Careless in Seattle

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

To catch a glimpse of both the history and the future of aviation, Seattle may not be the first place you'd think to visit. But with Boeing building the great airliners, volunteers restoring classics, and the Museum of Flight giving the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum a run for its money, the Emerald City has a lot to offer the aviation enthusiast.

Last spring, clutching a free ticket on Southwest that was about to expire and harboring an intense desire to escape reality for a while, I journeyed to Seattle for a mini-vacation devoted to nothing except looking at airplanes and eating foods that were bad for me. I had a great time and would encourage you to do likewise the next time you feel the need for a little R&R.

Even though I had flown commercially since the sad events of September 11, I still found myself very frustrated within a few minutes of arriving at San Jose International. The security system that we are currently saddled with is a pathetic joke. It could have only been designed by a politician and is strong evidence that Americans are either extremely tolerant or extremely gullible — I'm not sure which. We're spending millions of dollars on a system that frustrates the innocent and can only bring a smile of satisfaction to the faces of the bad guys. But the good news is that we did eventually get on to the airplane, the folks at Southwest are still crazy, I got to watch a night Loupe 9 departure from SJC whereby you basically make a big circle and end up back over the airport at 12,000 feet, and we did end up at SeaTac.

I had been hoping Bill G. would ask me to stay at his pad but he didn't so I checked into an elegant Motel 6 near the airport and planned my next two days. I wanted to visit the Museum of Flight, which is located at Boeing Field just a few miles from SeaTac, and the Museum's restoration facility and the Boeing 747 factory, which are located at Paine Field in Everett, north of Seattle. I only had Wednesday and Thursday but the museum is open till 9 p.m. on Thursdays so I decided that it would occupy my second day (and it did).

Building a 747

Boeing Factory
The Boeing factory is hard to miss since it's the largest building in the world (by volume — 472,000,000 cubic feet) and is right next to the road. The tour center has a good web site and the center is well-marked and easy to find. During busy times it is wise to call for reservations but I was able to show up unannounced and get into the next hourly tour. Since I had 30 minutes to wait, I wandered over to the adjacent Boeing store. The tour guide was quick to assure me that it was free and I was equally quick to assure her that I was certain it would be anything but and I was right. But I have a firm belief that even if you have a hundred flying T-shirts, there's always room for one more.

The tour starts off with two short films. One uses time-lapse photography to show a 747 going together and, frankly, is a lot more informative than seeing the actual thing. The factory is so large that they have to shuffle visitors around in a bus; walking to the middle of the factory next door would take too much time. The Everett factory was originally constructed to build the 747 and  has been expanded twice to accommodate production of the 767 and then the 777. The tour only visits the 747 area. The viewing area is high above the actual assembly floor. You get a good view but at first glance it appears nothing is going on! Early in my life as a so-called adult, I worked at Buick so I'm pretty familiar with high-volume production and automobile assembly lines. Thus I was looking forward to the Boeing tour. In fact, the two have almost nothing in common. Pieces of the plane are shipped to Everett from all over the world and then built into subassemblies. During our tour, a group of people was attaching a tip-up nose to the front part of a new freighter and that was very interesting to watch as the crane operator is a long way up in the air and the nose door weighs a lot. Thus, just like porcupine lust, it is done very carefully. But in general, it was pretty hard to get much of a feeling for what was going on. Groups of people were scattered about working on different parts of planes but there is no "assembly line" to give a feeling of continuity of action. When a subassembly is finished, it is picked up by crane and moved to the next assembly area where more parts are added and a 747 gradually takes place out of apparent random motion. Eventually the majority of the fuselage is mated to the wings, the landing gear is added and the plane can stand on its own. Near the end of the process, the plane is pulled over to the side and the majority of the action goes on inside the plane and out of sight of the tour. In keeping with the principles of Just In Time manufacturing, the engines (at $10 million each) are hung on the plane at the last possible moment.

After assembly, the plane is pulled out the (very large) door and over the highway to the other side of the field where it is painted and then undergoes flight test. Climbing back on the bus, the tour follows this process with a short drive around the flight line. Planes are initially flown by Boeing pilots, then by the customer pilots and then undergo FAA sign-off flights. Hence, the planes hang around the flight line for a considerable time. In summary, the tour was worth taking but reminded me a lot of the Buick tour. I worked in the Buick foundry but would sometimes be down in final assembly when a tour was going on. I used to always wonder to myself if the folks on the tour understood how little they were seeing of the entire process of manufacturing a complete car. In a similar fashion, I felt we had only scratched the surface of what is really going on to build a 747. For the average person, the tour is probably about right but a plane nut will find themselves wishing for more.

