Walt Gillette with his wife Saundra Cope at their home in Everett. Walt was a lead engineer on the 787. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Walt Gillette with his wife Saundra Cope at their home in Everett. Walt was a lead engineer on the 787. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

787 will always be part of Everett story, lead engineer says

Walt Gillette and Saundra Cope are now Boeing retirees with focus on local arts, culture and children.

On that glorious day, July 8, 2007 — yes, it was 7/8/7 — Walt Gillette and his wife Saundra Cope were in the crowd at the Everett Boeing plant. They weren’t up front with the VIPs when the first 787 Dreamliner was rolled out for thousands to see.

Gillette’s work was done. The man BusinessWeek had described as “Just Plane Genius” retired in 2006.

“My last business card said ‘Vice President, 787 Airplane Development.’ My responsibilities included the design and the global partnering,” Gillette said Wednesday. On Thursday, the Boeing Co. announced that it’s moving all production of the 787 to South Carolina next year, shutting down the Dreamliner assembly line in Everett.

Gillette, who lives with his wife in an historic north Everett home, wouldn’t comment on Boeing’s plan to move all 787 production to the South Carolina plant the company opened in 2011.

“Those are business and technical decisions,” he said. “I hung up my Boeing suit 14 years ago.”

What he did share Wednesday were thoughts on the 787, an efficient twin-aisle wonder with large passenger-cabin windows, the first jetliner made mostly from composite materials. The 787’s global supply chain also made the project unique, with parts developed and delivered from contractors as far flung as Japan and Italy.

Crediting the plane’s many creators, Gillette said he always rejected being seen as the father of the 787, despite his key role. That role had him leading engineers from Boeing and its partner companies.

“It’s a great achievement by a very large global team,” Gillette said. “Tens of thousands of global minds melded” to create the 787, he said, and “major partners did a substantial portion of the detailed design.”

In creating an all-new airplane design, he said, “you’re not thinking of a legacy. You’re thinking of getting people where they want to go safely and comfortably.”

He talked, too, about the lifespan of an airplane design. The Boeing 747, still scheduled to be built in Everett through 2022, began flying passengers in 1970. Gillette said “747s will be flying another 20 years,” and he estimates that half of those who will ever fly on a 787 have yet to be born.

Cope also had a major role with Boeing.

“I was in supplier management — procurement,” said Cope, who retired a couple months before her husband in 2006.

Rather than thinking of their departure from Boeing as retirement, Gillette said, “we moved forward and repurposed our focus.” That focus is on the arts, and on local organizations that serve children.

In 2019, Cope and Gillette were honored by the city of Everett with the Richard Wendt Award of Excellence, given annually to a person or organization for outstanding support of the arts. The couple are major supporters of Everett’s cultural scene, having contributed to the Schack Art Center, The Dance School and the Imagine Children’s Museum. The Village Theatre’s KidStage youth education venue, now the Cope Gillette Theatre, is named in their honor.

“I believe when you receive, you must give back,” Cope said Thursday.

Gillette, in a Herald interview before receiving the Wendt award, said travels with Boeing gave them a global perspective on the arts, with visits to museums and theaters in other countries.

“We want to support the community,” Cope said. The theater, the children’s museum and the dance school, she said, are helping to raise the next generation with an appreciation for the arts.

Seeing art as “the wellspring of our humanity,” Gillette noted that from cave drawings made thousands of years ago to Shakespeare’s plays and classical music, “empires rise and fall, dynasties come and go, but art endures.”

Cope said their extensive restoration of their huge 1906 home across from Everett’s Grand Avenue Park was another way of honoring the community and its history. In 1998, they bought what’s now known as the Charles D. Fratt house, a 7,800-square-foot, three-story, butter-yellow home built in the Craftsman style. Fratt, secretary and treasurer with Robinson Manufacturing Co. on the Everett waterfront, was prominent in lumber and banking.

The park itself is part of the home’s history. According to a 2009 Herald article, Fratt agreed to build there if the city would dedicate land across the street along the bluff as a park, although it was originally plotted for houses. In 2003, the couple’s house was recognized with the Everett Historical Commission’s William F. Brown Award, named for an early local preservationist. In 2009 it was part of Historic Everett’s annual home tour, and is on the group’s walking tour.

Walt Gillette with his wife Saundra Cope at their home in Everett. Walt was a lead engineer on the 787. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Walt Gillette with his wife Saundra Cope at their home in Everett. Walt was a lead engineer on the 787. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Gillette is certain the 787, too, will be linked to Everett’s history.

The eyes of the world were on Everett the day of the plane’s rollout in 2007. The splashy event was seen in person by 15,000 invited guests at the Everett plant, plus thousands more watching on a large screen at Qwest Field, now CenturyLink, in Seattle. With journalist Tom Brokaw as emcee, it was broadcast in nine languages to 45 countries.

On stage in 2007 were top Boeing executives. Among them was Mike Bair, then the 787 program’s vice president and general manager. Bair had been quoted in a 2006 Herald article about Gillette’s retirement. The article, by then-Herald writer Bryan Corliss, cited an internal memo in which Bair praised Gillette: “The 787 will be a big part of Walt’s legacy,” it said.

In his 40-year career, Gillette worked on every Boeing plane from the 707 to the 787.

Gillette on Wednesday credited the many.

“The 787 chief project engineer, a direct report to me, was Tom Cogan. There were lots of chief engineers — systems, structures, payloads, etc.,” he said by email.

In the shop of their 114-year-old home, 787 models hang over Gillette’s work desk, sharing space with a model of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer and other airplanes.

Before the 787 project, in the early 2000s, Gillette’s baby was the Sonic Cruiser. He was vice president and general manager of that Boeing program. The futuristic, high-speed, delta-wing aircraft was abandoned by the company in 2002, but some of its elements — carbon fiber-reinforced plastic fuselage and wings — were carried forward by Gillette and others in the 787, initially called the 7E7.

Airplane design has been his life, but Gillette thinks of flight as a poet might.

He spoke of takeoff, and the exhilarating moment — for those of us who don’t fear flying — when a plane is first aloft.

“The goal of the airplane designer is to continue this magical feeling of being airborne for the rest of the journey,” Gillette said. “One of the goals of the Dreamliner design team was to achieve this.”

Cope and Gillette believe in Boeing’s future in Everett, beyond the 787.

“We can all sit down and mourn the 787. Or, going forward, how do we make a success of that huge kite factory?” she said, using her nickname for the Everett plant. “We still have airplanes. It’s a very big facility,” said Cope, adding that perhaps the next model will be built here.

“Emotionally, it breaks my heart,” she said of Everett losing 787 production. “Intellectually, I can understand it, and accept this as a way to keep Boeing alive.”

For Gillette, the 787 will always be part of Everett’s story.

“The airplane itself, how it was created,” he said, “Everett was the center of this magnificent flying machine.”

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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