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As Airbus toils, Boeing's 747 chief looks back with pride
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As Airbus toils, Boeing’s 747 chief looks back with pride
by David Dieudonne 
Copyright Observer News
WASHINGTON, Nov 9, 2006 

The crisis engulfing Airbus as it struggles to roll out its A380 superjumbo brings back memories for the man who was in charge of Boeing’s 747 project.
The development of the original jumbo jet was overseen by Boeing chief engineer Joseph Sutter, who recalled that the US aviation giant flirted with bankruptcy in the early 1970s after taking an enormous gamble on the 747.
‘‘For these first several years, it was very tight for Boeing to meet their payroll and keep the operations going,’’ Sutter, who is now 85, said in an telephone interview.
‘‘The 747 was strictly a commercial effort and Boeing didn’t have enough of their own money. They were heavily involved with the banks and there were times when the banks were saying, ’there is nothing more’,’’ he said.
‘‘If the airlines did not accept the airplane, if some of the orders were cancelled, it could very well be that ... you go into bankruptcy.’’
But Boeing did not fail. In fact, it thrived as the 747 became a global success embraced by airlines and freight carriers around the world.
Airbus will be hoping that the A380 follows a similar trajectory, but so far the superjumbo has had an even more chequered development than the 747.
The A380 is now two years behind schedule because of production headaches, and on Monday, US cargo giant FedEx cancelled 10 orders for the plane’s freighter version in preference for Boeing cargo planes.
Airlines around the world, angered at the delays to a plane on which Airbus is staking its future, have demanded compensation and the freighter version could now be in doubt after the FedEx withdrawal.
‘‘When you develop a programme like the 747, or build a big bridge, or build the A380, nothing is ever perfect,’’ Sutter observed.
‘‘You run into technical difficulties, you run into budget difficulties, you run into schedule difficulties. It’s a fight all the way to meet all your commitments,’’ he said.
However, as Sutter notes with pride, Boeing managed to get the 747 in the air for its first commercial flight with the now-defunct Pan Am in 1970, just four years after the project was first conceived.
In response to Pan Am’s request for a jumbo plane to meet rising demand for air travel during the 1960s, about 50,000 Boeing workers nicknamed ‘‘The Incredibles’’ toiled to build the largest civilian plane in less than 16 months.
‘‘The orders were slow for two, three, four years, but there were no cancellations,’’ Sutter said, while also noting that he remained in charge of the 747 project throughout.
‘‘I think in the A380 programme there were several changes of leadership. When somebody new takes over, he first has to look at what was left behind and you don’t immediately change everything.
‘‘I thing that does change the focus on what you are trying to achieve.’’
The chief engineer also maintains that the 747 met a clear commercial need at the time, evoking Boeing’s objection that airlines now need smaller, more fuel-efficient planes rather than behemoths like the new Airbus.
‘‘I think in the case of the A380, it wasn’t just commercial reasons for the airplane, I think it was a desire to build something bigger than a 747,’’ he said.
‘‘When the 747 came into being ... not too many people were flying and then the 747 came alone and reduced ticket prices by about 30 percent so many, many more people could fly.
‘‘So it was a revolution, and that revolution has gone now, it’s more an evolutionary process.’’

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