Jetliner Dreams in a Mechanical Wonderland

11:51 PM

(editor's note: This is part two of two. Part one is here.)

In part one of my post on my recent factory tour of Boeing's Everett Assembly Building, I gushed over the completely awesome scene of looking down on actual 747s being fabricated right before my eyes. I tried to put into words the sheer size of this facility, certified by the good people at Guiness (the book, not the beer) as the largest building in the world by volume.

Now, in part two of this post, I want to try and explain what the rest of this fantastic tour is like. As I write this, the words will not do justice to what any pilot feels and sees when he/she takes this tour. We've all grown up around Boeing's stellar line of jet aircraft, and I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say how magical it still is to see something as big as a 747 actually achieve the lift required to fly hundreds of souls to Grandma's house. So to see these legendary craft be built is an experience sort of like EAA Airventure has to be seen to be believed.

The tour of the assembly building starts in the two 747 assembly bays, and after a short bus ride next to fresh new aircraft right out of the paint shop, we descend into another of those infinite underground tunnels towards the 777 assembly bay:
As we viewed the 747 lines, each aircraft that was nearing the end of production was literally surrounded by gigantic structures made of a combination of scaffolding, tools, ladders, carts and people. We tourists wondered aloud how much of a production it must be just to remove all that stuff and move one 747 from this station to the next. But as we looked down upon the one giant bay that is the 777 line, it looked like a sleek, streamlined version of the -47 line. It had to be that way...because like modern automotive assembly lines, the 777 line MOVES! O.K., it moves at 1.5" per hour, but that is still a foot per eight-hour shift.
The 777 line was shut down this Thanksgiving weekend, so I didn't get to see it "move". But just try and comprehend this for a many parts, so little time:
When the 777 line is up and running, Boeing's team of workers can crank out one of these mammoth liners in 7-9 weeks, a big improvement over the 16 weeks it takes them to build a 747. But imagine the pressure these workers must be under to build such a complex machine as it is "moving" through the factory. There is no time for slacking, there can be no weak links in this chain. This truly is a job best suited for superheroes.
Once we pulled our jaws back up from the floor at the 777 bay, we walked around a wall and saw the most anticipated part of this tour, the maternity ward where the most exciting airliner ever conceived is given birth:
Because the large components of the 787 Dreamliner are constructed elsewhere and flown via Dreamlifter to Everett, the 787 assembly bay looks quite different than the others. At our right was Dreamliner #10, resting on the landing gear, in the very last stages of construction. Behind it was a 787 marked with a large #11, which still was being assembled. To our left was another -87 marked #12, still waiting for wings and nose section to join some mated fuselage sections. If you are, like me, completely in lust with the 787, you cannot help but to almost well up a little looking at these Dreamliners coming together. Sure the first flight is still possibly a couple of weeks away (according to this report on Flightblogger), and yes, the delays have been frustrating for anyone watching the program. But when you actually SEE the Dreamliner, all of that goes away and you simply stand amazed at the sight.
There was one big thing I noticed about the 787 line that was missing from the 747 and 777 lines. Slide rules:
Since both the 747 and 777 are mature, fully-vetted models, their assembly bays had a bare minimum of desks and other office areas in which to work out any manufacturing glitches that arise. That's because they've got everything in those designs clicking right along, so the engineers have moved on to, you guessed it, the 787 line. As I looked down on that new line from the Observation Deck, I could not help but to notice that one entire side of the bay was covered in cubicles, desks, workstations, walled-in meeting rooms, computers, white boards, file cabinets and everything else Engineers need to think - and design - on the fly. I got the distinct impression that they are still sort of "figuring out" the 787, even as the Dreamliners slowly make their way out the hangar door. This tells me that the 787 is a work in progress, an evolving ship that will only get better as each heads over to the paint hangar.
If you've stayed with me this far through parts one and two of this post, I'm sure you have made future plans to visit Everett, Washington and take this tour. For any person who loves to see how things are built, this will be the best $15 you will ever spend in your life. For any licensed pilot – especially those EAA'ers who have their own little version of Boeing in their garage or basement – this will be an unbelievable, almost indescribable adventure to airplane land.

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