Mile High Club

The Sexy Dream of the 747

Joe Sutter, 93, fathered one of the most important planes—and it would’ve been one of the most hedonistic if not for Boeing bean counters.

They might have played the Miss America anthem, “There She Is!” There was a line of gorgeous women lined up beside the world’s largest airplane and there, indeed, she was—it was she, the airplane that stole the show, the first Boeing 747 about to roll out from the plant. Boeing wanted nothing as racy as a Miss America pageant. Instead, there was a high school band striking up the Elgar march “Pomp and Circumstance.”

It was September 1968 at Paine Field, near Seattle. There were speeches, but not from Joe Sutter, who held back from the limelight. The 747 was his greatest work, but it would take time before people acknowledged that, but for him, the 747, eventually to become iconic as the Jumbo, might never have become the phenomenon it did, one of the world’s most incredible machines.

Joe Sutter is 93 now, silver-haired and moving a tad more slowly than he would like, but still pugnacious and sharp of tongue. Still little known outside the world of aviation, within it he is revered. Joe fathered the 747 when he was in his forties.

“Fathered” is a carefully considered term because no single person can ever take the credit for something as complex as this, with several million separate parts that are required to work flawlessly together. But in the way that people sometimes do, Joe rose above the tests of a nightmare schedule and incessant technical challenges to impose coherence, order and, eventually, success on what to many at the time seemed a reckless gamble that might well have destroyed a great company. (At one point in the program Joe was personally responsible for spending $5 million a day, the equivalent of $34 million today.)

I was with Joe, an old friend, last week in Seattle to celebrate the restoration of that very first 747. Like houses, airplanes rapidly deteriorate if they are not well maintained, especially in a place like Seattle with long, wet winters. Well after this 747 completed its work with test pilots it was used by Boeing as a kind of flying laboratory for any new stuff that needed to be proven in operational use, from cabin layouts to new generations of engines.

Finally, looking tired and very worn, it was donated to the magnificent Museum of Flight that sits alongside legendary Boeing Field in Seattle. This summer a team of museum volunteers, many of them current and past Boeing employees, gave the old ship a new coat of paint and painstakingly got its interior back to very near the raw shell it was, furnished only with technical work stations and consoles, when on February 9, 1969 it first left the ground.

It may be a cliché but it’s not an exaggeration to say that that was a day that changed the world. The 747 launched a new generation of global travel. It was 30 percent cheaper to operate than previous jets, and it carried twice as many people.

More than that, it was ultimate proof of a surpassing American technical achievement, the creation of the Jet Age. It was not just a machine but a universal phenomenon, the enabling of many millions of people to move around the globe with an ease and an economy that was quite new in the human experience.

That’s all easy to say now, but on that February day in 1969 nobody was fully confident that the 747 would perform as required. Brien Wygle, co-pilot on the first flight, was one of them. He joined Joe and me for the reunion with the airplane. And he confirmed that he was all too aware of what rode on that flight: not just the future of the company but the whole idea of a huge, wide-body airplane.

“In those days we had no simulators to learn how she would fly months ahead of a first flight,” he told me.

There had been continuous problems with the Pratt & Whitney engines. The test crew worked through 40 engines before finding four they thought were reliable enough to fit on the airplane for the maiden flight.

“We were on the edge with the engines,” Brien said. “Remember, like the airplane, the engines had never flown before, and we were not sure how they would respond as soon as we had the nose up.”

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But she surprised the test pilots—there were three, the chief test pilot Jack Waddell, Wygle and Jess Wallick. Wygle recalls: “From the beginning, the 747 was a very easy airplane to fly. On that first flight people worried when they saw us coming into land, we seemed to be flying far too slowly. But that was an effect of the size. It just looked that way but she was very steady and stable on approach, no problems at all.”

Once it was clear that the 747 was ready for passengers there was a frenzy of ideas about how to make the cabin as dramatic as its size promised—more than 19 feet wide it was nearly twice as broad as any previous jet, and the curvature was so much less at seat height that there was no longer any sense of it being a tube. Why not treat it like a luxurious hotel?

The cabin styling was in the hands of Frank Del Giudice, a designer based in New York at a company called Walter Dorwin Teague. This was, remember, New York in the sixties. Mad Men time. The new Manhattan aesthetic. Over-ornate, WASPish bars like the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel were giving way to cool modern like the restaurant at the Four Seasons designed by Philip Johnson with its “Picasso Alley” where hung the largest Picasso in the United States, a stage curtain painted for Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, insurrectionist art to go with an insurrectionist decade. Narrow ties, sideburns, and three-martini lunches.

