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Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong says farewell to giant of aviation

Joe Sutter, who passed away at 95, was the chief engineer of the Boeing 747

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 1:30am

With the passing two weeks ago of Joe Sutter at the grand age of 95, the world of aviation lost a true legend and one of its most charismatic characters. While he may not have been a household name to those outside the industry, as the chief engineer who led the development of the Boeing 747, Joe, more than any other individual, was credited with revolutionising air travel during the latter decades of the 20th century.

The 747 was the original jumbo jet and without question the most iconic and successful commercial aircraft of all time. Its impact – on people, airlines, trade and even the global economy – has been extraordinary. It was the aircraft that changed the world.

When it was first introduced more than five decades ago, the 747 was by far and away the biggest airliner ever built. Capable of flying upwards of 500 passengers (two and a half times as many as its predecessor, the 707) for hitherto unmatched distances, the aircraft allowed airlines to reach new destinations and carry more people. Flying, while not exactly cheap, was no longer solely the preserve of the well-heeled; with the 747, the very idea of transcontinental travel stopped being just a dream. This was certainly the case here in Hong Kong, where the number of passengers flying to and from the old Kai Tai Airport grew tremendously. No wonder past Boeing president, William Allen, dubbed Joe and his team “The Incredibles”.

The 747 was physically enormous, but so too were the financial risks that came with it. In order to build the airplane, Boeing constructed the world’s largest building at its production facility at Everett near Seattle and reportedly plowed more than US$1 billion in up-front investment, an unfeasibly large sum of money in the late 1960s. It has been speculated that if the project failed, it would take the company down with it.

To say the gamble paid off would of course be an understatement. Such was the ingenuity and determination of Joe and those around him that it took just 29 months from the aircraft’s conception to rollout – an astonishingly short time. But even more importantly for Boeing, the airlines loved it. The “Queen of the Skies”, with its distinctive hump atop the fuselage, which in the early years contained a bar and lounge for first class passengers before being replaced by additional seats, was born.

Every airline worth its salt has at some point in their history operated the 747, which first visited Hong Kong on 11 April, 1970 with Pan American Airways, the aircraft’s launch customer. Its superior operating economics aside, to have the aircraft in your fleet was a mark of prestige. Pilots waxed lyrical about its handling abilities, declaring it a joy to fly, while cabin crew, used to the cramped surrounds of smaller aircraft, more than welcomed its spacious environment. Over 1,500 747s have been delivered, which is far more than any other wide-body jet, and until the introduction of the Airbus A380 in late 2007, it remained the largest passenger aircraft in production.

Cathay Pacific acquired its first 747 in 1979 – the aircraft arriving in Hong Kong following an 11-hour flight from Seattle, then the longest ever delivery flight made by a 747 – and it has since played a vital role in transforming the company from a primarily regional carrier into the global airline it is today. Cathay and the 747 made more history in 1998, when flight CX889 from New York became the first revenue service to land at the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. But that wasn’t all. As the first to operate a direct route over the North Pole and previously prohibited Russian airspace, the flight, which was dubbed “Polar One”, also set a new non-stop distance record of 7,465 nautical miles, which it covered in a little over 15 and a half hours.

Joe lived and breathed aviation, so much so that as recently as the first week of August, he hosted a party at his home on the shores of Puget Sound for a team from Cathay which who had just taken delivery of a new 747 freighter. Captain Mark Hoey, Cathay’s general manager of operations, was among those in attendance and knew Joe well.

“Although he was 95 you’d never think of him as an old man – he was as sharp as a tack and his passion for the 747 was as strong as ever,” recalls Mark.

Joe was a regular visitor to Hong Kong and over the years attended several fleet parties organised by Cathay that were held around significant events.

“Joe loved coming to Hong Kong – it was a city that fascinated him,” continues Mark. “He was always very gracious to Cathay Pacific and was very generous with his time and support for our staff.

“He was one of the great aviation figureheads of the 20th century and his knowledge was simply incredible. He likely forgot more about aviation than the rest of us will ever know.”

They say that all good things must come to end, and this will be the case when Cathay bids farewell to its last passenger 747 at the end of the month, when the aircraft operates it final revenue service – from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Hong Kong.

On a personal note, my memories of watching this majestic aircraft make a right-hand turn at Checkerboard Hill, before descending low over Kowloon City and landing at Kai Tak will never fade, which I know is something that is also shared by a great many Cathay staff and aviation enthusiasts from around the world.

When the 747 does finally disappear from the world’s airports and airways to take a well-earned retirement, it, like Joe, will be greatly missed by a great many people.

Arnold Cheng is director of corporate affairs at Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong