Standing underneath the wing of a 747-800F on the assembly line is an incredibly humbling experience. The plane is simply enormous in a way that being inside it or seeing it from the terminal simply doesn’t convey. But there we were, a group of about 20 aerophiles and a couple of Boeing employees, wandering across the factory floor of the wide-body assembly plant in Everett, Washington. It was phenomenal!
I was quite fortunate to be invited along on this behind-the-scenes event. We spent a full day touring the main assembly lines in the Seattle area, both the narrow-body facility in Renton and the wide-body facility in Everett. We were accompanied by engineers from Boeing rather than regular tour guides and we were able to ask random nitty-gritty detail questions. Oh, and were close enough to touch the planes in some cases.
Our morning consisted of a tour of the 737 assembly line in Renton, Washington. The line isn’t open to regular tours so getting inside was a special treat. We got to see planes at various stages of the 11-day final assembly cycle, from fuselage arrival to wing joining to interior fitting to rolling out the door for painting and first flight. The fuselages arrive on rail cars and are transferred into the assembly building. Two weeks later they roll out the other end as fully assembled airplanes.
Every plane in the factory is marked with its registration number – N1786B – so that it is ready to fly when it is completed. But they are all the same registration, something that is rather unusual. Boeing can do this because the planes fly only once with that registration number. The destination of that first flight is the paint shop a few miles away where the fuselage is repainted into the customer’s livery and the new registration number is applied.
A number of mementos from the history of the assembly facility are on display throughout the factory. It has a rather impressive history – over 60 years of assembly across a number of product lines – and the stories relayed by the memorabilia are wonderful. My favorite was the737 wingtip on the wall. It was a segment of wing about 18 inches long painted in the familiar colors of the Southwest livery and it sticks off the wall with a plaque underneath:
Thanks for the new winglets. We don’t need this anymore.
A cool souvenir celebrating the end of their winglet conversion project.
The second half of the day was spent on the ground in Everett, site of the wide-body assembly plant that Boeing operates. They build the 747s, 767s, 777s and 787s in Everett and the assembly lines are running around the clock these days on all the lines. Obviously much of the focus is on the Dreamliner but the 777 line is still cranking out new deliveries and the 747-800 line is working quickly towards having the first production aircraft ready for delivery. Our tour was very different than the one given to the public (that I took back in March). Rather than looking down on the assembly line from a platform six floor up we were down on the ground, walking amongst the planes so close that we could reach out and touch them. It was awesome.
The size of the planes is hard to appreciate when in them. I’m sitting in a 737-900ER as I type this and I have some concept of how big it is. But seeing it from the ground changes the perspective immensely. Even the two engines of one wing of the 747-8, two engines that are exactly the same, look to be much different sizes because of the perspective from which they are viewed on the ground. In reality they are both enormous.
Our tour included things like watching the wings be riveted together and sealed, landing gear tests of the 777 (they put the plane on jacks and drop the floor out from under it so the gear can swing) and a deployed ram air turbine (RAT) engine. The RAT is an emergency generator that deploys when the aircraft loses engine power. It is basically fan that generates power from the air rushing by as the plane glides. It can provide enough poser to keep the avionics and other critical cockpit systems operating while the pilots get the engines running again. Just seeing it is one thing. Getting to hear the stories of the design and testing of the system from the engineer who worked the certification flight was top-notch. It takes a special amount of faith in your design, engineering and manufacturing group to be willing to get in an airplane, climb to altitude and then cut the engine and hope that the backup system kicks in. But this guy did it and had a great story to tell.
We say about 30 different wide-body aircraft for a dozen different carriers in various stages of assembly – all in the same building. It isn’t surprising that bicycles are the preferred means of conveyance in the factory; the spaces to cover are too great for walking all the time.
Of course, like any good tour, we finished up in the gift shop. No complaints there, however, as they have all sorts of cool aero-geek toys to play with.
A special thanks to the guys who organized the event and invited me along; I hope I made the cut to be asked back for next year.
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