 787, that's the edge, but it's going to be tough, it's always been tough.

"There's always been competition, there's always been a fight. The main thing Boeing has is they've got the skill to design good airplanes, the skill to build good airplanes, they've got the skills to help the people who operate airplanes, operate them successfully."

Joe Sutter and his beloved 747 - a love affair that began almost half a century ago
© Boeing
Joe Sutter and his beloved 747 - a love affair that began almost half a century ago

The 747 programme has always struggled to be the apple of Boeing's eye, says Sutter. Throughout its history, the Jumbo has played "second fiddle" to the company's other priorities, be it supersonic transport in the 1960s, the 757/767 twinjet in the 1970s and 1980s, the 777 in the 1990s or the 787 most recently.

As Boeing moves into its second century, Sutter cautions that as advanced designs are developed into products, the fundamentals of aircraft design remain the same and that computer technology that helps bring them to life is no substitute for "having a hell of a lot of good common sense".

He warns of an over-reliance on computers to "better keep the same basic knowledge level high, so you know when to believe the computer". He adds: "There should not be an over emphasis on what computers tell you, because they only tell you what you tell them to tell you. When we designed the 747 we didn't have computers. We had more engineers than our management wanted us to have and when you look at the 777 and the 787 with their darn computers, they've used more engineers than we used. With all that the 787 was a little bit late. A little bit."


Sutter believes that advanced concepts such as the blended wing body configuration hold little promise and "it's good to explore other ways of skinning the cat, but the present definition things as airplanes are built now are going to be around for a long while".

In the meantime, Sutter is looking forward to another 747 first flight, the 1,420th time a 747 has made its maiden flight.

After watching the 787's 15 December maiden sortie, Sutter confesses that despite the thrill of seeing another new jetliner first flight, watching the 747 take off for the first time holds a particularly special place in his heart.

"It's become an icon, it was fun doing it. Had a bunch of good guys help me design it. My only regret is that I'm damn near the last one left. It's hard for me to find a golf partner."


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