Walt Gillette: Just Plane Genius

Gillette: A life-time designing safer, more efficient jets -- and making Boeing money

When Boeing Co.'s (BA ) newest plane, the 787 Dreamliner, takes off for the first time in 2008, it will open a new chapter in passenger flight. The first commercial jet to be built out of lightweight carbon composites, it will burn 20% less fuel than other jets its size and give passen-gers a quieter, more comfortable ride.

The creative force behind the Dreamliner is Walt Gillette, the same man who provided the technical and intellectual inspiration for every Boeing jet since the mid-1970s. Gillette plans to retire when the Dreamliner enters service, but the planes he created, including the 737, the 767, and the 777, will be hauling people around the globe well into the 21st century.

One early battle Gillette fought and won involved the use of twin engines for long-range flights. Back in the 1980s, three- and four-engine aircraft dominated flights between Europe and the U.S. Gillette insisted that a twin-engine 767 widebody would be just as safe. In a few short years, such jets replaced most other planes. "I think Walt is one of the most significant contributors to the efficiency and safety of the global transportation system," says Alan Mulally, CEO of Boeing's commercial airplane unit.

Gillette, 64, is a courtly, soft-spoken Texan who has been at Boeing since 1966. With two degrees in aerospace engineering, he embodies a culture of equal parts science and pragmatism. It was in the late 1970s that he solved his first significant aerodynamics problem. The fledgling Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV ) needed a small plane to break out of short hops and fly across country. Gillette used an analytical method called computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to crack the toughest design problems, including figuring out how to sling powerful new engines on the wings of a small 737. "Every time we tried to put one of those big fat nacelles [engine enclosures] close to the wing, we got terrible aerodynamic interference between the nacelle and the wing," Gillette recalled. "The extra drag made it unacceptable."

Gillette and his team traveled the world, looked at every nacelle installation, studied them with CFD, and came up with a formula that changed aviation history. "We found five things, which remain trade secrets," he said in an interview, "five features that no one had used in such a combination. It let us shove a big nacelle really close to the wing." At the time of the 737-300 launch in 1980, total projected sales were 300 airplanes. Boeing has since sold more than 5,000 of the narrowbody aircraft, making the 737 series the most popular commercial jetliner ever.

For all of Gillette's dedication, Boeing didn't get everything right. The 777, for example, may well be the pinnacle of aerodynamic perfection. But Boeing failed to rein in costs on the plane, and profits initially were disappointing.

The Dreamliner, which seats up to 250, may turn out to be Gillette's proudest legacy. In addition to providing more comfortable cabin pressure thanks to the tough carbon frame, the plane's long range will deliver people directly to where they want to go, avoiding congested hubs.

Like all of Gillette's earlier jet designs, the Dreamliner is a hit. With 343 firm orders in less than two years, it's the fastest-selling new airplane ever. That's important, because in Walt's world, if jets can't make money, they aren't worth the napkins they were sketched on. "The real challenge is to satisfy what the market wants," he said. "The market decides when the new technology is justified." But what really touches Gillette is the sheer impact of air travel. On any given day, 600,000 people stream across the sky on Boeing jetliners, making connections at the far ends of the earth. "I wanted to work on something that would benefit the world," Gillette said. It's safe to say he has succeeded.

By Stanley Holmes

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