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Joe Sutter in cockpit
Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, the “Father of the 747,” takes a turn in the pilot’s seat. (Credit: Boeing file)

Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, who led the engineering team for the 747 jet in the mid-1960s and played a role in the investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, died this morning at the age of 95.

His passing was announced online by Ray Conner, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The cause of death was not mentioned.

Sutter’s role in creating Boeing’s biggest passenger jet earned him the title of “Father of the 747.” His 4,500-member team came to be known as “the Incredibles” for putting the plane into production 29 months after it was conceived.

“It remains a staggering achievement and a testament to Joe’s ‘incredible’ determination,” Conner wrote.

Sutter was born in Seattle in 1921, and took a summer job with Boeing in 1940 while studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Navy aboard the destroyer escort Edward H. Allen.

He returned to Boeing after the war and worked on the company’s prototype jet, the Dash-80, as well as the 707, the 727 and the 737. “But it was the 747 – the world’s first jumbo jet – that secured his place in history,” Conner said.

Joe Sutter
A young Joe Sutter strikes a pose next to a Boeing jet. (Credit: Boeing file)

In a 2007 interview, Sutter told Smithsonian Air & Space magazine that he and his team “listened very hard” to airline executives when they designed the 747.

“One of the decisions we made was to be a good freighter as well as a good passenger plane,” Sutter recalled. “That was probably one of the most important decisions we made, because it influenced [the size of the] fuselage. It’s how the wide-body concept came into being.”

In the wake of the wide-body jet’s success, Sutter went on to become Boeing’s chief of engineering and product development. He also made his mark beyond Boeing: In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Sutter one of the first National Medals of Technology. And when the space shuttle Challenger and its crew were lost shortly after liftoff in 1986, Sutter was named to the commission in charge of investigating the tragedy.

Thirty years later, Sutter still had his doubts about the value of the space program. “When I look at how much money is spent putting people up 300 miles … if they could put that money into work programs, I think the world would be better off,” he told GeekWire in January.

Sutter retired from full-time work at Boeing in 1986, but he continued to serve as a consultant to Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ senior advisory group.

“He was still a familiar sight to many of us working here,” Conner recalled. “By then his hair was white and he moved a little slower, but he always had a twinkle in his eye, a sharp mind and an unwavering devotion to aerospace innovation and the Boeing Company.”

Conner said it was fitting that Sutter, who lived in West Seattle, was on hand for Boeing’s Founders Day centennial celebration last month. “He was one of a kind,” Conner said.

Sutter was preceded in death by his wife, Nancy. He is survived by three children: Gabrielle Young, Jonathan Sutter and Adrienne Craig.

For more about Sutter’s saga, check out the book he co-wrote with Jay Spenser in 2007, titled “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation.”

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