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Originally published April 17, 2013 at 7:31 PM | Page modified April 18, 2013 at 11:34 AM

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Kenneth Holtby, major designer of Boeing aircraft, dies

Kenneth F. Holtby, a key designer of Boeing aircraft who retired in 1987, died at age 90.

Seattle Times business reporter

Kenneth F. Holtby was a key designer on several best-selling Boeing aircraft that revolutionized the airline industry, and he served as general manager on three successive jets.

After 40 years working at the aerospace giant, Mr. Holtby retired in 1987 as Boeing’s top technical engineer. He died March 27 at age 90.

Mr. Holtby served in the U.S. Air Corps during World War II before finishing his aeronautic studies at Caltech. He began working as an aerospace engineer at Boeing in 1947, and became chief of the aerodynamics staff six years later — first at Wichita, and in Renton . In 1962, he became a Sloan Fellow at MIT — a yearlong fellowship offered to managers exhibiting notable success to become even stronger leaders.

Mr. Holtby helped shape Boeing’s 747, 757 and 767 commercial jetliners with his wide-ranging grasp of airplane design. Some engineers specialize, but Mr. Holtby did it all. His technical expertise structured everything from the size of an engine to the precise curvature of a wing.

The 747’s lead engineer, Joe Sutter, called his friend a “very, very good designer.”

Sutter said that job requires “a little bit of art, and a lot of good common sense,” and Mr. Holtby was a master of that balancing act.

Along with Sutter and two other top engineers, Mr. Holtby played a primary role in the design of the world’s first jumbo jet. Named the 747’s vice president and general manager in 1972, he moved on six years later to run the 757 and 767 jetliner projects.

Mike Holtby, his oldest son, credited his father’s leadership success to his sincerity.

“He wasn’t pretentious or arrogant, things that in his position [of authority], he might have been,” said Mike Holtby. “He was very well-liked — not only at Boeing, but everywhere he was.”

Sutter said that not once did he hear the designer raise his voice. Mr. Holtby didn’t need to speak louder to be heard, Sutter said — partly because his engineering expertise spoke for itself, and partly because his introspective nature meant only the most valuable bits of his thoughts were spoken.

Mr. Holtby always “got done what was needed to be done,” said Sutter. “He was quiet — but firm.”

Phil Condit, president of Boeing from 1996 to 2003, has referred to Mr. Holtby as both a mentor and a role model. In “Legend and Legacy,” a history of Boeing by Robert J. Serling, Condit credited Mr. Holtby with articulating some fundamental safety rules for Boeing planes.

In 1997 the 747 team earned the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize, a biennial award honoring outstanding aerospace achievement. In 1984, Mr. Holtby, Everette Webb and Condit received the Aircraft Design Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for their managerial and technical leadership on the 757 and 767.

Upon his retirement, Boeing employees wrote a poetic tribute that read in part, “thanks for your winning ways and your pleasant smile, you’ve been a great leader with that Holtby management style.”

Mr. Holtby continued to coach engineers about the construction of various Boeing jetliners and his design suggestions can be found in many that fly today.

An outdoorsman and a travel enthusiast, he loved to sail on Lake Washington, ski at Stevens Pass and barbecue with his family.

Mr. Holtby’s talent for problem-solving and design translated into all walks of life, son Mike Holtby said. He could quickly refire up his broken-down boat in the middle of Puget Sound, and loved to woodwork in his free time.

Besides son Mike, Mr. Holtby is survived by his wife, Bettie; children Tracy, Jeff, Kris and Matt; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to his alma mater, Caltech, or his favorite charities: The Museum of Flight, Doctors Without Borders or the Pacific Science Center.

A small memorial service will be held April 27 on Whidbey Island. Please contact a family member for further details.

Alysa Hullett: 206-464-2718 or

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