EVERETT, Wash. - Boeing Co.’s 7E7 jet, if launched as planned, will be the 25th commercial airplane model unveiled by the Western world, and the 11th jet from Boeing or McDonnell Douglas.
It also will be the last for engineer Walt Gillette, who in 37 years with Boeing has worked on nearly all the company’s commercial jets, from the 707 to the 777.
‘‘I’m older than dirt,’’ said Gillette, 61, who jokes that his very first plane project was the one flown by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Gillette is now leading the design and development of the super-efficient 7E7 that Boeing hopes to enter into service in 2008 — one year after Gillette expects to retire. The company’s board of directors will decide whether to go ahead with the program by early 2004.
To the layperson, building airplanes seems to require a suspension of doubt if not an all-out suspension of gravity. How can a couple of engines and the mysterious physics of thrust, lift and drag help several tons of aluminum soar almost halfway around the world at speeds of 600 miles an hour?
It’s still a wonder to Gillette, too.
‘‘One of the most incredible experiences is to go out . . . and stand (in) the middle of full landing gear of a 747,’’ Gillette said. ‘‘To stand there, right there under that big fat huge machine, and you think this thing goes 625 miles an hour and a little bitty human brain . . . tells it exactly what to do and where to go, and it follows just like a docile family pet.’’
Gillette has long been fascinated by making things soar.
Born in Texas, Gillette, known for his dry wit and indepth knowledge on any subject, developed an interest in planes as a child. His uncle, a B-17 pilot in World War II, came back home with captivating stories.
But it wasn’t so much the war itself that fascinated him; it was the power of the plane.
‘‘Our airplanes are not only machines — they are peace makers,’’ Gillette said. ‘‘Because nothing is going to achieve world peace in the long term like, we travel and we walk each other’s streets and we visit each other’s homes and we sit in a sidewalk cafe in some other country and we watch people go by. It completely demystifies other cultures.’’
He went on to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his bachelor of science and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering while also spending three summers working on the Apollo space program with NASA. He joined Boeing in 1966 as a research engineer in the Aerodynamics Research unit of the company’s commercial airplane division.
In the 1970s, Gillette worked on the 707, 727 and 737 jets. He was part of the original team on the 757, 737-300 and 777. In the 1990s, he was assigned to work on the 747 and 767 jets.
He also led the initial development of the 747X and the Sonic Cruiser — projects that Boeing abandoned in the past three years — before being assigned to lead development and design of the 7E7. But he has little sentimentality for what might have been.
‘‘Boeing prides itself on creating the airplane the world needs the most at that time,’’ Gillette said.
That next airplane, the company is betting, will be the 7E7.
As currently envisioned, the 7E7 will be a midsized, twin-aisle jet capable of longrange distance, 777-like speeds and the economics of 20 percent less fuel burn per passenger. It will offer more comfort than the 777, have the most advanced technology, set new standards for efficiency and ‘‘will demonstrate the most respect for the environment of any airplane we’ve ever undertaken,’’ Gillette said.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Alan Mulally said recently he is ‘‘pretty confident’’ that the 7E7 will be approved. ‘‘That airplane makes so much sense for the airlines in the world,’’ he said in an interview.
For now, Gillette’s development team is grappling with questions such as how large the engines should be, the size of the tail, and how much thrust is needed. More detailed design will begin in early 2005.
Mulally, who headed the 777 program, asked Gillette to lead the new jet’s systems development — everything from flight management to navigation guidance control and in-flight entertainment. Mulally said he valued not only Gillette’s technical expertise, but also his ability to create an atmosphere that ‘‘really fosters people to grow and take responsibility and help each other and work together.’’
That respect extends to engineers throughout the firm, said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. ‘‘He’s an engineer’s engineer,’’ he said of Gillette. ‘‘He’s not a glamour boy.’’
Gillette’s engineering impulses aren’t confined to work. He and his wife recently completed a full restoration of their 1904 house in Everett, a four-story mansion built by lumber mill owner Charles Fratt. The house, at risk of being demolished when they bought it several years ago, now is listed in the Everett Register of Historic Places.
It’s the same long-lasting mark that he hopes his work will have.
‘‘The flying machines we create have lives as long or longer than we humans,’’ Gillette said. ‘‘The last 7E7 will probably leave revenue service sometime early in the 22nd century, long after all of us who will labor over the next five years to create the first 7E7 will have gotten our angels’ wings.’’