EVERETT — Bill Rietkerk picked up his college diploma from the University of Washington’s aeronautical engineering program on a Saturday in 1966. The next Monday, he started work at Boeing’s Renton plant.
The 23-year-old was one of 50,000 workers hired by the company in the mid-1960s.
Boeing was booming. It had roared into the Jet Age with the 707 and then the 727. A few months after Rietkerk started, Boeing’s Lunar Orbiter sent back the first photographs of the Moon. The entire industry was busy turning the day’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality.
“It was a thrilling time” for a young engineer, Rietkerk said.
The year he graduated, Boeing committed to make a jetliner to dwarf every other passenger plane in the sky. The 747 was expected to carry more than 350 passengers between continents, making it about two-and-a-half times bigger than the largest airliners of the day, the 707 and the Douglas DC-8. The company would need a massive factory to make the mammoth plane.
That need brought Boeing — and Rietkerk — to Everett, where the company developed jets that revolutionized air travel. This May 1 marked 50 years since jetliner production began at the plant, which was far from finished at the time. The factory floor was still dirt. Mechanics, engineers, analysts and other workers wore hardhats while construction continued all around.
The iconic jumbo was just the beginning for Boeing Everett. All of the company’s big, twin-aisle airplanes — the 747, 767, 777 and 787 — were developed at the sprawling plant. Each has dramatically influenced how airplanes are made, how airlines operate and how people fly.
“It’s hard to think of a more influential factory anywhere,” said Kevin Michaels, head of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
More than 60 percent of the twin-aisle jets flying now were made in Everett. When Boeing decided to make its new jetliner, the 777X, and the plane’s advanced composite-material wings, in Everett, the company ensured the plant would continue to shape the world and push technological boundaries.
Boeing could easily have ended up elsewhere to make the 747. The company needed a site with rail, roads and a long runway. By early 1966, Boeing property managers’ short list included Everett, McChord Air Force Base and Walnut Creek, California. The engineer tapped to design the jumbo, Joe Sutter, balked at the idea of moving production to California.
“I told them it would be a big disaster,” he said in an interview with The Daily Herald in 2015. He died last year. “We had 29 months to roll an airplane out, and if I was going to spend 25 percent of my time running between here and California, when the hell would I help design the airplane?”
Boeing leaders expected the 747 would soon be surpassed by faster passenger jets. So, designers emphasized its use as a cargo plane and put the flight deck on top of the fuselage, giving the 747 its defining hump.
As company leaders considered where to build the jumbo, The Daily Herald’s owner and publisher at the time, Robert Best, set out to woo the company to Paine Field. He then headed the commission which oversaw the Snohomish County-owned airport. Best and airport director George Petrie pitched Everett to Boeing president Bill Allen, who interrupted them.
“He said they had already optioned about 700 acres. Bob and I looked at each other in amazement,” Petrie said. “We had no idea Boeing was thinking that big.”
Local officials pledged to do whatever was needed to land the factory, which Boeing expected would employ about 15,000 people. Today, roughly 40,000 people work at the sprawling plant and office buildings.
The area was covered by dense forest. As workers cleared trees and levelled the rolling terrain in the spring of 1966, they occasionally had to chase off bears, Sutter said.
On Jan. 3, 1967, the first 113 Boeing workers arrived onsite. A Boeing executive welcomed the group, calling them the “Incredibles.”
The nickname stuck and became a source of pride for the thousands of workers involved in creating the 747. They did it with slide rules and hand-drawn schematics, with rivet guns and soldering irons, and with a relentless focus through long hours, day after day. The program manager, Mal Stamper, took off one day — a single Christmas — during the years the 747 was in development.
Later that year, Rietkerk joined the 747 program. His job was to ensure the parts designed by the myriad engineering teams could all fit together inside the plane. Without digital design programs, he and other engineers installed prototypes in a full-size 747 mockup, housed in the first building completed on site.
When he first stepped inside the building, the size and towering height of the polished-aluminum body stopped him. At Renton, the 707 was the biggest jet he had seen.
“I hadn’t realized the scope of the project” until that moment, he said. “My reaction was ‘Wow, this is going to be something to pull off.’”
The first 747, dubbed the “City of Everett,” taxied onto the main runway at Paine Field for its maiden flight on Feb. 9, 1969. Rietkerk and a couple other engineers snuck onto the factory roof and watched from a catwalk near the air traffic control tower perched above the plant.
Powered by revolutionary engines from Pratt & Whitney, the jumbo started rolling — slowly at first. The 747 picked up speed and gracefully lifted into the air. The plane’s size made it look like it was floating more than flying, he said.
“The airplane’s flying beautifully!” Boeing test pilot Brien Wygle said over the radio.
Less than a year later, a Pan Am 747 carried passengers across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Air travel would never be the same.
Boom, bust and beyond
Boeing’s booming 1960s went bust by the decade’s end. An economic downturn, high fuel prices and other changes forced the company to lay off tens of thousands of workers.
“It was devastating,” Rietkerk recalled. His group of 240 engineers dwindled to 35.
As Boeing stumbled, a rival arrived. Several faltering European aerospace companies collaborated to create Airbus, which saw its first airplane, the A300, take flight in late 1972. It passed without much notice in Everett.
