Boeing Factory Tour

Boeing aircraft factory and museum

Psst! Wanna see the biggest American airliners being constructed in the biggest shed in the world? Go North, young man, from San Francisco to Seattle, the traditional home of the Boeing Aircraft Company.

Boeing web site

Visitor information is on Boeing charges US$10 for a booked tour or US$5 on a “space available” basis for one of the six regular tours each day. The Boeing factory welcomes about 140,000 visitors a year so it is wise to prebook for the one-hour guided factory tour before leaving Australia. There is a minimum height consideration, 127 cm (four feet two inches) and a flight of stairs to negotiate. There are also Seattle-based commercial groups that run combined three and a half-hour hotel-to-hotel transport and factory tours for US$40 or so.

A brand new-looking Qantas Boeing 747 on the Seattle flight line.

 Drive or fly?

One option for most Australian visitors is to fly the 600 nautical miles directly from San Francisco to Seattle, but that means missing the breathtaking redwood giants on the way up and maybe beautiful Crater Lake on the way back. Instead, pick a snow-free season and consider hiring a car, setting off from San Francisco early one morning and finding the 101 North. The American Automobile Association (AAA, affiliated with NRMA) says it takes 16-odd hours to travel by road between the two cities, so it’s probably best to break the journey with an overnight stop somewhere. Once on the 101, put the pedal to the metal, set the cruise control to 70 and lock in 89 decimal 3 on the radio (or bring your own CDs).

Then, all you have to do is to weave through the ever-present lines of recreation vehicles (RVs) and feed, water and refuel regularly. In no time at all you will be turning off towards the US-1, say from Cloverdale, along Highway 128 past Boonville, through very winding roads and uniquely beautiful giant redwoods.

Note: In this area, when the warning signs say 10 mph is recommended for a curve, they mean it. An extra five mph over that speed is very likely to put a car off the road and either up a tree or down a cliff. Anyone other than Superman would agree that a car with power steering and automatic clutch is highly advisable. Finally, allow only an average 20 mph to cruise through redwood territory on the 128 and the northeast section of the US-1 beyond Rockport.

sugarbread house
There are some fascinating old homes on the North-West Pacific Coast, like this one in Eureka.

Habitation is pretty sparse after leaving the 101, but there are a number of towns with simple accommodation on the US-1 coast road. Think of spending the rest of the afternoon and overnight maybe somewhere between Fort Bragg and Rockport. Consider a Valley of the Giants side trip through one of the forests.

Look forward to another early start and an even tougher drive along US-1 as it cuts across country through even more redwoods to get back on 101 North. Once on the big multilane 101, it’s cruise control time again and all systems go for Eureka and Crescent City. Cut right there on the US-199 for Grants Pass and the even bigger I-5 North. You will soon be travelling through interesting cities like Portland that will tempt some DDG sailors to stay awhile. In good weather you will see the snow-covered Mount St Helens volcano and other mountain grandeur to the east.

The big Boeing airliner factory lies about 30 minutes north of Seattle, just west of the I-5 near Everett. From the I-5, take Exit 189 to State Highway 526 West and look for prominent Boeing Tour Center signs in little over three miles.

Highly organised

Boeing visits are highly organised. There is an introductory 12-minute film and a bus ride to and from the huge factory, a walk through a factory gallery and a final flight line bus tour. You will learn that Bill Boeing, a Seattle timberman, and Conrad Westerfield, a USN officer, formed the Pacific Aero Products Company in 1916. That partnership, of a serving USN officer and a local civilian, grew into the Boeing Aircraft Company of today.

The big Everett factory “shed” covers 40 hectares (98 acres) under the one roof and is claimed to be the largest by volume in the world. It is 35 metres (114 feet) tall. There are 26 overhead cranes that travel on 50 kilometres (31 miles) of track. The 747 cranes can lift 34 tons but those serving the 777 line can lift 40 tons. Work on the factory commenced in 1966 and the first 747 started building a year later.

Typically, there are four or five wide-bodied 747, 767 or 777 airliners on each production assembly line, with huge component assemblies shipped in from all over the world, by rail, road and air. A 747 might take nine months to assemble. Often, a brand new gleaming Qantas 747-400, destined for Australia, will be in the number one flight line spot.

Boeing Museum of Flight

While in the Seattle area, it probably does no harm to consider a visit to the excellent Boeing Museum of Flight, about six miles south of Seattle, again on the I-5. Take Exit 158 West to the first traffic light, then turn right on to East Marginal Way. Look for the museum on the right after about a half a mile. Alternatively, take the Metro bus 174 that travels between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport. Its route passes the museum.

Blackbird, F-18Main Hall
The museum has SR-3 Blackbird (left) and F-18 cockpit simulators inviting public participation. There are also
famous aircraft such as a Spitfire, Corsair, Sabre and Mig-21 on display (right photo).

The museum is open from 1000 until 1700 each day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day and admission is US$9.50 with discounts for seniors and children. It stays open until 2100 every first Thursday of the month. Wheelchairs are available for the disabled and lifts serve all floors. There is a museum shop and restaurant on the premises.

The Museum of Flight traces its roots back to a volunteer group called the Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical Foundation. This was formed to recover and restore a unique 1929 Boeing 80A-1 airliner, found in an Alaskan landfill. That project started in 1964 and took 16 years. That aircraft is now a centrepiece in the museum’s Great Gallery. The “Museum of Flight”, as such, opened in rented space in the Seattle Centre in 1968, but found a permanent home in 1983, incorporating the “Red Barn”, the original Boeing factory.