To echo these tastes, the 747 ought to be the final, soaring avatar of the Jet Age, its cabins lifting the spirits of all who boarded, Del Giudice thought. He produced for the airlines awaiting delivery of 747 fleets sketches of the possibilities.

There was a first-class lounge with a sunken well and cocktail bar. The sofas were upholstered in a pattern that seemed drawn directly from Timothy Leary’s Magic Bus, a mash-up of psychedelic colors as intricate as Islamic calligraphy, giving a new dimension to the idea of an airplane trip. He added a touch of class with a library and a reading room and then, finally, he suggested the harbinger of all in-flight entertainment, a small cinema with a raked floor.

It was not to be. Where Del Giudice saw new space for sixties flash, the airline bean counters saw space for a lot more seats. Even in first class their preference was for clunky, La-Z-Boy like club seats with, at most, a cocktail bar that looked more like a hole in the wall dive. There were, to be sure, some flourishes of the politically-incorrect libido of the time. When the first 747 (the one now in the Museum of Flight) rolled out, it was photographed with 24 stewardesses (not called flight attendants then) lined up beneath it, each from an airline that had ordered 747s. Among the outfits was a sari and a kimono but most of the women had skirts ending just above the knee and some had the little pill-box hats similar to those Stanley Kubrick chose for the stewardesses on the Pan Am shuttle in his space masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s fascinating that an exercise in futurism like 2001 should influence and converge with a wholly tangible piece of futurism like the 747 really was when it went into service in 1970. In fact, the airplane and the movie were more or less simultaneous in conception (the movie opened in 1968).

Technically Kubrick’s imagination outpaced Boeing’s: the 747 was an analog machine. Sutter and his team designed it using slide rules, not computers, and on paper; the author of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, foresaw not just the future physics of space travel but computer-flown spaceships (and a malevolent computer called HAL that takes over.)

But it was harder to guess at the future of a flight attendant’s wardrobe when besotted with the sassy, cheeky mini skirts and hot pants of the sixties. (Last year’s blockbuster space epic Gravity had no flirtations with boutique designers. Sandra Bullock did have a subtly feminized space suit, less bulky than the real thing, and she was allowed to strip down to a sexy T-shirt, but her gear retained the unisex reality of NASA’s wardrobes. Definitely no pill-box hats.)

It’s easier to see now that the 747’s cabins could never have had the level of luxury (or decadence) that Del Giudice had scoped out. His was a dream that ended up being executed where space was not at such a high premium, on cruise ships.

It took the vision of an Asian airline chief to finally prove that the 747’s potential for bringing a new level of passenger pampering could be successfully matched with making big profits—and it was done by unashamedly touting the attractions of flight attendants in a way that no Western airline dared to.

In the course more than two decades as chairman beginning in 1972, a former civil servant called J. Y. “Joe” Pillay took Singapore Airlines from an obscure regional carrier with 12 airplanes to become an international benchmark for long-haul service. At the heart of that service were the Singapore Girls on the 747s—flight attendants in a slinky version of a sarong styled by the Paris designer Pierre Balmain. Sometimes the effect of the Girls was equated with Viagra, although their allure was carefully disciplined by strict guidelines of behavior.

Pillay used the 747 to deliver creature comforts, particularly for business travelers, that were previously unheard of. He ordered 747s with an extended top deck that were branded as “Big Tops” and Singapore Airlines more or less single-handedly forced competitors to up their game in every cabin. The airline was voted the world’s best by readers of Conde Nast Traveler for a record 22 years.

In 2012 Singapore flew its last 747 flight. The 747 has been replaced by the Airbus A380 superjumbo, more profitable to operate but singularly lacking the distinctive personality that the first jumbo gradually acquired. The airline’s executives paid tribute to the 747’s role as their flagship for more than 20 years—and the Singapore Girls, inextricable from the brand, remain as seductive as ever.

When I climbed a spiral staircase into the upper deck of the restored 747 in Seattle, there was a vestigial whiff of the original 1970s vibe. These first 747s had a short upper deck with only three windows on each side. In 1968, when Joe Sutter showed Juan Trippe, the visionary but acerbic creator of Pan Am, around the world’s first wide-body airplane, they went up the stairs so that Trippe could see the cockpit layout.

Turning away, Trippe saw the free space in the hump behind the flight deck and asked what it was for. Someone told him it was a crew rest area. “Rest area?” barked Trippe. “This is going to be reserved for passengers.”

The restoration crew researched and found that some of the early Pan Am 747s had used the space as a small cocktail lounge for first class passengers. They even found a pattern for the upholstery of the sofas. And there it was before my eyes—a real trip in those brain-buzzing LSD colors. Up, up and away!