Going on a tour with Boeing

With an eleven hour layover in Seattle yesterday I felt compelled to get out of the airport and actually do something useful with my time. And since the Seattle area is still home to the major assembly facilities for Boeing, a visit to see the big birds being put together made sense to me. A PriceLined rental car and I was on my way up to Everett, Washington (~45 minutes north of the airport) to visit the Future of Flight museum and factory tour.

The tour is pretty amazing. They don’t allow any electronics of any sort on the tour, so no photographs, but standing in the world’s largest building by volume and watching the planes being put together is pretty awesome. The doors for each of the six bays are ~350 feet wide and ~80 feet tall. Everything is oversized. We were able to see the last of the 747-400Fs being assembled (the line is converting to the 747-800 now), about nine 777s under construction – including the 777th 777 which will be delivered to Air France in a few weeks once it is complete. The assembly process for these planes is pretty interesting to see in action. Getting to see the planes in the various states of assembly and moving through the process was particularly cool. Hearing that they can put all 3 million pieces of a 777 together from start to finish in 17 days was downright incredible.

Most exciting for me on the tour was seeing the 787 Dreamliner assembly line. Despite all the delays that Boeing has experienced with the 787s the six or so on the line were looking very much like real airplanes at this point (and the windows really are a lot bigger than what you typically get today). I think they might actually be able to get one of them in the air in Q2 ‘09 as they’ve most recently revised their schedule to. One of the women on the tour was a Boeing employee on the 787 line. I overheard her describing to her mother the parts she works on and how the whole process was going from a point of view of an employee rather than a Boeing talking head, which was an interesting change of pace.

Boeing DreamLifter (N249BA) at Paine Field
Boeing DreamLifter (N249BA) at Paine Field

We also got to see one of the three DreamLifter planes that they have in service right now. These are 747s that have been converted into super freighters to carry pieces of the 787 assemblies from around the world to the Everett facility for final assembly. The thing is HUGE, able to fit a full pair of wings inside or major chunks of the fuselage. Very, very cool. Plus, we could see it from the parking lot so I actually got a photo of it.

One of the more interesting things about the Everett assembly facility is that Boeing actually doesn’t own the airport there. Paine Field is owned by the county and Boeing waits their turn for flight operations just like all the other folks who use it for their private planes. I saw a whole bunch of single engine props coming and going while waiting there, but no big planes flying as it was a Saturday and the majority of the factory was off-duty.

Nose gear of a 777-200
Nose gear of a 777-200

In addition to the factory tour there is also a small museum at the Future of Flight facility. It is not worth going to unless you are also going on the main tour. There was a traveling exhibit on display from Air France celebrating their 75th anniversary and it had some neat things from their history. There is also a 727 cockpit interior, the nose gear from a 777 and a model interior of a 787 on display, but the exhibits do not justify a visit unto themselves. That being said, there is the “stratodeck” on top of the building that has phenomenal views of the field, including the pads where the planes are parked while undergoing their initial flight testing and awaiting delivery to the airlines. Access to the stratodeck is free and they have the local ATC tower radio playing so you can listen in as the planes come and go. With a longer lens I am pretty sure I could’ve gotten some great shots of the planes waiting, and I’m sure that the deck will be packed when the 787 finally rolls out of the paint hanger and onto the flight line for its maiden voyage.

Closer to the Seattle airport is another Boeing facility where the 737s are assembled. That one isn’t open for factory tours but they do have the Museum of Flight (not a Boeing thing but at their airport) there. This is much more similar to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy facility in terms of what they have on display, lots and lots of planes from the history of flight. I got there after it closed for the day but there were a few planes out on the lawn that I was able to get a pretty good look at.

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If you’re passing through the Seattle area and have any aerogeek in your blood I highly recommend visiting the Future of Flight facility. There are a few other smaller museums around Paine field that I missed due to a lack of time, but they are also supposed to be pretty amazing. They include:

Definitely a worthwhile way to spend a few hours and see some very cool airplane stuff.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.