Boeing plant tour and flight museum conjure airplane glamour near Everett, Washington
I’m standing in front of a first-class airplane seat at the Future of Flight Aviation Center in Mukilteo, Washington. I’ve never had the privilege of sitting in one of these lie-flat, ultra-luxe pods before, so I’m happy to inspect it up close. But alas, the seat is roped off, so although I can look, I can’t touch. So close to first class, yet so far…
Happily, you can touch most of the aviation-related objects at this museum, and that’s what makes it so unique. Where else can you walk around a full-sized 747 tail fin and lean against the towering dorsal for a photo? Where else can you stoop under the belly of a jet and examine its nose landing gear up close? And what a thrill it is to literally kick the tires of an aircraft—even if they’re only attached to a cross section of a plane.
If the new television series Pan Am reminds us that air travel was once glamorous, the Future of Flight centre proves that jumbo jets themselves are still pretty darn cool. Located about 40 kilometres north of Seattle, the centre sits adjacent to Paine Field across from the Boeing aircraft plant, where employees assemble 747, 767, 777, and 787 aircraft.
A ticket to the museum also gets you a tour of the Boeing plant, and I found both experiences equally compelling. If you explore the museum first, you get some technical background and close-ups of the mechanics that you’ll see from afar on the tour, which is highly structured for security reasons. (No, you can’t kick the tires of the planes on the tarmac.)
The 28,000-square-foot aviation gallery is a bright, airy museum that has a good mix of technical information and hands-on exhibits. Flying buffs can happily spend several hours here reading displays and watching videos that chronicle the history of commercial-jet development. This includes the glory days of Pan Am, which flew its first-ever trans-Atlantic 707 jet service from New York to Paris in October 1958.
A section of a Pan Am Boeing 707 fuselage. Carolyn Ali photo.
You can rap on a section of the fuselage of a decommissioned Pan Am 707 and examine both the shell and the interior. It’s interesting to compare the thickness of that fuselage and the number of rivets that holds it together with a cross section of the one-piece barrel that forms the latest 787 Dreamliner. Made of a thinner, stronger, lighter composite material, the latter is molded together using 80-percent fewer fasteners, a major innovation.
You can also stand next to a huge Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine and peer into a 727 cockpit. Videos show how cockpits have evolved from using dials and switches to high-tech computers. Now, flight details are projected onto the windows so pilots can keep their eyes on the real tarmac while reading computerized specs.
Interactive exhibits also let you design your own airplane and do virtual walk-throughs of the latest models. Here, you can tour places you’d never see in real life—such as the crew berths—and see how automobile cargo is loaded through the hinged nose of airplanes. And for a bit of nostalgia, there’s a display of vintage paper airline tickets—including a 1930s handwritten TWA docket, Pan Am’s 1970s machine readable tickets, and the automated boarding passes of the 1980s. According to the display, phasing out paper tickets has eliminated the need to securely ship neutral ticket stock to 60,000 accredited travel agents in over 100 countries, saving the industry $3 billion annually.
You can watch the planes being built on the Boeing tour.
Tours leave hourly for the Boeing Plant, minutes away by shuttle bus. On the ride, we passed dozens of almost-finished planes. It was a kick to see them partially painted—with recognizable logos such as Lufthansa, Korean Air, and Air India—or with windows covered up and not yet functional.
The coolest plane by far was the Dreamlifter, a modified 747 with a body that bulges out as if it was a snake digesting an animal. Since many of the large components of Boeing’s Dreamliner jets are made elsewhere, such as Italy and Japan, these Dreamlifter cargo planes transport airplane segments to the plant, where they’re assembled into the finished airplane.
According to our guide, Jewel Fitzgerald, the plant is the largest building in the world by volume at about 13 million cubic metres. “You could fit the entire Disneyland theme park into this building, including 12 acres of parking,” she said. Thirty-thousand people work there in three shifts around the clock; there are 19 restaurants to accommodate them. There are so many employees that to avoid traffic jams during shift changes, groups leave work at staggered, six-minute intervals.
Over the course of the 90-minute tour, we viewed the massive plant from several vantage points, looking down on the action. Scaffolding “saddles” surrounded some of the planes so workers could walk over their tops. Other planes were brightly lit shells with workers buzzing inside, wiring up insulation and ventilation systems. The scale of the operation, with planes lined up one after the other, was impressive.
I toured the plant as a guest of the aviation centre, as an afterthought on a trip to Seattle Premium Outlets, which is about 25 minutes’ north. But now that I’ve been, I’d say the Future of Flight is a worthy destination in itself. It’s a good reminder that air travel is still special—even if you’re not seated in first class.
ACCESS: For hours and ticket info, see Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour. Lodging is available across the parking lot at the Hilton Garden Inn Seattle North/Everett. I stayed a five-minute drive away at the Silver Cloud Inn Mukilteo, which boasts a scenic, if busy, location on Possession Sound at the ferry terminal for Whidbey Island. The hotel is a block away from the Diamond Knot Brewing Company, an excellent microbrewery known for its IPAs.
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