Spread out far below me is a fascinating and intricate puzzle, one I’m glad I won’t have to solve. Here, at the Boeing company’s flagship factory near the North American city of Seattle, all these pieces of metal, rubber, and a hundred other components, will soon become a brand new Boeing 747-8 passenger jet.
I’m no aviation geek, but I have found that something aviation-related often worms its way onto my itinerary whenever I travel. It can even be a little intense—like the time I spent one whole day of a two-day trip to Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Udvar-Hazy Center near the city’s Dulles airport.
So on my recent North America holiday, while planning a long weekend in Seattle, I found myself gravitating towards a visit to the Boeing facility. Seattle is Boeing territory. It is in this city that industrialist William E. Boeing founded the company, which celebrates its centenary next year. And in 1967, a factory was built in Everett, about 40 kilometres north of Seattle, to produce the iconic 747 or Jumbo Jet, which was the world’s biggest airliner for nearly 40 years. Today, the factory hosts the production lines for the company’s 747, 767, 777, and 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
Excitingly, Boeing offers public tours of this factory in Everett. The 90-minute, guided tour takes off from the Future of Flight Aviation Center, an aviation museum and education facility located in the neighbouring town of Mukilteo, and gives visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how some of the company’s airliners are made. Theory, process, and product in one package: I was sold.
My Boeing experience begins with a bonus. From the Future of Flight Center’s observation deck I spot a Dreamlifter. This converted 747-400, which looks like a lumbering humpback whale, is one of four freighters tasked with ferrying chunks of the 787 Dreamliner from factories around the world for final assembly in the U.S.
The temptation to linger and gawk at the Dreamlifter and the distant aircraft parked across from the factory is strong, but the tour is about to begin. Boeing personnel remind all of us in the queue that no personal belongings are allowed in the factory, not even a pencil and notebook.
The tour begins with a short film, 10,071 Hours: How Everett Changed The World. After watching it we ride buses across Paine airfield to the factory, passing scores of parked aircraft awaiting final touches or delivery. Simon, our guide, rattles off some overwhelming statistics about this factory. At 13.3 million cubic metres or 98.3 acres, Boeing’s Everett factory is the world’s largest building by volume. Translation: Disneyland and 12 acres of parking could fit inside it, with room to spare. So could 911 basketball courts.
The factory is so large that when it was built, it allegedly had its own weather system inside. It was reported that rain clouds would form inside, close to the ceiling, until proper ventilation was installed. “Did it actually rain inside the factory?” someone asks aloud, voicing a common rumour.
Since it’s a Saturday, there’s a hush and little activity on the floor except for the occasional worker pedalling by on a tricycle; one of 1,000-plus bicycles and tricycles that employees can use to get around the humungous factory. On weekdays, there is more visible activity on the floor and the factory gets very noisy because of all the machines being used, Simon says.
We’re observing the factory floor from balconies several levels up that overlook the production lines. At each line, Simon explains how various pieces come together to create an entire aircraft. The viewing galleries also have aircraft models, videos, posters, and aeroplane parts.
Our first stop is a balcony overlooking the 747 production line, where several 747-8s, the airliner’s latest variant, are in various stages of completion. At one end, I spot sections of a wing, right in front of me are almost complete fuselages, and, in the distance, several complete aircraft, all covered in a metallic-green temporary protective coating.
I’ve always known that a 747 is enormous, but I realise just how large it is only when I stand before the cross-section of an early Jumbo on the balcony. As I run my fingers across its cool, smooth metal (you’re encouraged to touch some of the exhibits), I marvel that the outer skin is only about as thick as a five-rupee coin.
A little later, at the 777 line, a few employees are working on a green-coated fuselage. I’m more fascinated by the U-shaped moving production line used to make these planes. Aircraft sections come on to large crawlers at one end, and finished planes come off at the other.
We move on to the last part of the tour, the 787 Dreamliner line. Unlike Boeing’s other production lines, this is more of an assembly line; sections of the aircraft are flown in from suppliers around the world and put together in Everett.
The Dreamliner is beautiful, with sweeping, seagull-like wings and clean lines. Simon talks with visible pride of how the plane is changing air travel. Made mostly of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic and other composites, it’s lighter than other aircraft that are similar in size. It has also been designed to consume less fuel, produce fewer emissions, and create less noise.
As a traveller, I’m most captivated by the physical changes within the cabin: Wider aisles, higher ceilings, and an air circulation system that removes odours, bacteria and viruses, and is even supposed to reduce jet lag. Equally fascinating are the large, shutterless windows, made of electrochromic smart glass that offer several settings for passengers to adjust visibility and lighting. This means travellers can dim the windows and still see what’s happening outside. I can’t wait to fly on one.
On the bus back to the Future of Flight Center, I reflect that the tour was a great way to dip my toes in the ocean that is Boeing, though it felt a trifle rushed at times.
Back at the Center though, there’s plenty of time to explore various aspects of aviation from aircraft engines and landing gear to simulators, mock-ups, and experiments. It’s a bit like entering an aviation-themed candy store and everyone seems to be having a great time.
Wandering through the “family zone”, I spot adults and children clustered around activity carts, building aircraft models, and designing jets. There are a bunch of experiments on nanotechnology, and I watch fascinated as a girl builds a giant carbon nanotube using blocks. Across from her, some boys are enjoying themselves at the Bernoulli Table, an interactive game that illustrates the relationship between the velocity of air and the pressure it exerts, thus explaining how aircraft are able to fly.
In the “flight systems zone,” I play pilot in the cockpit of a Boeing 727, yanking levers and flipping switches. A few minutes later, I actually try to fly a plane in a simulator; I keep it in the air, but spend most of my time trying to pull out of a nose dive!
I could easily spend another hour or two exploring the Center, but eventually I head back to the observation deck to gaze contentedly across the airfield at the factory. An illuminating morning spent learning about how the pieces of the aviation puzzle fit together has left me even more in awe of the picture of flight that they form.
Besides Boeing, Seattle is home to several other aviation-related attractions. The oldest of these is the Museum of Flight, run by a private non-profit foundation, and its aircraft restoration centre (www.museumofflight.org). Then there’s the Flying Heritage Collection established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which focuses mostly on military aircraft from World War II (www.flyingheritage.com). Finally, there’s the Historic Flight Foundation’s museum and restoration centre for aircraft manufactured between 1927 and ’57 (www.historicflight.org).
The Museum of Flight is especially interesting, not just for its collection of aircraft and aviation and space-related memorabilia, but also for its airpark, which offers visitors a chance to experience bits of aviation history. Here, visitors can walk through the interiors of a British Airways Concorde; the Boeing 707 that was the first jet to serve as Air Force One; and ZA003, the third 787 Dreamliner to be built and used for flight tests.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “In The Wings”.
The Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour is in Mukilteo, 40km north of Seattle. Limited public transportation to the Center is available from Seattle and surrounding communities. My package from Viator included to-and-fro transportation from my hotel in downtown Seattle. The tour involves some amount of walking and climbing stairs. Children must be at least 122cm-tall to take the tour. Personal items including cameras, cell phones, and purses are not allowed on the factory tour and can be stowed in lockers in the Future of Flight Aviation Center, though demand can often exceed supply. Restrooms are not accessible during the tour, so visitors are encouraged to use the facilities beforehand. There is a café and store with Boeing memorabilia in the Center. (www.futureofflight.org; open 8.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m. daily; factory tours on the hour 9 a.m.-3 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day; tickets, including factory tour, start at $16/₹1,197 for adults and $9/₹800 for those who are 15 and under; prices vary with season and advance reservation).