How Boeing’s incredible 747 launched the Everett factory

The Boeing Co. is turning 100 on July 15. Throughout the year, The Daily Herald will cover the people, airplanes and moments that define the Boeing century.

EVERETT — It started with a handshake — a simple handshake between two giants of aviation: Juan Trippe, the visionary head of Pan Am, and Bill Allen, the clear-eyed president of the Boeing Co.

It set off a chain of events that ended with Boeing building the 747, the iconic plane that revolutionized air travel, in Everett.

Allen and Trippe were friends, and in the summer of 1965 they rented John Wayne’s yacht for a fishing trip in Alaska. While casting for salmon, the audacious Trippe pressed Allen to build an airplane that could carry passengers to the globe’s farthest corners while slashing costs. By the day’s standards, what he proposed was more of an ocean liner in the sky than a jetliner.

“If you build it, I’ll buy it,” he said, according to historian Clive Irving.

“If you buy it, I’ll build it,” Allen replied.

Boeing was fiercely competing with Douglas and other rivals, and already it had committed huge resources to several development programs. Nonetheless, Allen, who was as prudent as Trippe was bold, promised to deliver the plane in four years.

Back in Seattle, a team headed by Boeing Vice President Malcolm Stamper started figuring out how to make a plane two-and-a-half times bigger than the jetliners then flying. This was less than eight years since the first flight of Boeing’s first commercial jetliner, the 707.

A young engineer, Joe Sutter, was tapped to lead 747 engineering. He had proven himself on the 707, 727 and 737, the latter of which was still in development. It was a promotion for Sutter, but the 747 was not Boeing’s most prestigious development program.

That status belonged to the Boeing 2707 — a supersonic plane expected to compete with the European Concorde. Many aviation leaders saw speed as the future of air travel.

Hundreds of Boeing engineers, scattered around spare offices in south Seattle, started sketching out the behemoth 747. Many had been assigned to the program simply because “they were available,” Sutter said. “Luckily, the whole gang of engineers and production people were pretty knowledgeable. We had a couple of misfits, but we got rid of them.”

Tasked with revolutionizing air travel in a few short years, they eventually became known as “The Incredibles.”

World’s biggest building

Before production could begin, though, Boeing had to build a factory for the new airplane. Fittingly, the biggest commercial airplane to fly would be assembled in the world’s biggest building, by volume.

Boeing property managers searched for sites with plenty of undeveloped land. It would need rail and roads, and a long runway.

Some months before, “a Boeing man had come (to Paine Field) and talked about renting hangars for a subsidiary business,” said George Petrie, 96, the airport director at the time. “I think they were prospecting and checking.”

Soon, “there were rumors flying around about Boeing building the 747” in Everett, he said.

But Boeing was considering other sites in Washington and out of state, including Walnut Creek, California.

Putting the plant in California would have given the company clout with that state’s large congressional delegation. Sutter and others in the 747 program balked.

“I told them it would be a big disaster,” he said. “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?”

Petrie and the head of the county airport commission, Robert Best, set to work wooing Boeing. Best, who was the Everett Herald’s owner and publisher, knew Bill Allen “enough to pick up the phone” and arrange a meeting, Petrie said.

In March 1966, the two men met with Allen to present a plan to help Boeing acquire land adjacent to Paine Field. At the time, the airport was largely surrounded by woods. The U.S. Air Force had used the airport since World War II, but by the mid-1960s, the military presence was winding down.

Boeing’s chief interrupted the Snohomish County pitch.

“Allen looked at the other two fellows there and said, ‘Should we tell them?’” Petrie said. “He said they had already optioned about 700 acres. Bob and I looked at each other in amazement. We had no idea Boeing was thinking that big.”

Boeing needed to acquire more land, so Allen asked them to keep quiet, which they did. The company had not formally selected Everett. It’s board had not officially approved the 747 program.

But after the meeting, “I was sure they were going to come” to Everett, Petrie said.

Whatever was needed

In April 1966, Pan Am placed the first 747 order — for 25 jumbo jets worth about $525 million, equivalent to about $3.8 billion today.

The next month, the Herald’s front page declared: “Boeing Considering Paine Field Area for Site of 747 Jet Plant.” Allen was quoted as saying one of the most important factors in picking the site “is a community’s ability to provide such services as roads, utilities and competitive tax rates.”

City and county officials pledged to do whatever was needed to land the factory, which Boeing said would eventually employ as many as 15,000 people. Today, more than 40,000 people work at Boeing’s Everett plant and adjacent offices.

Within days, state highway officials approved plans for Highway 525, connecting the Boeing site to I-5, and Everett applied for federal money to expand sewer and water service.

In June 1966, Boeing signed a 75-year lease for use of the airport in exchange for paying part of the maintenance costs.

