The Armchair Pilot suggests …. Building a Jumbo Jet
Published May 2013
That would make for an interesting tale at the bar:
“I’m building my own plane from plans at home in the lounge”
“Oh, what sort?”
”A 747. Just put an ad up on AFORS looking for four Pratt & Whitney JT9Ds”
“Isn’t it going to be a bit big for your place?”
“Nah, I’ve opened the double doors through to the dining room. She’’ll be right”
I’ve only been on a Boeing 747 twice, and for me it wasn’t how big they were that surprised me but how fast they go.
The Airbus A340 is no small beast, but as it heads down the runway you sit aboard thinking “Ah, I think we’re taxiing all the way”. Suddenly the noise of the tyres thumping the white lines abates, and slowly…ever so slowly…you climb away.
Leaving JFK on a BA 747 one evening our captain, “Nigel”, told us we’d have a short run down runway 31L followed by a left turn before Manhattan. And so it was. Brakes off, and in no time at all we’re up looking way down at the skyscrapers around Wall Street. I got to experience that acceleration again later that night as only a few feet off Heathrow 09L, “Nigel” decided that we’d go up again and take a spin around leafy Berkshire. “Chap in front hadn’t got far enough off the runway so we played it safe”. I sometimes think BA has a special breeding centre for its “Nigels” and “Mikes” especially to create that sanguine delivery from the cockpit.
Latterly I was given the book “747: Creating the world’s first jumbo jet and other adventures from a life in aviation” by Joe Sutter, and it helps to explain why Nigel could belt our 747 around the sky with impunity.
Joe Sutter was the lead engineer tasked with delivering the 747 for Boeing. As a flying book, there isn’t much for the practical pilot save the short-field landing on only 5000 feet of runway at Boeing’s facility at Renton where the test pilot, desperate to use every inch of the runway, comes in too low and clips the seawall at the end where the runway butts up to the lake next door leaving most of the starboard undercarriage in the water. However as a book about how Boeing does business and designs airplanes, it has a lot to enjoy.
Inevitably the book starts with Joe Sutter’s early years including his Navy experience as an engineer. As pilots we are taught about the perils of icing, but his wartime experience of icing at sea aboard the destroyer USS Edward H Allen suggests we are not alone. With the weight of icing causing severe listing, combined with the lack of foot and handholds making it unsafe to go on deck and chip it off, the only option available was to go to full power and try to steer a course to keep the ship as upright as possible. Eventually arriving at a safe port, the frozen carcass of the ship needed extensive defrosting and totally rewiring around the decks as the expanding ice had ripped out the cables.
But I digress. The start of the book describes Boeing’s history as an aircraft manufacturer constantly in the shadow of Douglas and Lockheed despite making technology leaps such as the pressurised cabin that allowed Boeing aircraft to fly passengers much higher, and thus in more comfort, away from the weather, than rivals. Joining Boeing to work as an engineer on the B47, and then the B52 jet bombers, Sutter describes the gestation and delivery of the Boeing B707 jetliner that turned around Boeing’s fortunes, and lead to the “smaller” B727.
Given the history and roaring success of the Jumbo Jet, it comes as a surprise to find out the 747 was not the lead project in the Boeing organisation at the point that Sutter was appointed to lead the project. Boeing had unsuccessfully bid for the US Air Force contract to build a large transport, the contract being awarded to Lockheed for what became the C5 Galaxy. Boeing itself was developing the 727 into the 737, and the best minds in the organisation were working on a competitor to Concorde, the Boeing 2707 or “SST”
Sutter found himself appointed almost as the “least worst man for the job” onto the team that had worked on the Air Force transport with a view to seeing if a commercial product could be made, and found himself continuing with the battles for resources for most of the development of the 747.
Given the success of the 707, it’s not a surprise that the original plan for the Jumbo was to use what was effectively two 707 fuselages stacked in a double decker arrangement. The design for the single deck “wide body” arrangement took a lot or work to convince everyone that it was feasible, Sutter having a wooden mock-up of a large part of the proposed design built so that customers could experience it to see the advantages.
The greatest risk to the project, other than being treated as relatively low key by Boeing for a large proportion of the design period and thus short of the resources needed, were the engines. For some reason, a big airplane needs big engines to get it off the ground, and none existed at that time that were anywhere near powerful enough. The Air Force C5 Galaxy project had General Electric designing engines for it, but the 747 was designed for a much faster cruise speed than the C5, at which speed the GE power plants were not satisfactory. Sutter describes the political pressures around the engine choice, and how Pratt & Whitney were selected to design powerful enough engines, but how delivering the engines proved a problem throughout the whole development of the 747.
Ultimately the engine problems were resolved, but at the time that the pre-production 747 was embarking on sales trips, it was flying with the only four usable engines available anywhere, and the fact that it actually arrived on its first long journey with all four still operational was a relief to the engineering team.
Given all of the problems that Boeing is experiencing with the new 787 at the time of writing this piece, Joe Sutter’s book on the 747 provides some insight into how Boeing operated at that time and how some of the practices that have ultimately lead to the current problems with the 787 actually came to emerge, The book is ghost written for Sutter by Jay Spenser, and some of the prose is very sugary, but it still shows how making a commercial airplane is not just about engineering, but the commercial and political needs.
Last time I looked, Boeing has a new version of the 747 under development. With Joe Sutter’s book as background, it’s nice to see what was originally an “underdog project” still going strong.