The Boeing Co. is turning 100 on July 15. Throughout the year, The Daily Herald is covering the people, airplanes and moments that define The Boeing Century. More about this series
Despite its long list of locations, as well as a headquarters in Chicago, Boeing is still fundamentally a Washington company. Today, about half of its workforce is in the state where it was born in 1916. Nonetheless, many here fear that the company has one foot out the door. As the saying goes, “Boeing, Boeing, gone.”
Talk about leaving Washington seems to be in the company’s DNA, though.
Even before he started selling airplanes, Bill Boeing publicly threatened to leave for California after a police raid on his house in 1916. Sheriff’s deputies raided his home in the Highlands, a big-money enclave north of Seattle, seizing liquor and wine worth several thousand dollars. The sheriff was enforcing recently passed local bans on alcohol.
Boeing was already building his first plane, the B&W, and in July 1916, he founded Pacific Aero Products Co., which became Boeing Airplane Co. the following year.
Lake Union hangar, Seattle
In 1915, Boeing and George Conrad Westervelt designed and started building their first plane, the B&W, in a float-plane hangar Boeing had constructed at the foot of Roanoke Street on the northeast shore of Lake Union in Seattle.
The hangar witnessed the first flights of the B&W and the company’s second plane, the Model C. The young company quickly outgrew the facility.
Plant 1 and Plant 2, Seattle
Boeing Airplane Co. moved production to Ed Heath’s shipyard, which Boeing had bought in 1910. The yard was on the Duwamish River south of downtown Seattle and near Georgetown, which had recently been annexed into the city.
The site’s main workshop — the Red Barn — was later moved to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, where it remains today.
More buildings soon were added. The location was “to be an ideal aircraft factory and therefore must be self contained,” reported the 1920 Aircraft Year Book, which was published by the Manufacturers Aircraft Association. “All operations necessary to the construction of modern aircraft could be performed within the plan Ö”
That is far different from today’s plants, where aircraft are assembled from parts made around the world.
The Navy’s order for HS-2L flying boats, a Curtiss design, prompted construction of an even larger building — 200 feet long by 150 feet across with up to 30 feet of clearance. It would be big enough “to assemble the super aircraft of the next few years,” the Aircraft Year Book noted.
For several years, Bill Boeing kept an office in the Hoge Building near Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. His cousin, Edgar Gott, ran what came to be called Plant 1.
The Seattle facilities expanded to keep pace with demand. In 1936, Boeing opened the much larger Plant 2, which was big enough for B-17 assembly. The plant was on the Duwamish River’s east shore — the same side as Boeing Field — which eliminated the need to barge planes across the river for flight testing.
During World War II, Plant 2 was so critical to wartime production that a fake neighborhood was built on top of it as camouflage. From the air, it looked nothing like a factory.
Plant 2 was demolished in 2010. The 1940 administration building remains at the site.
Boeing Field in Seattle began as Meadows Race Track, a one-mile loop tucked in an oxbow in the then-meandering Duwamish River. It opened for horse racing in 1902 and saw the state’s first auto race in 1905 and its first airplane flight in 1910.
Barnstormer Charles Hamilton awed onlookers at the Meadows on March 11, 1910, “circling and wheeling with the abandon of a swallow,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. Hamilton’s show the next day was cut short when his Curtiss Reims Racer biplane crashed into a pond in the track’s infield. Suffering only scrapes and bruises, he was back in the air the following day.
The Meadows and nearby grassy fields continued to be a popular spot for flyers. In 1928, the county-owned airport, already dubbed Boeing Field, officially opened. The following day, Boeing’s Model 80, a 12-person passenger biplane, made its first flight there. Since then, the airport has witnessed several Boeing first flights, including the 247, 307, B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52 and 737.
Boeing is still active at the airport, and in 2015, it opened a new 737 delivery center there.
Boeing came to Renton on the shores of Lake Washington to build warplanes as part of a federal rearmament push as World War II loomed. Boeing initially made B-29 Superfortress bombers there. It later produced C-97s, 707s, 727s, 737s and 757s. Today, Renton produces more commercial jetliners than any other plant in the world.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes is based in nearby office towers on the former site of the Longacres Racetrack, which operated until 1992, when Boeing bought the land. The Longacres Mile Handicap is still run every year, now at Emerald Downs in Auburn.
Boeing had sub-assembly plants making B-17 and B-29 parts in Everett during the war. The company came to the city for good in 1966, thanks in part to intervention by Robert Best Sr., then publisher and owner of the Everett Herald.