“I give great credit to Bob Best for getting Boeing here,” Petrie said. He “did a great job promoting the airport. And since he owned the Herald, I think we got good coverage.”

The following month, Boeing’s board green-lighted the new airplane, and the company committed to assembling it in Everett.

‘Just wilderness’

Boeing’s Bayne Lamb was in charge of turning the site from a forest into a factory. Hundreds of contractors began clearing, draining and leveling the land and building a rail spur through Japanese Gulch, the ravine between the high ground of Paine Field and Puget Sound.

“It was just wilderness,” Sutter said. “It looked like a huge endeavour, because there was no main road from I-5 over to that site. There was no railroad system up the hill, and there was a big forest with bears in it and a swamp. So, (Lamb) had a helluva a job.”

Problems were solved one by one, “but they did have to chase off a bear every once in a while,” Sutter said.

Everett Irwin, a Boeing truck driver at the time, hauled one of the first loads of production equipment to the site in 1966. He drove in on Mukilteo Speedway around 2 a.m.

The site was bathed in floodlights. “It was a big vacant lot,” he said. “There was no blacktop. It was just dirt.”

He hauled countless loads to the site from Seattle and Auburn and watched the plant take shape.

“It grew from nothing,” the 79-year-old said.

Soggy weather and labor disputes with contractors slowed construction.

“We had a terrible winter in ‘66 when they were building the plant, and they got behind schedule,” said Don Bakken, who was an airport commissioner at the time.

The Incredibles

Boeing was under pressure to deliver Pan Am’s first 747 on time.

The first 113 production workers were on site Jan. 3, 1967, amid construction. A Boeing exec welcomed the group, calling them “The Incredibles,” the Herald reported.

The nickname stuck. It is now aviation lore.

Boeing expected the workforce to grow rapidly — to 500 by the end of the month and 4,000 by year’s end. The company had orders for 88 747s and projected making 400 by 1975.

Workers pushed through inconveniences and discomforts, said Paul Staley, who joined the 747 program in September 1967. The Everett resident was then a 29-year-old machinist.

“There were times you’d come into the machine shop, and it’d be filled up with fog because the building was still open” at one end, he said.

“We built the factory, the jigs and the airplane all at the same time,” he said.

Engineers and machinists worked with slide rules and hand drawings. More than 75,000 drawings detailed how to make and assemble the massive plane’s 4.5 million parts.

Looking up at the first polished-metal giant in the factory, Staley was in “total awe at the size of that thing,” he said. He worked on every Boeing 747 from the prototype — which the company named the City of Everett — until he retired in 1999. The prototype today is at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.

The City of Everett was rolled out of the plant on Sept. 30, 1968. The crowd gasped, then broke into applause.

With production under way, company and airport officials were concerned that the 747’s powerful engines could suck in runway sealant during ground tests. Paine Field staff asked the Federal Aviation Administration for money to resurface the runway.

“The FAA claimed they were out of money. So Boeing’s lobbyists went to work,” Bakken said. “In about two weeks, the Secretary of Transportation flew out and gave us a check.”

On Feb. 9, 1969, the City of Everett lifted off Paine Field’s runway.

“The airplane’s flying beautifully!” Brien Wygle, one of the test pilots, said over the radio.

But Sutter’s team faced more challenges. Engineers discovered that the plane had the potential for flutter — vibration that could tear it apart. After that was fixed, engineers discovered a problem with Pratt &Whitney’s enormous new JT9D engines that could cause them to break up at full power. The fan shaft was redesigned, but Pratt &Whitney initially struggled to produce redesigned engines quickly enough.

Airplanes were rolling out of the factory faster than engines were arriving. So Boeing workers hung 5,000-pound blocks of concrete from the wings, in place of engines, to keep the aircraft balanced. Planes were parked around Paine Field.

“I think we had 32 (parked) at one time,” Bakken said. “We had a meeting with Malcolm Stamper and he said, ‘We have the largest fleet of gliders in the world.’”

A weapon for peace

On Jan. 21, 1970, the first paying customers boarded a 747 — Pan Am’s Clipper Constitution — to fly from New York to London. It had been less than five years since Trippe and Allen’s handshake.

The iconic airplane put distant destinations within easy and affordable reach. It shrank the world and earned the moniker, “Queen of the Skies.”

In July 1966, at Boeing’s 50th anniversary gala, Trippe predicted big things for the 747, calling it “a bold and gigantic venture in the best tradition of American industry.”

It was more than a machine, he said. It was a mighty weapon in the Cold War.

“There can be no atom bomb potentially more powerful than the air tourist, charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and good will, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races,” Trippe said.

The jumbo jet, he said, was “a great new weapon for peace.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454;; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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