This building, now on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest aircraft manufacturing plant in the country, was moved a couple of miles up river from its original site to create a home for the museum in a corner of the Boeing Field/King County International Airport.

A very rare Caproni Ca20, clearly in “original condition”.

In the Museum’s Great Gallery and other extensions to the Red Barn, there are more than 50 aircraft, many of them Boeing bombers or transports, but also distinguished fighters such as a Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX, a Goodyear Super Corsair F2G-1, a Douglas Skyhawk A-4F and a MiG-21. A very rare and delicate Caproni Ca20, arguably the world’s first purpose-built fighter, dating from 1914, stands proudly in the WW I Gallery on the second floor. By contrast, visitors of all ages climb in, out and all over a pair of F-18 Hornet and SR-71 Blackbird cockpit simulators on the floor below.

Modern simulators

There are also three sets of flying simulators open to the general public. One rare twin-seat model has 360-degree pitch and roll freedom. In the outer space Pete Conrad Gallery, three more simulators encourage visitors to try their hands docking a fuel-limited spacecraft on the Hubble Telescope.

Inside the museum is a control tower display that encourages visitors to listen to actual air traffic control conversations. Separate booths broadcast activity at the museum’s busy home aerodrome and in a number of cities around the USA. A jargon decrypter is at hand for those not familiar with the verbal aerial shorthand and visitors are welcome to initiate and respond to simulated radio traffic.

The general public may elect to take no-charge docent-led tours throughout the day. The museum also houses an extensive aeronautical library and archival holdings, available by appointment. It has a comprehensive on-site and outreach educational program. There are also a large number of the museum’s aircraft and spacecraft either on display or undergoing restoration at a number of other sites, one as far away as Mesa, Arizona.

Outside the museum are a number of aircraft, including an F-18 (left) and an A-6 (right).

Outside the museum’s main building is another series of aircraft, ranging from the first presidential jet, Eisenhower’s 1959 Boeing VC-137B “Air Force One”, to a dummy-bomb-laden Grumman A-6 Intruder and rare types such as a piston-engined Boeing B-29 Superfortress and a Boeing WB-47E Stratojet.

Pike Place Market

No Seattle visit would be complete, of course, without a stroll through Pike Place Market and sampling the delicious waterfront restaurant salmon. There is also the Space Needle to climb, the monorail to travel on and dozens of other attractions for those not hooked on aircraft history.

Contrary to scuttlebutt, it does not rain all the time in Seattle. In mid-September 2002, during a 10-day holiday period, the weather was sunny and there was no significant daytime rain at all.

Crater Lake on return trip?

Options for the return journey to San Francisco include a straight run back on the I-5 or a slight diversion east to explore some of the wonderful National Parks, especially Crater Lake. If timing’s around early September, consider a visit to the annual Tailhook Reunion in Reno. Crater Lake is on the way from Seattle to Reno and then it’s only a half day’s easy drive from Reno to San Francisco. On the other hand, some Australian visitors might consider reversing the route, to do a Tailhook Reunion in Reno and visit nearby Lake Tahoe first, then drive to Crater Lake and Seattle.

Crater LakeThe Lodge
Crater Lake (left) is worth a visit. The Lodge (right) is redolent with atmo$phere.

There are many ways to get to Crater Lake by road and depending on the season there might be overnight bookings available in expensive places such as Crater Lake Lodge, or in more reasonably priced cabins at nearby Mazama Village. In any event, book accommodation before leaving Australia and plan to visit during a snow-free period, between early July and late September, to permit circumnavigation of the lake by car along Rim Drive. Take a camera. It is almost impossible to take a bad photograph of Crater Lake. The deep blue lake is especially beautiful on clear days around dawn and sunset.

Crater Lake was formed by the collapse of a volcanic caldera about 7700 years ago, leaving a deep basin more than six kilometres wide that gradually filled with water. No stream runs into or out of the lake, but snow and rain seepage and evaporation balance to form one of the world’s purest and deepest bodies of fresh water. The lake surface is about 1882 metres (6173 feet) above sea level. Its maximum depth is 593 metres (1843 feet); claimed to be the seventh deepest in the world. Around the lake are sheer grey cliffs that rise 240 to 600 metres (800 to 2000 feet) above the lake’s surface.

A boat takes passengers on a 1 hour 45 minutes tour of the lake, but that involves clambering down a steep 243 metres (800 feet) cliff via a zig-zag track to get to the boat. Going down is not so bad. It takes about 30 or 40 minutes. Climbing back is daunting. Even the youngest and fittest take more than an hour at that high altitude.

Visitor information centres and gift shops in the Crater Lake area are well-stocked with everything ranging from soft toys and postcards to substantial books about the lake, its myths and origins. The Lodge runs an excellent restaurant (it’s expensive and bookings are strongly suggested) but there are other options nearby such as a cafeteria and take-away food in Rim Village.

Yellowstone Park?

Locals enthuse about volcanic features such as “lava runs” some tens of kilometres from the lake, but only those very few with a dedicated interest in shallow caves should contemplate such a visit. On the other hand, there are plenty of side visits possible from Reno itself. These include Tailhook-sponsored visits to NAS Fallon and Lake Tahoe and private car drives to places such as Incline Village and historic Carson City. Braver souls might even gird up for another 700-odd miles journey east to take in famous Yellowstone Park.