The not-so-little shop of 747s

To build a jumbo jet, you need a jumbo building. It's where the romance of air travel meets the assembly line. Photos: Inside the factory

EVERETT, Wash.--I stand in the middle of what I've been told is the largest building in the world, looking across the cavernous space at two nearly finished 747 jumbo jets.

In this space, boy, do these mammoth planes look small.

I've come here to Everett, about a half hour north of Seattle, to visit the Boeing plant where 747s, 767s and 777s are made. But for me--and I suspect anyone else who knows anything about airplanes--this place is all about the 747.

747 factor

For me, the 747 conjures up romantic notions of adventure, far-away locales, far-flung peoples and exotic airlines. I can remember flying on an Air France 747 when I was 9, from Los Angeles to Paris and back. My first world travels as an adult began with a seat on the upper deck of a British Airways 747 when I was 22.

The first flight of a 747 even took place the same year I was born: 1969.

Along the way, the planes have always been present in my life. I often take walks in the hills near San Francisco International Airport around the time in the afternoon when 747s from Air France, KLM, British Airways, Virgin, Lufthansa and others are making their majestic takeoffs for their overnight trips to Europe. Friends joke that I can tell the time by which airline's 747 is soaring overhead.

Inside the 747

Here are a few facts about Boeing's 747 line, which currently consists of the 400 series.

The 747-400 has 6 million parts, half of which are fasteners.
The 747-400 tail height is 63 feet, 8 inches, equivalent to a six-story building.
The 747-400 wing weighs 95,000 pounds and measures 5,600 square feet--large enough to hold 45 midsize cars.
The 747 fleet has logged more than 35 billion statute miles--enough to make 74,000 trips to the moon and back.
The 747 fleet has flown more than 3.5 billion people.
A 747-400 typically takes off at 180mph, cruises at 565mph and lands at 160mph.
The 747-400ER can carry more than 63,500 gallons of fuel and consumes about five gallons per mile.

Source: Boeing

So after an inadvertent trip in June to the , where that airline trains its 747 pilots, and a drive-by of Boeing Field near the Seattle-Tacoma airport in July, I had a strange idea: Perhaps Boeing would open its doors and let me spend an afternoon at its factory, seeing how the planes are built.

A few phone calls and e-mails later, it was a go.

Updated 747s on the way
Last week, I found myself being escorted around the unbelievably large facility here by Boeing 747 program communications manager Tim Bader and looking at the various steps in the process as an actual 747 emerges from a pile of component pieces.

This is an exciting time in the world of the 747. The last major update to the venerable line came in 1989 with the launch of the 747-400. Seventeen years later, that plane is still being made--more cargo versions than passenger ones, by the way--even as Boeing ramps up production on its 777 and its forthcoming .

But now, Boeing is working on its new 747-8 project. The project, launched late last year, will update the most recognizable plane in the world. The project will also make the line more fuel-efficient and--hopefully--reduce the per-seat costs, thus making the plane affordable to more passengers.

Regardless, as a fan of the 747, it is heartening to know that Boeing is not abandoning the plane as it moves forward with the 777 and the 787. Indeed, with the recent struggles of the much-hyped Airbus A380, Boeing is poised to gain new ground with its newer plane. And thus, the 747-8 is poised, upon its launch in 2009, to become the dominant long-haul plane in the skies for years to come.

None of that business minutiae matters to fans like me. More important is that the signature profile of the 747--you know, the huge, sleek fuselage with the giant second-story bump at its head--keeps on going.

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