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Friday, June 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Man who brought idea of 787 to reality retires

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Walt Gillette, a towering and beloved figure within Boeing engineering and head of the design team on the 787 Dreamliner program, has retired.

Known for his modesty as well as his technical brilliance, Gillette left quietly last week, without fanfare.

Gillette, 64, will reach Boeing's mandatory retirement age in January. He worked for 45 years in the industry, 39 of them at Boeing on nearly every jetliner from the 707.

Scott Strode will succeed Gillette, becoming vice president of Airplane Development and Production for the 787.

"I have taught you everything I can recall about airplane creation, and you have been wonderful listeners," he wrote in an e-mail farewell to the 787 leadership team Saturday. "You all know what to do to bring the 787 to life."

An article on Boeing's internal employee Web site announced the news Thursday with grand plaudits to Gillette.

"Every airplane has one designer who has guided it from notion to reality," said Mike Bair, head of the 787 program, in the article. "For the 787, that person is Walt Gillette."

Walt Gillette


Beginnings: Born in Texas, 1942. Gillette earned bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. He worked on the Apollo space program. Joined Boeing in 1966 as a research engineer.

The 1970s: Worked on the 707, 727 and 737 jets.

The 1980s: Technology chief of the 737 and 757 airplanes, managing safety, functionality and performance.

The 1990s: Chief project engineer on the 777, first for performance and safety, then for airplane systems, and ultimately for airplane design. Now the top engineer in the commercial unit. Later, he led initial development on three eventually abandoned programs: the 747-500 and -600 and then the Sonic Cruiser.

This decade: Vice president of Airplane Development on the 787 Program. Technical leader of Boeing's key new program.

Source: Boeing

Alan Mulally, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, was quoted as saying, "Walt's legacy will be more than our airplanes. His legacy will also be all of the people he has touched and who will carry on his work in aircraft design and engineering."

In the aggressive world of corporate America, Gillette was an unusual leader: an engineering geek with a courtly southern manner.

Around the 787 design offices in Everett, the breast pocket of his shirt was always filled with pens, pencils and a little plastic Boeing calendar for calculating the number of manufacturing days left to any program milestone. Yet for all his technical smarts, he radiates a warmth that puts people at ease.

In the early 1990s, he was chief project engineer for airplane design on the 777. But the next three projects on which he led initial development — the 747-500 and -600, and then the Sonic Cruiser — were all later abandoned because Boeing decided there wasn't a market for those jets.

In his goodbye e-mail, Gillette portrayed the 787 as the fruit of that experience. He said that in 1997 after the 747-500 and 600 were canceled, he'd set three goals — to cut new-plane development costs in half, put the world's best aerospace resources to work under Boeing leadership, "and to find an airplane that would tell the world that Boeing is back!"

"These three goals have been achieved with the Dreamliner."

That note suggests Gillette's major role in forging the new Boeing, guiding the company toward the globally outsourced manufacturing model central to the 787.

Gillette's reputation also spans the globe.

Giorgio Olibet, director of program management at Global Aeronautica, a joint venture between Alenia of Italy and Dallas-based Vought that will assemble the 787's rear fuselage, said Gillette is one of the most impressive people at Boeing.

"Gillette is kind of a mythic person," Olibet said. "At least in Alenia, we know the name of Gillette since forever. And when Boeing employees talk, when they name Gillette they convey a lot of respect."

Gillette wore his reputation lightly. Immensely bright, most comfortable explaining engineering concepts with diagrams on a whiteboard, he's soft-spoken and listens carefully.

"He's an engineer's engineer," said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the white-collar union the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. "He has no ego. He's a man of the highest intellect but he could find a way to talk to anyone about anything."

Strode served under Gillette and was leading the production phase of the program as the design phase draws to a close. Bair said the passing of the leadership reins to Strode fits the natural course of the life cycle of 787 development. Still, Strode has enormous shoes to fill.

Gillette leaves the 787 program and the fortunes of Boeing Commercial Airplanes at a peak.

"I leave with the highest sense of satisfaction," Gillette wrote in his e-mail, "I firmly believe that Boeing Commercial Airplanes has the brightest future since the time when, almost a half a century ago, we brought the 707, 727, 737 and 747 into revenue service in a span of only twelve years."

In an era of Boeing boardroom scandal, central casting might have picked him out to represent the large dreams and weighty responsibilities, the brilliance and integrity, of the Boeing engineering community.

Gillette signed off to his colleagues: "I'll see you down the road, or better yet, in the sky."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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