Thursday, August 30, 2012

Studying Airliners in Seattle

One of the main reasons I have visited Washington State was to gain experience of Boeing. Seattle, especially the main manufacturing facility in Everett (a few miles north of the facility) is Boeing's main base and is responsible for manufacturing and assembling thousands of the aircraft which grace our skies every single day. Clearly, this is the ideal destination for any aircraft geek!

Boeing also, very kindly, provides a tour for any member of the public who wants to learn more about the company and see aircraft in the process of being built. It's also a big PR effort - the tour guides wear badges saying 'if it's not Boeing, I'm not going!' and of course everyone is very proud of the products. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The facility, quite amazingly for a workplace of 30,000 people, does not have any public transport links and the only way for Colin public to make his way there would be to take a bus and a taxi for about $40, or purchase a combined transport and tour ticket from an independent tour operator. It was a bit expensive at $65, but since the tour of the factory was about $20 anyway, I don't think it was too much of a rip-off. Plus I would get picked up directly from the hostel.

Therefore, on Tuesday morning at 9am, I found myself in an MPV on the way up to the Everett with guests from around Seattle, some of whom were going to the large mall, others to the the casino in the area, and 3 others were going to Boeing. First stop was the Future of Flight centre, which is full of interesting exhibits of Boeing technology.


Rolls-Royce, as launch engine supplier for the 787 Dreamliner, had a really good stand with a model and a real Trent 1000 and some cutaways of the internal gas dynamics, compressor, turbine and fan blades. There was also a GEnx engine in the hall (the other option for 787, and the only option for 747-8) which in my opinion was nowhere near as pretty an engine!

I could also sit in the pilot's seat of a 727 and show a lady who came in as my co-pilot what some of the controls did. It was surprisingly similar to the VC10 simulator I have flown!

Yay gliders! Although a slightly weird description of what gliding is...
[edit - I only just realised that this picture credited the 'White Plains Picture Co' - close but no cigar!]

There was also an observation platform, from which you could view Paine Field and the manufacturing facility on the other side. The Boeing plant here is the largest building in the world by volume, was built in the 1960s and was extended in the 80s and 90s to incorporate more and more production lines for the new 767 and 777 airliners. 

World's largest building

A whole line of 787 Dreamliners for All Nippon Airlines (ANA), the launch customer and one of the biggest recipients of aircraft so far. Also delivered are some to Japan Airlines and 1 to Ethiopian Airlines.

To my delight, the Dreamlifter (a very heavily modified 747 for moving Dreamliner parts around the world) was in residence while I was in Everett. Behind it are some brand new 747-8s (frieghters and passenger variants) for delivery to various European customers).

Our tour began with an 'inspirational' video about Boeing's products, then we were split into two and put on a coach to go across the flightline to the manufacturing facility. After a 500m walk through a tunnel, we were taken up a freight elevator to survey the 747-8 production line. This aircraft, although updated with some of the 787 features, was still very manually assembled and was predominantly aluminium with hundreds of thousands of fasteners. Also, much of it is fabricated on-site and then assembled on a complex production line from wingbox right up to complete aircraft. Each aircraft is moved from station to station while being built up with components.

After being transported to the next part of the hangar by coach, we saw the 777 production line - this was much more automated, with more parts being shipped in from around the world on trucks and trains. Each aircraft is put on a crawler which moves about 3cm per minute down the line, while all the tools and steps around it are on wheels and move with the crawler.

Finally, we were able to see the 787 Dreamliner production facility. By far the fastest line on site, churning out an aircraft every 2.5 - 3 days (when moving at top speed), this aircraft is only really assembled on site with parts that are completed in Japan, Germany, France, the UK, China and the rest of the USA. This plant is much simpler than the rest and the composite aircraft has far fewer fasteners than its aluminium sisters, facilitating a much quicker assembly. You can also see the colour difference! 

After exploring this facility from above, we were told about the ordering process and how the first payment is made on order, the second partway through construction, and the final just before it is taken to the painting workshop. The customer then flies to Boeing here to take delivery of the new airplane and fly it to wherever it will be based (with a little ceremony and a couple of test flights).

Sadly that was the end of the tour, which predictably required us to walk through the gift shop on our way out, then I returned to the Hostel.

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