“We didn’t perceive what a strong competitor they would become,” he said.
Boeing had recovered by the late 1970s, and its workforce swelled as airplane production picked up again. While the days of The Incredibles were over, there was still a sense of purpose in the Everett plant, recalled Bonnie Grisim, who had joined Boeing in 1969.
“We had huge Christmas parties,” she told the Herald in 2016. The plant shut down and tables were set up in the aisles.
“Everyone brought food, and managers were in charge of turkeys and hams,” Grisim said. “We warmed the food in the paint-booth ovens.”
The plant grew as Boeing added new airplane assembly lines, starting with a 20-acre expansion for the twin-aisle 767 in the late 1970s.
The 767 started an evolution still underway in aviation today. The smaller twin-jet initially was designed for mid-range routes too small for a jumbo and too big for a 707. However, later upgrades extended its range, and airlines used it to pioneer new point-to-point Transatlantic routes.
That began a decades-long shift away from hub airports for more direct flights, aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton said.
In the early 1990s, Boeing butted heads with local officials over its plan to add another 36 acres of factory space for its new 777.
“Were there issues? Sure, there were,” former Boeing Everett manager Jim Johnson said in 2006. He managed the plant from 1988 to 1993.
Company leaders had not looped in local leaders, who were caught off guard, he said.
In response, they told the company it would have to cover $50 million for the additional sewers, roadwork and other work needed by the larger workforce. Eventually, the two sides reached an agreement. Since then, Boeing has developed a closer relationship with key state and local leaders, who have been keen to keep happy the engine driving the local economy.
Launched in 1990, the 777 revolutionized how airplanes are developed. It was the first jet designed entirely with computers. Its tail was made mostly from composite materials, which made up about 12 percent of the material on the airplane. That was up from the 2 or 3 percent on earlier Boeing jetliners.
“Boeing didn’t just hang composite panels on metal frames,” as other airplane makers did at the time, said Kevin Michaels with AeroDynamic Advisory.
The plane’s designers used the new digital design tools to create all-composite structures, which maximized their benefit, he said.
The 777 first flew in 1994. Less than a year later, it carried passengers across the Atlantic. From day one, the 777 was a workhorse of long-haul travel, a niche it still dominates.
“Boeing did all that in four years,” he said. “Think about where we are today. My gosh, even the 737 MAX (an upgrade of an existing plane) is taking years.”
In 2003, Boeing set out to again revolutionize air travel with the 787. It pushed technological boundaries in its design, materials, avionics and even its supply chain.
Anxious to see 787 production land in Washington, state and local leaders jumped into action. Lucrative tax breaks, streamlined permitting processes, transportation investments and other incentives followed. At the end of the year, Boeing announced the plane would be assembled in Everett.
Some of the changes proved more than Boeing and its suppliers could handle. The 787 was bogged down by supply and design problems that have cost Boeing billions of dollars. However, the plane has continued the evolution that the 767 began, allowing airlines to bypass hub airports for more direct flights.
Boeing makes more airplanes now at Everett than it did 20 years ago. However, the company’s decision to move its corporate headquarters and to put a second 787 assembly line in South Carolina, unnerved the region, convincing many that the company was rushing to leave the state.
In 2013, the company publicly considered putting production of its new 777X outside Washington. Lawmakers responded with the biggest state tax break in U.S. history, a deal worth an estimated $8.7 billion over 16 years, and members of the Machinists union approved a concession-laden contract. Critics called Boeing’s behavior a shakedown, while supporters said it was merely the reality of global competition.
Rietkerk still works at Everett, now on the 767 program. Commercial demand for the jet is waning, but it continues to change aviation as the KC-46 Pegasus, the most advanced aerial refueling military tanker. Boeing expects to hand over the first tanker to the U.S. Air Force by the end of 2017.
During a recent walk in the factory, Rietkerk paused below a 747 and looked up to the flight deck perched high overhead.
“It still amazes me,” the 73-year-old said.
Boeing is working on the future today with its 777X, its composite wing production and new automated production systems. Making the airplane’s advanced, composite-material wings at the plant ensures Everett will be on the forefront of the industry for years to come.
“Wings are changing very significantly. They are much thinner and more complex than ever,” Michaels said. “You almost can’t make them out of anything but composites anymore.”
That could make Everett a front-runner when Boeing considers where to make its next new jetliner. Increasing automation means fewer workers will be needed to make those planes. Nonetheless, the plant’s success will depend on having talented workers, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president Kathy Moodie said. She runs operations at the Everett plant.
There is plenty of work to be had. Aviation consulting firm Flight Ascend expects that 7,960 twin-aisle aircraft will be needed in the next 20 years. Boeing estimates the market is worth $2.8 trillion.
Winning that work for Everett will depend on the same fundamental factors that drove its success half a century ago, she said.
“My top concerns right now are affordability, efficiency, safety and getting that next group of talent in here,” Moodie said. “In 50 years, the person sitting here is going to say, ‘My number-one concerns are remaining competitive, affordable, building the best airplanes in the safest way and keeping the talent coming into the Boeing Co.”