Sunday, 7 February 2010

Book Review: 747, by Joe Sutter (2006)

Joe Sutter was the head of the team that developed the 747 Jumbo Jet at Boeing, in the late 1960's and early 1970's. As the first twin-aisle widebody jet, the 747 revolutionized both passenger travel and air freight shipments around the globe. The 747 spawned a host of variants and derivatives, customized for specific uses, and remains in production today.

Sutter's book provides excellent insight into the aviation industry, and although the story of the 747 is the central focus of the book, Sutter nicely places his career in perspective with several childhood stories that establish his early love for aviation engineering. He grew up a stone's throw away from Boeing's airfields in Seattle, and during his childhood observed the latest innovations in airline design, both successful and not so successful, taking off, landing (or sometimes crashing), and being tested literally at his doorstep.

He also provides insight into his experience in World War II, and his role as a young engineer on many of the significant jets that were developed at Boeing prior to the 747, such as the 707 and the 727. From his earlier experiences he highlights the critical lessons learned in people management skills as well as in overcoming some of the most difficult aeronautical challenges of the jet age.

Sutter manages the difficult task of describing highly technical issues in language that is accessible but that remains respectful of the engineering involved. He also excels in telling the specific story of the 747's development, recounting the corporate, technical, and personal challenges that had to be patiently overcome, and explaining how some of the most critical decisions came about. Highlights include deciding to develop a widebody instead of the widely expected double-decker, and the challenge of building one of the largest, most complex and most successful jets ever while actually being perceived as the distant third priority at Boeing -- a company which happened to be at the brink of bankruptcy.

Sutter was obviously a brilliant engineer and a highly effective team leader and problem solver. In his eighties when he put this story on paper, the book is written in a functional engineer's style, and although Jay Spenser is credited as a co-writer, 747 the book would have benefited from a lot more editing to add the artistic storytelling flavour that is clearly not Sutter's strength -- and to eliminate some endless repetition. The story of the 747's development is filled with larger-than-life secondary characters (including the heads of Boeing and Pan American Airlines) and critical, tense events that are unfortunately portrayed in the book for the most part with a bland dryness that can only be conjured up by an engineer.

Sutter's story is an embodiment of many of the principles described in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. The confluence of events that resulted in him being placed at the helm of the 747 program, from his date and place of birth to the experience that he gained on the earliest Boeing jet airliners, ensured that he was in charge of a remarkable achievement and delivered an extraordinarily successful airplane that positively affected the lives of millions around the globe.

Subtitled: Creating The World's First Jumbo Jet And Other Adventures From A Life In Aviation. 265 pages plus Index. Published in paperback by Smithsonian Books - Collins.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 31.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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