The Boeing Company and the Boeing Tour
As the Air Force’s presence at Paine Field was wrapping up, The Boeing Company was looking for a large area to construct an assembly plant for its new 747 aircraft. In June 1966 the company acquired 780 acres of private land abutting the north end of Paine Field. With the concurrence and cooperation of local government and the Federal Aviation Administration, it also obtained the ability to build part of its complex on adjacent airport property. In 1967, The Boeing Company opened its vast, now world famous facility to produce its unprecedented jumbo jet.
The establishment of the 747 plant soon led to the creation of a public tour of the factory. As the plant expanded over the years to handle the production of additional aircraft models, the scope of the tour grew as well. The Boeing Tour became so popular that eventually it required larger facilities where visitors could assemble.
From 1979 to 1980 The Boeing Company expanded its Paine Field plant to produce the 767 aircraft. The first plane rolled out of the factory in August 1981. From 1991 to 1993 the company again enlarged the factory, this time to build its 777 airplane. A ceremonial roll-out of the first 777 took place on April 9, 1994. In April 2004, The Boeing Company board of directors approved the formal launch of the 787 Dreamliner, to be assembled at the Paine Field facility from components produced by other Boeing Company sites and by an international group of suppliers. The first 787 made its inaugural flight in December 2009.
The Paine Field Boeing Company complex is a unique tour venue. It is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest building in the world by volume. It has grown over the years to enclose 472 million cubic feet of space on a 98.3 acre site. And, as this is being written, the company is in the process of adding a facility to build carbon fiber composite wings for its new 777X aircraft.
Initially there was no plan to provide public tours. But would-be visitors would appear at the plant, and eventually the operations staff began giving ad hoc tours in the 747 mockup area. The Boeing Company began officially conducting Everett factory tours in 1968, operating out of a single trailer. That year more than 39,000 people took the free tour. At the beginning visitors still visited just the 747 mockup area, but eventually tours went into the assembly area. In 1972 the company spent $90,000 to create a tour center out of three trailers located by the “40-81 building,” which is now behind the northeast corner of the giant main assembly building. It included a space for showing an introductory film. The staff consisted of a guide, a sales receptionist, a supervisor, and a driver. They shared a ten-foot by ten-foot office space with a power transformer, a sink, a water heater, and other equipment.
Future of Flight Foundation board member Kevin Austin worked at that three-trailer facility.
“I was a Boeing tour guide while in college – actually, I started as a tour guide while I was still in high school. Did it all the way through college. Later on, I became the manager of the tour center at Boeing, and worked there I think for six years before I moved into a different position at Boeing.
“It was a great time. The tour center in the ‘70s was a triple wide trailer outside the plant in the parking lot, but it attracted visitors from all around the world. It was amazing the people that would come and visit us and take a tour at the Boeing plant. Very famous people, many times, and a lot of times just people travelling through the area. But the people that travelled to Seattle didn’t want to miss it.
“We had the opportunity to tour a lot of visiting dignitaries, heads of state, et cetera. Probably the most famous person I had the opportunity to meet was Margaret Thatcher. At the time Rolls Royce had an initiative to put their engine on the Boeing 747, and they were sending ministers of parliament here to meet with Boeing on a regular basis. And they sent a female minister of parliament, and the Boeing higher ups kind of took the attitude that the chances of her becoming prime minister were rather slim. So they sent her over to the tour center and we took her on tour.”
The three-trailer facility had some obvious shortcomings. During the high volume summer months, there was no place for all the visitors to sit. When it rained, there was no covered area for visitors. The theater was on a flat floor, so persons in the back had to stand up to see the projection screen.
By 1984 the tour was drawing 55,000 visitors a year, and The Boeing Company opened a new 5,500-square-foot tour center building near the west end of its plant. It contained a 100-seat theater, a gift shop, a small conference area, and a spacious lobby with large windows facing the flight line. The center was staffed by a supervisor and receptionist, along with full-time tour guides, who were augmented with temporary help during peak activity periods. First-come, first-served tours were conducted at 9:00AM and 12:30PM Monday through Friday, and groups of 15 or more could reserve tours at 10:30AM and 2:00PM. Tours began with a narrated slide show on the history of The Boeing Company and the current planes being produced, a film on how finishing touches were put on the airliners, and a speeded up film of the assembly of a 767. Visitors were then bused to the assembly building to view the inside of the plant, and they finished with a bus ride along the preflight line and back to the tour center.
By 1996 100,000 visitors a year were taking the free 90-minute tours. The six daily tours started on the hour, with the first one at 9:00AM; there was no tour at noon. The 9:00AM and 1:00PM tours took 90 visitors; the others took 45. In the summer, a 90-person tour was added at 8:00AM. Visitors would arrive as much as three hours before the first tour in hopes of getting a ticket. The introductory film was now the documentary made for the company’s 75th anniversary in 1991, followed by a seven minute time-lapse depiction of the assembly of a 747. At the end of the tour visitors received a folder with a timeline of The Boeing Company history and color photographs of the five types of aircraft then being produced at the plant, along with their specifications. By its 30th anniversary in 1998, the Boeing Tour had welcomed two million visitors.
In the late 1990s Tour Center manager Sarah Murr proposed that the facility be improved and expanded to better portray the image of The Boeing Company. She obtained approval to hire an outside consultant to do a feasibility study and prepare a proposal for a new tour center. The plan called for working with Paine Field and the Everett community to build a facility overlooking the flight line. It was well received by company leadership but failed to move forward, being overshadowed by a production downturn at the plant. When the new Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour opened a few years later, Ms. Murr remarked, “It was like a dream come true.”