Remembering a legend: Joe Sutter (1921-2016)

Sadly, yesterday, a legend in the aviation industry, Joe Sutter, also dubbed as the “Father of the 747”, has passed away aged 95.


As the former chief engineer of Boeing’s 747 program, Sutter is credited with leading the development of the first ever widebody aircraft, which ushered in the globe-shrinking age of mass air travel.

Born March 21, 1921, Sutter was the son of a Slovenian immigrant. He was fascinated by aviation as a boy, so Sutter worked as a part-time production-line employee at Boeing to pay for his first semester studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington.

After graduating, Sutter served for two years with the U.S. Navy during World War II, much of which was spent on submarine-hunting duties aboard the destroyer escort USS Edward H. Allen. Following postwar studies at the Navy’s aviation engineering school, Sutter accepted an engineering job with Boeing, turning down a better-paying offer from California-based Douglas Aircraft at the request of his Seattle-born wife Nancy.


After initial attempts to improve the aerodynamics of the bulbous Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Sutter worked on Boeing’s first jet transport, the 367-80, or “Dash 80.” Increasingly recognized for his engineering abilities, Sutter took bigger roles in the design and development of the company’s commercial jetliner family. Sutter was involved in developing an innovative wing-glove modification to increase the critical Mach number of the 707 wing for the 720B development. The change enabled the 720B to compete more effectively with the Convair CV-990 without a huge redesign of the whole wing.

Sutter was also closely associated with the 727, Boeing’s first short-haul jet, and in particular the aircraft’s sophisticated flap design. Working with legendary Boeing designer Jack Steiner on the configuration of the 737, Sutter made the pivotal decision to place the engines beneath the wing “where they belonged” rather than at the tail. Sutter and Steiner each received the then-standard $50 payment for the patent on the “Baby Boeing”—Sutter for the engine placement and Steiner for the decision to make the cabin wide enough for six passengers abreast.


Sutter will be best remembered, however, for leading the design of the 747 from 1965 onwards. It was Sutter who led the design away from the initial concepts of full-length double decker to the very wide single deck with twin aisles—the first widebody. The cross-section, which was large enough to seat 10 passengers across with two aisles, was drawn around the space required to accommodate two freight pallets on the main deck.

At the time, with supersonic aircraft on the drawing board in Europe and the U.S., the 747 was expected to be used more as a freighter than as a passenger airliner. The decision to make the new aircraft capable of carrying cargo also led to the positioning of the flight deck above the main deck, creating the 747’s famous humped upper deck.


In later years with Boeing, Sutter, first as vice president of operations and product development and later as executive vice president for engineering and product development, was closely involved in development of the successful and pivotal 757 and 767 models.

In 1985, Sutter received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, Sutter retired from full-time work at Boeing after a career spanning four decades.

Sutter also served on the presidential commission which investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and continued to work as a consultant to Boeing. 

He was closely involved with further developments of the 747, such as the 747-400 and 747-8, and for many years continued to visit airlines and discuss their future requirements, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.


“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” Boeing president Ray Conner said in a post on the Boeing site.

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