‘Queen of the Skies’ made the Earth seem smaller

“You just made me a millionaire.”

With that sentiment, along with hugs and kisses, a man greeted an American aerospace engineer in a South American airport.

“You made me a millionaire.”

Legendary Boeing Co. engineer Joe Sutter, recalling that encounter in a recent interview, said he initially didn’t understand the exuberant man’s statement.

As far as he knew, the two had never met. The man grew flowers in Colombia; Sutter designed jets for Boeing.

That didn’t matter.

Until Sutter’s jumbo jet took flight in 1969, the Colombian could only sell his flowers locally, meaning as far as the plants could be transported by vehicle. But the 747 changed things – for trade, for travelers, for world culture.

Sutter’s plane might be nicknamed “Queen of the Skies,” but people familiar with the industry, with the era, refer to the 747 with a different description: the plane that brought the world closer together.

For Snohomish County residents, the 747 brought Boeing to Everett. For Boeing, the Queen of the Skies carried the company to the forefront of the commercial aviation.

“I don’t think anybody can imagine where aviation would be without the 747,” Sutter said.

Everything about the 747 is big: its history, its size, its impact.

In the early 1960s, world travel and cargo transport consisted of ships and a growing number of 100- to 200-seat aircraft, including Boeing’s 707 and 727 jets.

Pan American World Airways’ Juan Trippe saw congested airports as a cry for a bigger passenger plane, one that could fly passengers en masse from New York to Paris, from Los Angeles to Boston, from Seattle to Singapore.

As the first official Boeing 747 employee, Sutter was to look into the prospect of building a jumbo jet like Trippe suggested.

“We really didn’t know much about the plane,” Sutter said.

Forty years after those first workers arrived in Everett to build the original 747, the world knows a lot more about it.

During its lifetime, the Queen of the Skies’ fleet has carried the equivalent of roughly half of the world’s population on flights.

In terms of cargo, 747s haul more freight, such as the Colombian man’s flowers, than any other jet in the world. And, as members of the Pacific Asia Travel Association told Sutter when the inducted him in their Galley of Legends, the 747 did more for opening Asia up to the world than anything else.

“It’s probably the most recognized plane in the world,” said Dan Becker, former site manager for Boeing’s Everett facility.

And it definitely made Boeing a familiar name in terms of air travel.

Until Airbus designed its 555-passenger A380 “superjumbo” jet, Boeing’s 747 enjoyed a monopoly in the market for large aircraft for more than 35 years, said Paul Nisbet, JSA Research in Rhode Island.

“It’s been the major aircraft for international travel for some time now,” Nisbet said.

Financially, that allowed Boeing to reap the benefits associated with setting its own pricing for the jumbo jet.

Both Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas responded to Boeing’s jumbo. Unfortunately for the two plane-makers, Nisbet said, they came up with the same design in Lockheed’s L1011 and McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10. Neither plane was profitable for its manufacturer, playing into Boeing’s hands.

Boeing gambled big with the 747, tying up most of its money in the project, Sutter said.

Had the 747 failed, Sutter said, the company might not have survived. Instead, the Queen of the Skies continues to flourish, with roughly 1,500 orders for the plane to date.

John Quinlivan, who managed the Everett site from 2001 to 2004, points out how much the 747 has changed since the first one was built.

“You can say it’s the same plane, but it isn’t,” he said.

Boeing reinvented the plane with its 400 series and is revamping it again for the 747-8, a version that incorporates technology that will be used in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to take its first flight next year.

“It’s very flexible in its design,” Sutter said. “The design has been able to absorb technology.”

Reflecting the 747’s significance to the worldwide freight industry, the planemaker launched the revamped 747-8 cargo plane first. It marked the first time that Boeing introduced a cargo plane before its companion passenger jet.

Together with the 747-8 Freighter’s early success, a recent order from German carrier Lufthansa launching the passenger version suggests the Queen of the Skies could enjoy another 20 to 30 years of production in Everett.

“The only way you’re going to have a successful airplane program is to stay around for a long time,” Sutter said.

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