Boeing came to Everett to build the 747 jumbo jet. Since then, it has expanded its plant as it has added new airplane programs — the 767, 777, 787 and now the 777X. With the 767, the company said early on that it would build the jet in Everett, but Boeing made the area compete for 787 and 777X jobs, stoking fears that it will leave Washington.
The Everett plant is the biggest building by volume in the world. Roughly 40,000 people work at the site. If it were a city, it would be Washington’s 27th biggest, right behind nearby Edmonds.
The plant sits next to Paine Field, an airport developed with federal dollars during the Great Depression. The airport then served as an Air Force base into the 1960s. Today, it is a center of aerospace manufacturing.
Boeing’s Wichita ties go back to the late 1920s, when Stearman Aircraft Co. became part of United Aircraft and Transport Corp. UATC was a holding company set up by Boeing and Pratt & Whitney to consolidate aircraft production and commercial air services. When anti-trust legislation broke up UATC, Boeing kept Stearman as a subsidiary and later made it part of the company.
Stearman landed a lucrative contract in 1934, making a military trainer called the Kaydet. It would eventually build more than 10,000 of them.
Boeing Wichita focused on military production for the next couple decades. It led B-29 production, and, after the war, it assembled B-47s and B-52s.
After B-52 production ended in the early 1960s, Boeing’s Wichita Division made jetliner fuselage sections, which were shipped to Washington for final assembly. The company sold its production operations there in 2005 to Onex, which created Spirit AeroSystems. Spirit is one of Boeing’s biggest suppliers, and it still ships 737 fuselages by rail to Renton.
The Space Race brought Boeing to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1962. The company’s presence was small to start — a handful of employees working out of a downtown hotel on the Saturn V rocket program. Four years later, the company had about 4,500 workers there.
Since then, Boeing Huntsville has continued to work on the nation’s space program, including the International Space Station.
Boeing is Alabama’s largest aerospace company. However, in 2015, Boeing’s European rival Airbus opened a final assembly line for its popular A320 there.
St. Louis has been turning out fighter jets since the 1940s. Its warplane tradition began with McDonnell Aircraft, which opened shop there in 1939. The Korean War catapulted the company into the top tier of military contractors. Its hugely successful F-4 Phantom remained in service with U.S. forces for more than 30 years.
After McDonnell’s 1967 merger with Douglas Aircraft, which created McDonnell Douglas, St. Louis remained the company’s center for fighter-jet production. Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and moved its defense division to St. Louis. Boeing workers there still make F-15 Eagles and F/A-18 Super Hornets.
In 2009, Boeing executives decided to do something the company had never done before: make commercial jetliners outside Washington. The company took over problem-plagued production facilities run by suppliers Vought Aircraft and Alenia Aeronautica in North Charleston, South Carolina, and opened a second 787 final assembly line there.
The decision hit Puget Sound like a gut punch.
A Boeing executive publicly stated that the move was retribution for a 2008 strike by Machinists union members. It wasn’t a cheap decision, either. Boeing expected that going to South Carolina would cost about $1.5 billion more than staying in Everett, according to internal company documents from the time.
The North Charleston plant has struggled to get up to speed, adding to production and supply problems that have dogged the 787. However, Boeing South Carolina workers have made huge gains and are closing in on Everett’s quality and pace.
In late 1940, Douglas Aircraft broke ground on a new plant in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles. War was raging in Europe and Asia, and the United States needed warplanes. Lots of them. An army of workers turned out thousands of planes at the Douglas plant during the war.
After the fighting ended, the plant became the company’s hub for making airliners, including the DC-8, DC-9 and DC-10. All three gave Boeing stiff competition. However, Boeing always finished first in sales.
Boeing took over the Long Beach plant after it bought McDonnell Douglas. The plant delivered the last 717 — a descendant of the DC-9 — in 2006. The plant closed in late 2015 after the last C-17 military cargo plane took off in front of onlookers who’d come to see the end of an era. It closed out more than a century of industrial airplane manufacturing in California. Aerospace workers there still turn out major airplane parts, but they are delivered to assembly lines outside California.
After Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, it was the largest private employer in Southern California, but it has been cutting jobs every year since 2001. In part to offset that decline, Boeing has transferred hundreds of engineering jobs from Washington to California in recent years.
In 1961, the Hughes Space and Communications Co. started making satellites in a converted Nash Rambler plant. The site produced Surveyor 1, which explored the moon’s surface in 1966, paving the way for the Apollo moon landings three years later.
Since it opened, the plant has produced more than 300 satellites. It became part of Boeing in 2000, after the company paid $3.75 billion in cash for Hughes Space and Communications.