The Restoration Facility

Restoration Facility
The Museum of Flight restoration facility is located not far from the Boeing plant and was my next destination. This is not open every day so check their times before planning a visit. The restoration facility is fundamentally a self-guided tour of a pretty large hangar and is well worth the time. Currently the volunteers are working on a deHavilland Comet 4C, an FM-2 Wildcat, an XF8U-1 Crusader, an F7U Cutlass, the original 727 prototype and many others so there are a lot of projects in various states of assembly. Most of the volunteers are ex-Boeing employees and you don't have to watch them very long before you realize that their standards are very high and that they are doing something they love. The restored Boeing 247 is also stored at Paine Field in a hangar next to the restoration facility. Unfortunately, it was not open the day I was there.

While walking around the restoration facility, I happened to notice a one-page description of the Me 262 project. I had completely forgotten this is also located at Paine Field. So after getting my fill of the restoration facility and eating lunch at the on field café (pretty good view of runway), I headed over to the 262 hangar.

Visiting an Me 262 Factory

Me 262 Project Entrance
This project has been active for nearly a decade and has seen enough plot twists (including the death of the founder in an F-86 crash) to qualify as a daytime soap opera. The goal is nearly beyond belief — to create five new Me 262 aircraft as near to the originals as possible, consistent with the demands of safety. Since most of the original drawings no longer exist, it was necessary for the team to find an Me 262 they could tear apart and measure. Easy, no? Luckily, the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania had a rare two-seat trainer with dual controls serving as a gate guard that was in rather sad shape. After two years of negotiations, the Navy agreed to furnish the plane to the team in return for their restoring it at no cost and returning it to the Navy. Seems like a real win-win if there ever was one.

The project is focused, quite naturally, on getting planes built but they do offer an informal tour. Their web site offers a good history of what they are doing and I'd suggest it would be a good idea to call before visiting them. The details on the exact makeup of this organization, who's providing the funding and whether they are trying to make a profit or not seem to be a bit unclear. I was told some things that differ from what they tell on their Web site. I've probably just gotten to be a cynic in my old age but it seems to me that there are several instances in warbird restoration where a rich guy owns the plane and volunteers put in a lot of time to make it better. I've always wondered what happens if rich guy decides to sell it to even-richer-guy for a million more than he paid for it. Do the volunteers get some of the profit? Like I said, I'm a cynic but I'd make sure of the details before I volunteered.

That said, what this group is doing is really amazing. Work on the five planes was originally started at the Texas Airplane Factory in July of 1993. Due to contractual difficulties, the planes sat idle during 1997 and 1998. In early 1999, the planes were transferred to Paine Field in Everett and work started again. Sadly, in June of that year the driving force behind the project, Stephen L. Snyder, was killed in the crash of his F-86 Sabre. This, naturally, was a tremendous blow and caused a lot of concern. However, it appears that the group has moved forward in good style. It was decided to slightly change focus and concentrate on machines that were already spoken for. Thus the group is working on two planes actively and the other three have been set aside until someone puts some money on the table. It was a real thrill to walk through the hangar with my guide and see actual 262s under construction. No photography is permitted but the web site has some pretty good pictures.

I was surprised to learn that a fair amount of the front of the plane was made of steel. Naturally corrosion had been a big problem on the original. The new planes closely follow the design of the original but some changes were, of course, necessary. The brakes and landing gear have been modified slightly for safety reasons. The major change is in the choice of engines. The original engines were Junkers Jumo 004 units which had very limited lifetimes due to the state of jet-engine technology and the lack of war-critical materials. The new units are being engined with General Electric J-85/CJ-610 turbojet engines, which powered the original Learjet and the Northrop F5 and T-38. Naturally these engines are quite different from the originals but the group came up with an incredibly innovative solution as described on their Web site:

Detailed castings have been made from an original Jumo engine, and all related accessory drive components, gearboxes and pressure lines will be precisely duplicated for surface-mounting. When the access panels are opened, bystanders will see a historically accurate duplicate of a Jumo 004B engine. Concealed deep within the casting, the modern power plant will go all but completely unnoticed.Perhaps most significantly, the entire assembly (when mated with the J-85) will closely duplicate the nacelle weight of the original Jumo 004. In this respect, the original performance characteristics of the aircraft will be faithfully preserved.

The first engine run up (on the White 1 plane) had occurred the day before I visited and flight tests are expected shortly. If you've better at making money than I have been, you might be interested in pricing. The quoted price is $2,000,000 without engines and avionics. So you have a choice — buy a new Me 262 or a new Cessna CJ-1. The CJ-1 has better range and carries more bodies but I suspect you'll get a little more attention if you arrive in a 262. And I'm certain you'll never get invited to fly your CJ-1 in an air show. I wish these folks well and hope we'll eventually see all five planes flying.

