On the 100th anniversary, company veterans from machinist to CEO talk about key moments in their time at Boeing.
Mention the name “Boeing,” and the first image that invariably comes to mind is of a streamlined aircraft soaring overhead to some far-off destination.
Yet behind each airplane is a team of people — currently 165,000 in 65 countries. Their collective efforts have kept Boeing at the forefront of aviation for 100 years.
In these three segments, ten longtime Boeing people — from machinists to engineering legends to CEOs — talk about what working at the company has meant to them and how Boeing has evolved during their careers.
Phil Condit, chairman and CEO
No leader had a bigger impact on the shape of Boeing today.
In the 1990s, Phil Condit transformed Boeing with major space and defense acquisitions, most significantly merging with rival defense contractor McDonnell Douglas.
Right after that 1997 merger, the Puget Sound-area assembly plants suffered a major production crisis when the parts supply chain choked and Boeing lost money for the first time in half a century.
Many Boeing employees in the Puget Sound region felt a deep culture shock as the historical focus on engineering excellence seemed to give way to a fixation on financial results.
Local workers blamed the merger for the colder corporate culture that followed and still darkly joke that “McDonnell bought Boeing with Boeing’s money.”
During that period, Boeing also repeatedly backed away from launching new jets and allowed rival Airbus to rise to parity.
In 2001, Condit moved Boeing headquarters from Seattle to Chicago.
In an interview at his home in Indian Wells, Calif., Condit, now 75, defended his legacy.
The merger with McDonnell Douglas “accomplished the thing that we were after, which is to be able to have scale on both Commercial and Military,” he said.
And the focus on financial results is just stone-cold reality, Condit said.
“You’re not in the game for fun,” he said. “The thing that allows you to stay alive is that you make money.
“Boeing came within an eyelash of bankruptcy on the 747 program,” Condit added. “Had the company not pulled through that one, Seattle would have been a lot different place.”
Moving the corporate headquarters was necessary, he said, to separate his strategic decision-making from the operations of any particular business unit.
Does the resentment this caused in Seattle bother him?
“I wish it were different,” Condit said. “It doesn’t change the outcome.”
Condit resigned in 2003 after the tanker-procurement scandal that sent Boeing Chief Financial Officer Mike Sears to jail for illegally offering a job to the top Air Force procurement officer.
Condit said although an investigation cleared him personally of wrongdoing, in the aftermath “some critical people” in the government would no longer return his calls, making his position as head of Boeing untenable.
Yet Condit insisted he’s proud of his long Boeing career.
“I have no regrets at all,” Condit said. “With the joy always comes some tough spots.”
Joe Sutter, “Father of the 747”
Physically frail but mentally sharp, Joe Sutter, 95, still goes to his office once a week, 70 years after he left the Navy following World War II and joined Boeing.
At that time, top engineer George Schairer was sharing within Boeing the intelligence gathered from a postwar U.S. scientific mission to Europe that had uncovered definitive Nazi research on using swept wings and jet engines on aircraft.
Most Read Business Stories
- Workers start paying for Washington’s new paid-leave law next month. Here’s how it works.
- Apple to expand Seattle office to more than 1,000 workers
- Costco posts strong results but faces margin scrutiny
- Paul Allen’s estate gives $125 million to set up immunology institute
- Apple to build new Austin hub, expand in other tech hotbeds VIEW
While executives at Douglas and Lockheed were locked into their propeller-plane designs, Sutter said, Boeing’s top leadership “realized this was the future.”
Boeing invested heavily to develop America’s first commercial jet, building its own advanced wind tunnel to speed the research and a prototype technology demonstrator plane known as the -80.
Sutter flew on early demonstration flights with airline officials. “Most of them, after just one flight, became convinced Boeing had the right answer,” he said.
The 707 followed, featuring swept wings and jet engines attached to the wings on pods, a design that fixed the basic shape of jet airliners from then until today.
Sutter helped design the 737, earning a patent for the way the engines were placed tightly under the wings.
Then in 1965, Sutter began a study of a new long-distance jet. Built to a new gigantic scale, the initial model would carry two and a half times as many passengers as the 707.
To get the first 747 jumbo jet into the air in February 1969, he fought technical and corporate battles.
Though assembly of the airplane was set for Everett, one Boeing executive made a strong play to locate the engineering team in Walnut Creek, Calif.
At a meeting to which Sutter was invited only at the last minute, he insisted this wouldn’t work. “The engineers have to be with the production people,” he told the audience of financial and business-side executives. “Man, I was persona non grata,” Sutter jokes.
When development money was tight and Boeing Chairman Bill Allen requested cuts, Sutter insisted to all the top brass in a tense meeting that cutting his team of 4,500 engineers by 1,000 heads would ruin the program.
Sutter walked out of that meeting certain he would be fired. But he kept his job, and so did all his engineers.
He also had to win customers over. He persuaded Juan Trippe, the head of 747 launch customer Pan Am, to let go of his wish for a double-decker aircraft in favor of Sutter’s alternative concept, with an interior wider than anyone had ever seen. To sell Trippe on the idea, Boeing built a plywood mock-up.
“Trippe goes up the ladder into the wide single deck and fell in love with it. You didn’t have to do any more selling,” said Sutter.
The 747 established Sutter as an engineering legend and Boeing as the world leader in commercial aviation.
Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, test pilot
Eager to be a pilot from as early as she can remember, Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann first joined Boeing as an engineer, then switched to the company’s flight-training unit “because it was one step closer to flying.”
Appointed to her “dream job” in her early 30s, the first woman test pilot at Boeing, Darcy-Hennemann shrugs off her status as a pioneer, though back then she was referred to as a “girl” among all the men.
“What we all had in common was we were passionate about flying,” she said. “Once the guys were convinced I was equally passionate and capable, it didn’t matter that I was 5’ 4’’, blond and a girl.”
In her earliest days as a test pilot, Darcy-Hennemann believed she needed to somehow match the shirt-and-tie regime of her male colleagues. So she stepped on board a 767 to do her first stall testing on a jet wearing a $7 string of faux pearls from Nordstrom.
With her belt slightly loosened so she could easily reach out to the control panel, as the tests proceeded she experienced buffeting for the first time — violent shaking that had her bouncing up and down in her seat and those faux pearls “beating me in the face.”
The lesson learned: “Test pilots don’t wear pearls. I never wore jewelry on the flight deck again.”
As senior test pilot for the 777-200LR, Boeing’s ultra-long-range jet, she captained its first flight, something few pilots get to do. “You kind of pinch yourself,” she said.
On that 2005 flight, she could relax only when the jet circled Mount Rainier as chase planes shot photos, “a moment of perfection,” she said.
Later that year, she captained the 777-200LR on Boeing’s world-distance-record flight, nonstop from Hong Kong to London flying eastward. The 13,423-mile flight took 22 hours and 42 minutes and smashed the old record.
Darcy-Hennemann, now 63, said she was never scared doing the often dramatic experimental tests.
But once, at Edwards Air Force Base, having just performed a test involving an engine failure on the takeoff run, she joined a photographer at the side of the runway to watch a colleague do one more run-through. From that viewpoint, she saw the massive plane swerve off the centerline and momentarily careen toward her. That looked scary.
“When you are the person doing it, you are totally focused on the job,” said Darcy-Hennemann. “But watching from the outside, oh my gosh.”