Boeing’s big moment

  • Saturday, February 7, 2004 9:00pm
  • Business

It was a big moment — perhaps bigger than anyone knew. But then, everything about the Boeing Co.’s first 747 had been larger than life.

Thick gray clouds pressed down on the scene. It had snowed a few days before, and icy slush soaked the feet of the thousands of people who lined the Paine Field runway watching as the giant plane lumbered along the taxiway.

There were busloads of schoolchildren, rows of airline customers and other VIPs, and long ranks of "The Incredibles" — the Boeing workers who had built both the world’s largest airplane and the world’s largest factory almost simultaneously.

There were a fair number of people who didn’t believe the 367-ton behemoth — christened the "City of Everett" — would get off the ground. Lead designer Joe Sutter said his wife, Nancy, had been stopped in the grocery store several times by people asking, "Does your husband really know what he is doing?"

But Sutter was confident. He stationed his wife 4,200 feet down the runway, because that was the spot where he had calculated the jet’s wheels would leave the ground on that first takeoff. It was there she’d have the best view — her reward for more than two years of listening to him talk about his worries over the dinner table.

Three stories up in the cockpit, the flight crew didn’t worry about getting airborne.

"We knew it was going to fly," said co-pilot Brien Wygle. "We were engineers."

But what he did worry about was a glitch that would embarrass the company in front of the huge crowd. "What if we got a flat tire taxiing?" he wondered. "What if we have to reject the takeoff?"

Boeing had bet the company on this jet, going over budget and flirting with bankruptcy as it scrambled with an impossibly fast timeline to meet the demands set by Pan American, the launch customer. It was only 29 months between the day the contracts were signed and the first rollout the previous fall.

"Today, the boys take like four years for that," Sutter said.

Already, the takeoff had been delayed 90 minutes. The clouds were thick, and on this first flight, "we didn’t want to fly on instruments," Wygle said.

But finally a sunbreak came. Pilot Jack Waddell started the plane rolling down the runway.

It rolled, then roared. The records show a takeoff speed of 184 mph, but time seemed to stand still for those watching on the ground.

"It must have taken a half-hour till it got to the point where it rotated and took off," said John Monroe, one of the workers who was watching.

Then, improbably, the nose lifted and the great plane climbed into the sky.

"I remember crying," Monroe said.

It was 11 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1969, and the world of aviation — and the city of Everett —would be changed forever.

"I can’t believe it’s been 35 years," said the 79-year-old Wygle, standing beside the mothballed City of Everett last week at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The 747 is "more a legend than a plane," according to Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group in Virginia.

It was the original wide-body jet, 2 1/2times larger than its predecessor, the Boeing 707. It could carry more fuel and fly farther than its competition. And it would go faster than any other airliner except the supersonic Concord.

"Everything was super," Wygle said. "It was the biggest of this and the most of that."

It also was the jet that destroyed the "jet set." The 747’s size meant it could carry more passengers for less — 30 percent less — which made air travel more affordable.

"It made mass international travel by the middle class possible," Aboulafia said. "The 747 was, for long-range travel, an economic miracle."

To build the world’s largest jet, Boeing needed the world’s largest factory.

The company had run out of room in Renton and Seattle, so it started looking elsewhere to site the 747 factory, author T.M. Sell wrote in his book "Wings of Power."

Everett was on the short-list, but well down it, according to Sell. San Diego, Denver and Cleveland ranked higher. So did Moses Lake. Boeing looked hard at California, and even took an option on land in Walnut Creek.

But in the end, Boeing decided that it would be too hard to convince their key personnel to move outside the Puget Sound area. In 1967, Boeing bought 780 acres next to Paine Field and announced that it would build the new factory there.

The construction of the Everett factory is "one of the legends of which Boeing is made," Sell said last week. "People literally slept in their cars at Everett so they could stay later and get there earlier."

While some built the factory, others worked on the plane. The two groups called themselves "The Incredibles" because everything they did was hard to fathom, Monroe said.

Never mind that undertaking the job itself was incredible, Monroe said. Just getting to work down narrow Casino Road was a feat. Much of the work took place in the winter rain, which left the site coated with mud.

Most of all, the sheer size of both the plane and the factory boggled the minds of the residents of Everett, then a busy mill town.

"Everett was different 35 years ago," Wygle said. "At that time, it sat here. That was Everett. Over here was an airport. And that was it."

Everett had about 40,000 residents then. "We didn’t have many big buildings," Monroe said. That is, until the walls of the world’s largest factory started going up just south of town.

Monroe, now 57, said he’ll never forget his first glimpse inside the new building. "I must have just stood there with my mouth open for five minutes."

With the "Queen of the Skies" being built in its backyard, Everett and Snohomish County became a world center for aerospace manufacturing, as Boeing expanded the factory twice to make room for the 767 and 777 programs. The company’s new 7E7 will be assembled here, too.

The 747 "obviously had a huge economic impact," said Walt Crowley, executive director of an online encyclopedia of state history. "Both benefits and costs."

All that was in the future as the first 747 climbed through the clouds.

In the cockpit, Waddell seemed pleasantly surprised by the way the big plane handled. After a few minutes, he handed control over to Wygle, who quickly learned why. "It felt good, right from the beginning," Wygle said.

Waddell would say after the flight that it was a "two-finger airplane," meaning he could control it with his forefinger and thumb on the wheel.

Waddell, Wygle and flight engineer Jess Wallick climbed up to 15,500 feet, performed the first flight tests, then returned to Paine Field, landing at 12:50 p.m.

Critics had questioned whether the pilots would be able to land the huge 747, and Sutter himself had concerns. But "the landing was a piece of cake," he said. The big plane "sort of eased onto the ground."

"When I watched the first landing, that’s when I knew we had a good airplane," Sutter said.

After the flight, Sutter left the VIPs to find his wife. "She was crying," he recalled. "I had to give her a big hug."

Analysts today debate the future of the 747.

"Orders are slow and the backlog is dangerously low," Aboulafia told his clients last summer. "The program is on the wrong side of its life cycle."

But the 747 continues to chug along. Last week, Boeing landed orders for three of the planes from a Japanese cargo carrier. The company now has sold 1,378 jumbo jets, and as of the first of the year had delivered 1,338 of them.

The Airbus A380 will soon eclipse the 747 as the world’s largest jetliner, and some are saying the 747’s time has passed. But Sutter notes that the 747 is the only one of the new jets launched in the late 1960s that is still in production. The Concord, notably, has been retired from service.

"When people talk about how technology has passed the 747 by, I say those other guys are just trying to play catch-up to the 747," Sutter said.

He said he expects Boeing to incorporate the new engines and materials from the 7E7 into an advanced 747 that will stretch the legacy of the jet deep into the 21st century.

"I hope I’m in good health and can get up there for that rollout," the 82-year-old said from his retirement home in Hawaii. "I just hope it’s not a cold February day."

Reporter Bryan Corliss:

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