The Museum of Flight

(click photos for larger views)
  Museum of Flight with Simulated Tower Cab (48 Kb)
On Thursday, I was at the front door of the Museum of Flight when they opened at 10 a.m.. It was a good thing that I picked the day they were open late since I didn't get out till after 7 that night. There were still things I hadn't seen but I was too pooped to go on and decided that the rest would just have to wait until my next trip to the museum. The museum consists of two buildings; a modern glass-and-metal showplace that opened in 1987 and contains the airplane collection, and the Red Barn, which contains numerous exhibits on the early history of aviation. The Red Barn was Boeing's first factory and dates back to 1909.

Bill Boeing must have been an interesting guy. He moved to the West Coast in 1903 with the intent of making a fortune in lumber, which he did in five years. A growing interest in airplanes resulted in Boeing's incorporating an airplane manufacturing business (Pacific Aero Products Company) in July 1916. A year later, he changed the name to the Boeing Airplane Company. When the test pilot was late for the first flight of the first plane the company had designed, Boeing got impatient and made the test flight himself!

Red Barn and Great Hall (85 Kb)
I started my tour of the museum in the Red Barn and recommend that. The Red Barn was originally used to build boats. When the boat company went bankrupt while building a boat for Boeing, he bought the entire business and used that as the basis for his new airplane company. Since the first product was a floatplane made of wood, the skills of the staff were just as useful building planes as they were building boats. The Barn was moved to its present location in 1975 and was restored to open in 1983 as the first building of the museum. The restoration of the barn is faithful to its original design and I found both its architecture and exhibits to be very interesting. As you examine the exhibits and take time to look at the building, it is easy to step back in time and get some idea of the incredible history that has taken place within the walls of the attractive building. One interesting tidbit was that in the slump after World War I, the company built furniture to survive. Bet you've never seen a Boeing chest of drawers before! It is important to note that while the museum is located on Boeing Field the exhibits cover much more than just Boeing and give a great insight into much of the basic history of early American aviation. One exhibit I especially enjoyed showed the beginnings of Elrey Jeppesen's empire and included some of his hand-drawn approach charts. They are a far cry from the approach charts used today that still bear his name.
Great Hall (108 Kb)
The newer main display area reminds me of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The approach to displaying the planes is similar and the collection is of a comparable quality. I was lucky enough to be visiting on a pretty sunny day (the locals seemed quite shocked to see that funny yellow orb in the sky) and that made the museum a magnificently bright and sunny place to be. The museum has a large collection of aircraft and many of them are on display inside or outside of the main building. Examples include the only surviving Boeing Model 80A, which was found on a dump in Anchorage, Alaska; a Ryan M-1, which was the precursor to the Spirit of St. Louis; and the Lear Fan prototype finished after Bill Lear's death. The planes are displayed nicely with some on the ground and some hanging overhead, all facing in one direction like the greatest flyby you've ever seen. Information detailing the aircraft is placed on the floor and encourages you to take your time and really soak in what you are seeing.
M-21 with D-21 Drone (74 Kb)
Start Cart (20 Kb)
But the highlight by far for me was the Blackbird. The museum is probably unique in offering you the opportunity to sit in an SR-71 cockpit. The have the front end from one that crashed at Beale AFB and you are encouraged to climb in. That's a fun thing to do but I must admit that the cockpit reminds you that the museum is a popular place for school kids as it definitely looks used. The centerpiece of the museum has to be the only surviving M-21 with an attached D-21 drone. This craft was designed as a variant of the CIA-sponsored A-12, which was the earliest Blackbird. This program was so secret that no one even knew about it until a D-21 drone was seen stored at the bone yard at Davis Monthan after the program had been terminated. When you look up at the plane with its attached drone, it's easy to understand how they could have had trouble getting the drone to detach. The guys who flew this thing were definitely brave souls. 

In addition to the plane and drone, the museum has a Buick-powered start cart which was an added thrill for me since I might have helped build those very engines (well that's my fantasy at least!).

There is much more to do than just look at airplanes though. The museum includes a "working" control tower that overlooks Boeing Field. You are able to listen to both tower and ground frequencies. The field is pretty busy so it's an interesting diversion with a great view of Mt. Rainer if the WX is clear. Boeing Field is used to deliver 737 and 757 aircraft to customers so you never know what you'll see on short approach. In addition, it has a lot of special aircraft; I saw several AWACs (one Saudi), the JSF avionics test bed 757, and the original 747 parked along the runway. The museum contains a nice auditorium with short films constantly running so that's a good place to go hide for a while when you get tired of walking. It also features a nice café and gift shop.

So that was my two-day aviation escape. I had a great time, took lots of pictures, replenished my T-shirt collection, and recharged my mind. I'd encourage you to do the same someday.

Editor's Note: At last report, the Museum of Flight still had an area for visiting aircraft to park, just off the Boeing Field taxiways on the southwest side. Although security restrictions may limit its use, contact the Museum of Flight Security Department in advance to make arrangements.