If you live only a few miles from the world’s largest building, it’s natural to want to peek inside. So soon after moving to Mukilteo, Washington, a decade ago, I took a tour of the plant in Everett where Boeing builds its wide-body aircraft.
The tour offered a spectacular view of the aircraft assembly floor from a balcony high above and a lot of facts from a tour guide, but that was about it. I took the tour again recently and there is now a lot more to see and do.
The Boeing tour today begins and ends at the Future of Flight Aviation Center with its informative interactive exhibits. Nearby are two outstanding collections of historically important aircraft and a museum workshop where old planes are restored.
The attractions are clustered around Paine Field, the general aviation airport that adjoins the Boeing factory, about 25 miles north of Seattle.
Since the Future of Flight opened on the Mukilteo side of Paine Field in late 2005, the number of people taking the Boeing tour has more than doubled to 180,000 a year. The 90-minute tour begins with a short film, followed by a quick bus ride across a freeway overpass to the factory where they assemble the 747 jumbo jet, 767, 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The major focus of interest these days is on the Dreamliner, the first commercial jetliner to be made mostly of composite materials. It had its first test flight in December and is scheduled—after many delays—to reach customers early next year.
The Boeing plant is the largest in the world by volume (472 million cubic feet), and on the tour you get a bird’s eye view of the assembly lines. It’s an impressive sight, but it’s like peering down at a scale model.
To gain perspective on size, you need to wander through the exhibits at the Future of Flight. There, you can stand beside—and touch—a tail fin of a Boeing 747 that is four stories high or gaze at a massive airplane engine.
The Future of Flight has interactive exhibits, including one that lets you design an airplane, and another where Boeing does consumer research, inviting visitors to give their opinions on interior design.
The Boeing tour and Future of Flight are about commercial aviation today and tomorrow. To look back at aviation’s history, you need to visit the Historic Flight Restoration Center and/or the Flying Heritage Collection. Both have hangars displaying classic planes restored to flight capability. The planes are wheeled out onto the runway at various times during the spring and summer while crowds watch them roar into the sky and circle overhead.
The Flying Heritage Collection, amassed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, consists of 15 combat planes and other military artifacts of the U.S., its allies and its enemies in World War II. The collection includes a Grumman Hellcat, Curtis Tomahawk, Japanese Zero and an unmanned German flying bomb.
On the other side of Paine Field is the Historic Flight Restoration Center founded by John T. Sessions, a Seattle aviation enthusiast and pilot who began collecting and restoring planes in 2005 after a career as an attorney working in international trade, aircraft financing and land development. The center features about a dozen planes built in the era from 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, to 1957, when Boeing introduced its 707 jetliner. Here you will find a B-25 called Grumpy, a P-51B Mustang dubbed the Impatient Virgin, and a Grumman Tigercat named Bad Kitty.
Some of the planes in the collection have required extensive restoration. Where replacement parts have been unavailable, restorers have manufactured parts to the original specifications, even going to the Smithsonian Institution to dig out airplane drawings to achieve authenticity.
It’s expensive to restore and fly these old planes, so the restoration center’s Historic Flight Foundation, a nonprofit organization, solicits sponsorships and donations to help pay the costs. You can purchase a membership that includes the opportunity to go along on a flight.
It Takes Time
Seattle’s Museum of Flight uses a Paine Field hanger to restore planes for display at its exhibit center next to Boeing Field, just south of downtown Seattle. In this hangar, the goal is not to get classic planes ready to fly but to prepare them for display at the museum, which holds a collection of 150 rare aircraft and space vehicles.
The restoration work is meticulous and time-consuming. A de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, has been under restoration since 1995. Asked when work would be finished, one of the restorers jokingly replied: “If everyone who asked that question had volunteered to help, we’d be done by now.”
Many of the volunteers who work on these planes are retired Boeing employees. More volunteers are always needed, and you can find more information at museumofflight.org. The Museum of Flight’s restoration hangar is open to visitors, but is primarily a working hangar, rather than a showcase for tourists.
The Flying Heritage Collection (flyingheritagecollection.com) is open Tuesday through Sunday from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and everyday during the summer. The Historic Flight Restoration Center (historicflight.org) is open Wednesday through Saturday. The Future of Fight Museum (futureofflight.org) is open daily.
Each of the attractions has its own hours and admission prices, although discussions are under way to link the attractions with a joint ticket. The Snohomish County Tourism Bureau has created a brochure that gives details on these and other aviation adventures in the area, including skydiving and balloon and glider rides. You can download the brochure at Snohomish.org.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail email@example.com. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.