Saturday, May 31, 2008

Peeking at Boeing's Mammoth Hatchery

"Human workers will always be an important part of the production of aircraft. The workers have been omitted in this animation to help provide a better view of the advanced tools that may be used in future factories."

That awkward, if not creepy, disclaimer is from a short 3-D film about how modern jetliners are built, which you can see for yourself at Boeing's Future of Flight Center near Everett, Wash., about a half-hour north of Seattle. But even a clunky reminder about the importance of humans is helpful when trying to convey the inhuman scale of the aircraft company's nearby assembly plant for large commercial planes.

The voluminous plant, which I toured this week, will be an awe-inspiring find for some future archaeologists -- a 20th Century temple designed to serve as a hatchery for huge flying machines. One way to appreciate the size of this operation is to compare the building in the picture above (snagged from Google Maps) to the tiny aircraft in the bottom left corner of the image. That plane, enlarged here, is actually a mammoth "Dreamlifter," a cargo-carrier derived from an old 747-400 to haul large components for Boeing's new energy-efficient 787 "Dreamliners." The cargo plane's wingspan is 211 feet.

A tour guide told my group that the 12-story, 98-acre building was large enough to hold Disneyland. But my colleague Bill Adair, who visited the plant when he covered transportation for the St. Petersburg Times, really put the facility into perspective when he called it "one of those stunning human achievements."

"It's one thing to see a 747 or a 777 at an airport," Bill wrote in an e-mail after I told him about my tour, "but it's even more amazing when you see a dozen of them being assembled in the same place."

Boeing first built the plant in the 1960s to assemble 747s, now the granddaddy of jumbo jets, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. More than 1,400 of been made here and orders for new ones are stacked up for years to come.

Two expansions created room to also nest Boeing's 767s, 777s and much-delayed 787s. The first 787 is nearing completion, with several more lined up behind it inside an assembly bay at the east end of the building. Unveiled publicly at a ceremony last July, it is now encircled by busy engineers. And as Aviation Week's Michael Mecham and Guy Norris recently reported, the final assembly line "still looks like a hospital emergency ward." If the 787 goes into service as currently planned next year, it will be Boeing's first new airliner since 1995.

Tourists are not allowed to carry cameras inside the building, as an armed guard reminded my group after we boarded a bus for the short ride to the plant. But this Boeing image from the 787 production line (left) gives you a sense of what the place looks like.

After the Boeing visit, my aviation tour of the Pacific Northwest continued at the Museum of Flight, just off I-5 near the Seattle-Tacoma airport. The first 747, a 1969 prototype, is on display there, next to a retired supersonic British Airways Concorde that visitors can walk through. Supersonic jetliners have been a personal fascination since 1976, when my third-grade class at Dogwood Elementary in Reston, Va., stood in an athletic field behind the school one day to watch a Concorde fly overhead on the way to its first U.S. landing at nearby Dulles airport.

My January CQ column was about the next generation of high-speed passenger planes, which are likely to be relatively small, faster-than-sound business jets rather than large-scale airliners like the Concorde.

Speaking of fast planes, a future aviation tourism stop will be the Hiller museum in San Carlos, Calif. Its holdings include a portion of a full-scale mockup of a Boeing B2707-200, a federally subsidized program to build a U.S.-made supersonic passenger jet (also known as a supersonic transport, or SST). Congress canceled that program 37 years ago.

And speaking of big aircraft and the bigger buildings needed to house them, an additional stop planned for my current trip out west is the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., home of the Hughes HK-1, better known as Spruce Goose, one of the largest airplane ever made. We also have planned a seaplane tour of the Seattle area.

(Images above: Google, Boeing. I should also note that Bill Adair, quoted above, is the author of The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation", which is about a Boeing 737 accident.)

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