MUKILTEO — The Boeing Future of Flight exhibit and events building that overlooks Paine Field, closed since March due to COVID-19, reopened Thursday.
It immediately drew visitors from across the globe.
Two British Airways 787 pilots ducked into a mockup of the Destiny Module, the International Space Station research lab replica on loan from the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
A Los Angeles couple, Nina Dung and Andrew Hwang, saw the lights were on and took a swing through the main exhibit area.
“We’re on a road trip from Los Angeles,” said Dung, who was captivated by an exhibit that lets visitors design their own virtual airplane. “This is great. It’s an amazing hall.”
The aviation museum reopened a week after Boeing announced the closing of the Everett 787 assembly line. Production of the twin-aisle passenger jet is being consolidated at the company’s plant in South Carolina in 2021.
An older exhibit that features a section of a 787 fuselage, with the words “Changing the Future of Flight” on its exterior, suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb. Inside the cutaway of the fuselage, a time-lapse video of a Dreamliner being assembled on the Everett line played in a continuous loop.
The star of the Future of Flight, the Boeing Factory Tour, which used to draw some 300,000 visitors each year, isn’t scheduled to reopen. There are no immediate plans to resume the tour, Boeing spokesperson Norm Mah said, though he added that that the company is developing a virtual factory tour.
A large portion of the gallery at the revamped Future of Flight is devoted to autonomous aircraft — designs that can carry one to four passengers.
New exhibits include a drone-piloting practice space and a giant circular screen suspended from the ceiling that depicts a simulated flight from Earth to Mars.
Activities for children and adults, including robotic coding and drone-flying workshops, have resumed.
Masks are required, and visitor capacity is limited to 25% of normal, Mah said.
Ticket prices are $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 15.
A ticket also gives visitors access to the outdoor Sky Deck with its panoramic views of Paine Field, the Everett assembly plant and the North Cascades.
A popular location for plane-spotters, the Sky Deck was free to visitors before Boeing took over in October 2018. A nonprofit, the Institute of Flight, operated the aviation center previously.
Boeing assumed control of the Future of Flight after negotiating a long-term lease with Snohomish County, which owns the building.
Charging to visit the Sky Deck was a disappointment for Brainard Lee, a retired Boeing employee who was outside the center with his wife, Gale, watching airplanes take off and land at Paine Field.
“They should never charge people to go up to the observation deck,” Lee said. “It should be free — it’s a great place to take the kids.”
Boeing spokesman Mah said the deck is closed to non-ticket-holders due to security.
The deck also offers views of the center’s neighbor — the Dreamlifter Operations Center, which includes parking for the enormous freighters.
The Dreamlifter, a modified 747, was specially configured to carry aerospace components, including fuselage sections used in the 787.
With production moving to South Carolina, could the bulbous freighters’ visits be less frequent?
Takeoffs of a fully-loaded, 875,000-pound Dreamlifter are an impressive sight, though the big jet generates noise complaints.
Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Kowal said Dreamlifter operations at Paine Field will continue after the 787 program is consolidated in North Charleston, South Carolina.
“In addition to transporting 787 components, the Dreamlifter supports 767 production by flying the nose section from our supplier Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, to Paine Field and 767 final assembly at the Everett factory,” Kowal said in an email.
The Future of Flight and the factory tour have been among Snohomish County’s most popular attractions. Visitors used to ogle the 767, 747, 787 and 777 and 777X assembly lines from walkways high above the factory floor.
But with the 787 line closing next year, and production of the 747 — the airplane that gave birth to the Everett assembly plant in the mid-1960s — ending in two years, the 90-minute tour could be much shorter.
About a dozen orders for the 747 are still on backlog. But once those are completed, a huge amount of space could become available inside the world’s largest building by volume.
Guesses and wild guesses as to what might fill the void are rampant.
Boeing retiree Lee, who called the 787 announcement “a logical business decision,” said the company might use the space to expand military aircraft production.
“We don’t know who built the next generation fighter jet that was unveiled last month,” Lee said of a secretly built U.S. Air Force prototype. “That’s my wild guess.”
Said Boeing spokeswoman Kowal: “We’re evaluating our overall infrastructure across Boeing to optimize our facilities and footprint.”
Boeing Future of Flight hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday. It’s closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Another Paine Field aircraft center also faces an uncertain future.
The Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum at Paine Field has been closed since May due to the the COVID-19 pandemic.
The museum, launched by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is a showcase for Allen’s private collection of World War II and Cold War aircraft, tanks, military vehicles, combat armor and peculiarities of war. The Friends of Flying Heritage, the non-profit organization which operates the museum, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“A lot of people are very anxious about that collection and what’s happening with it,” said Randy Malmstrom, a vintage aircraft fan who keeps tabs on the museum.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097: Twitter: JanicePods