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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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
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 Japan Airlines training facility in the middle of Washington state, 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 787 Dreamliner.

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.

As Bill Mead, operations leader for the 747-8 program and someone who has "worked on every 747 model ever produced," said: "This is an aviation industry icon that we build."

I think that I feel like Mead does about the planes, though I clearly have less personal attachment to them. But when I'm flying, I'll arrive early and just stare out the windows, scanning the runways for 747s, hoping to catch a glimpse of one, even though I know exactly what they look like. They're just that alluring.

Mead agrees.

"When I'm standing out front (of the Boeing factory), and one of my 747s takes off," he said, "everybody better be quiet, because I want to see it, and I want to hear it."

In any case, inside the Everett factory, Bader walked me around and showed me how the planes come together. They start off as innocuous body parts and then are fused together, piece by piece, until they form a completed 747.

As a visitor to the Everett plant, it's hard to see much of the actual construction, because much of it goes on inside tall, hard-to-see-inside scaffolding. But here and there, I caught glimpses. For example, at one point, Bader showed me where workers were putting the wings on a 747 body.

From the outside, what we could see was the view up some stairs into the inside of the wing, where its guts--a whole bunch of cables--were on display. The body of the plane, like most of the ones being worked on in the factory, was a metallic green.

Awe-inspiring in scope
Later, Bader showed me two nearly finished 747s, one still painted the metallic green and the other with the logos, blues and whites of a Japanese cargo carrier. On the green one, workers on heavy equipment scurried around by the plane's doors, welding and hammering away at a series of tasks to which we weren't close enough to determine. But this plane, which was still missing its engines, looked like it was just about ready for a maiden flight. In fact, Bader said it probably would be ready in a matter of days.

As we walked around the factory floor, we dodged endless Boeing employees on bicycles riding up and down the named "streets" inside the building--"Main Street" and "E Street" were two--and being careful not to enter areas that are off-limits to reporters.

This building is unlike anything I have ever seen. As I mentioned, it is said to be the world's largest building--"by volume," Bader said. That's 472,000,000 cubic feet, according to the company's Web site.

But that figure doesn't do the building justice. In fact, to look around is to see a structure that never ends in all four directions.

It is segmented by product (777s to the east, 747s to the west), and each plane has its own full production line.

I have to say, however, that while this was awe-inspiring in scope, there wasn't much of the romance I was expecting.

I had thought that being around 747s in progress would tug at my heart, since I love process. Instead, it felt rather sterile. I suppose that had something to do with the fact that the planes that were in the early stages of production were very difficult to see because they were hidden behind giant scaffolding structures.

Tails that are six stories high
Still, there's something special about seeing these planes come to life. And something noteworthy about seeing wing segments that look about a block long; tails that are six stories high and whose horizontal stabilizers are as long as 737 wings; and nearly finished planes that, up close, completely dominate one's field of vision.

Thus begs the question: What do they do with the planes, once they are finished?

The answer is that they pull them out through gargantuan sliding doors in the building's side and tow them to a painting facility that, as it happens, is on the other side of a highway that runs alongside the factory.

Bader explained that in order to get the planes to the painting facility, they must be towed across a bridge that runs over the highway.

"It's done at night," he said, "because it's kind of a distraction" to drivers.

Bader also commented on the pace of production, which requires three shifts, each lasting eight hours, every day.

"It's pretty phenomenal how fast things happen here," he said. "You'll come in one day, and there won't be a plane in final body join. And the next day, there is. And it all happens at night."

I wouldn't know, because I was only there for a couple hours during the day.

But I can say, as a 747 fan and someone who loves to see things come together, that having the opportunity to watch people build these planes is something I'll never forget.

And the next time I'm aboard a 747 or notice one flying overhead, I'll have to wonder: Did I see its wing sitting on the floor of the world's largest building?