Boeing’s ‘plane genius’ retires

Walt Gillette of Everett, the lead engineer on the 787 program and a man BusinessWeek recently called a “plane genius,” announced his retirement from the Boeing Co. on Wednesday.

His 40-year-career at Boeing included work on every plane from the 707 to the 787. In an internal memo, Boeing 787 program chief Mike Bair praised Gillette, saying he has “prepared us for success.”

“The 787 will be a big part of Walt’s legacy,” Bair continued, “and I know the team will not let him down.”

Gillette has played a key role with the 787 program as vice president of airplane development for the new jet. In that role, he led the engineers from Boeing and its partner companies who are designing and developing the Dreamliner, which is the fastest-selling new plane in company history.

Before that, he led the effort to develop Boeing’s proposed Sonic Cruiser. That plane never got beyond the planning stages, but much of the technology proposed for the high-speed jet – including next-generation engines and composite materials – has been incorporated into the 787.

But Gillette’s legacy at Boeing goes beyond the 787. He was chief project engineer for the 777 program, and an early advocate of using twin-engine jets on transoceanic routes, which led to Boeing’s 767 becoming a market leader among transatlantic airlines in the 1980s.

BusinessWeek also noted that one of Gillette’s first major contributions came in the late ’70s, when he applied the then-new concepts of computational fluid dynamics to figure out how to attach new engines to the 737.

Gillette’s findings improved the aerodynamics of the plane, which has gone on to become a top seller for Boeing and the backbone of low-fare carriers such as Southwest Airlines.

Gillette’s retirement comes as the emphasis of the 787 program shifts from design work to production, Bair noted. Reflecting this, Gillette’s leadership role will shift to Scott Strode, who is vice president of airplane production for the program.

“Walt has been a tremendous leader on this program and in previous assignments,” Bair said. “Many of us have learned both technical and personal skills by listening to him and watching how he worked. He will be missed.”

In a 2003 interview with The Associated Press, Gillette professed to still be awed by the aircraft he helped to build.

“One of the most incredible experiences is to go out … and stand in the middle of full landing gear of a 747,” he said. “To stand there, right there under that big, fat, huge machine, and you think this thing goes 625 miles an hour and a little-bitty human brain … tells it exactly what to do and where to go, and it follows just like a docile family pet.”

He said he hoped to leave a mark on the world with the 787.

“The last (787) will probably leave revenue service sometime early in the 22nd century,” he told the AP. That is “long after all of us who will labor … to create the first 787 will have gotten our angel’s wings.”

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