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Despite tornadoes and derailments, the 737s keep on coming

Every month, Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan., turns out 42 fuselages for 737s. And it's survived a disaster or two. CNET Road Trip 2014 stops by.

At Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan., 42 Boeing 737 fuselages are made every month. Spirit Aerosystems

WICHITA, Kan. -- Down below me, the seven nearly-finished Boeing 737 fuselages are quite a sight. That, of course, explains why the view is known as the "scenic overlook."

I'm standing on a platform at Spirit Aerosystems, a company that for years has made major components for Boeing commercial jets, first as a division of the aviation giant, and since 2005, as a standalone spinoff.

Early this month, a train derailed in Montana, causing three Boeing 737 fuselages headed to Boeing's final assembly plant near Seattle to slide down a hillside into a river. Days earlier, those same fuselages had been made by Spirit in Wichita, joining dozens the company manufactures for Boeing each month.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to Spirit in this south-central Kansas city of 386,000 to see how the company makes major sections of both Boeing's composite -- the 787 Dreamliner -- and metal planes, the 737, 747, 757, 767, and 777. My visit to the metal side of things focused almost exclusively on the 737, the best-selling passenger jet in history.

Max capacity?

In Spirit's early days of making 737 fuselages, it turned out about 7 a month, said Jim Hans, the company's head of the 737 program. These days, it sends out 42 a month, on railcars headed for Seattle, to become part of the world's largest fleet of passenger airliners.

According to Boeing, airlines have ordered more than 10,700 737s since the airplane first began flying in 1968. Since the so-called 737 Next Generation program launched in 1997, Boeing has delivered more than 5,000 of the planes. Now it's readying the next iteration of the aircraft, the so-called 737 Max, which is expected to make its first flight in 2016.

When the Spirit facility here began producing 737 fuselages, it was thought that it could make no more than about 21 a month. But already that number has doubled, and according to Hans there's little reason to think the total couldn't rise even more. "Boeing has plans to grow," he said, "and we have plans to be right there with them."

Tornadoes and derailments, oh my

Normally, the process of making a 737 fuselage here is pretty straightforward, though an outsider visiting the complex, with its thousands of workers and countless numbers of components, might wonder if it's more complicated.

Production begins on the south side of the factory and moves gradually north. The smallest sections are assembled on the south side, and eventually they're all fastened together at Integration. In the end they're put on railcars and sent westward toward Washington.

But things aren't always normal, Hans lamented.

Recently, of course, there was the train derailment. At first, it was hoped that the three fallen fuselages might be salvageable.

"A team of experts from Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems are continuing to assess damage to six 737 fuselages resulting from the July 3 train derailment near Rivulet, Montana," Boeing said in a statement earlier this month. "Shipments of 737 fuselages from Spirit's Wichita, Kansas, plant to the Boeing final assembly plant in Renton, Washington, have resumed on their regular schedule.


More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

"Cars involved in the derailment carrying assemblies for the 777 and 747 were inspected, and their content appears to be undamaged. They have been shipped to the Boeing final assembly plant in Everett (Washington) where they are undergoing additional inspection before installation. There has been no disruption to the production schedule for either the 777 or the 747 program."

Unfortunately, according to a report in the Montana-based Missoulian, the decision was ultimately made to dismantle the damaged 737 fuselages.

This wasn't the only bizarre event to hit Spirit in recent years, Hans said. In 2012, he recalled, the Spirit buildings here were slammed by a powerful tornado, causing substantial damage throughout the facility, as well as an entire week's lost production.

Yet Spirit found a way not to slow down Boeing's production rate on any of its planes, Hans said. "I've seen it all now," he added. "A tornado strike...a major hailstorm, and now [planes] sliding down a hill into a river."

Still, Hans pointed with pride to the work being done every day by the thousands of Spirit employees who help turn out dozens of airplane fuselages a month, all with the goal of supporting Boeing, the company's biggest client. Since 1995, he said, Spirit has made 5,057 Next Generation 737 fuselages. "Not many people know that that volume" of planes, Hans said, "come out of this factory in little old Wichita, Kansas."

Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.