Warbirds and wonderbirds

Go back to the future in a patch of the Northwest at a museum of vintage elite warplanes and on an assembly line for the new Boeing blockbuster

This Curtis P-40C Tomahawk went down in Russia in 1942, was discovered in 1993, and rebuilt before Paul Allen put it in his collection. The 787 Dreamliner, still in production at Boeing, is on order to airlines from around the world.
This Curtis P-40C Tomahawk went down in Russia in 1942, was discovered in 1993, and rebuilt before Paul Allen put it in his collection. The 787 Dreamliner, still in production at Boeing, is on order to airlines from around the world. (Kari Bodnarchuk for The Boston Globe (left); Gail Hanusa/Asssociated Press/ Boeing Co.)
December 7, 2008
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EVERETT - Up north of Seattle, in the world's largest building, people work around the clock assembling Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, one of the most high-tech airliners ever made. This jumbo jet has everything from lighting that simulates the time of day at your destination to oversized windows big enough for all passengers to have a view.

A mile away, in a modest, white-domed hangar, Paul Allen, the investor and philanthropist who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates, recently unveiled a collection of planes that were the most advanced in their day: vintage "warbirds" from the 1930s and '40s.

Allen's Flying Heritage Collection, which opened in June, and Boeing's Future of Flight Aviation Center and factory tour provide a fascinating look at the past, present, and future of aviation. Visitors can see a converted crop duster that was flown by 17-year-old female pilots during World War II, sit inside a prototype of the Dreamliner's swanky cabin, and take a tour of the Boeing factory, where they can watch as airliners are assembled on a production line.

Although planes have been built at the Everett factory for 40 years - the first 747 was rolled out in 1968 - Boeing, in conjunction with Snohomish County and the local nonprofit Future of Flight foundation, opened its Future of Flight Aviation Center just three years ago this month and expanded its factory tour this year. The center and tour have become two of the Seattle area's top attractions, along with the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, REI's mother ship, and the headquarters for Starbucks and Microsoft.

A visitor can take a 90-minute, look-but-don't-touch tour of the Boeing factory and then explore the aviation center, where you can touch, knock on, sit in, and otherwise play with airplane parts. After a short film on aviation's impact on society, a bus transports visitors to the factory five minutes away. Here's where it really gets interesting. En route, you may pass the Dreamlifter, a whale-shaped plane that flies around the world - from Kansas to Korea, South Carolina to Sweden - to collect parts for the Dreamliner such as wings, tails, and sections of fuselage. Even more impressive are the three hangars next to the factory, where planes are painted and beautified.

"Paint has been known to add more than 1,200 pounds of weight to a 747," says Melodie Hawkinson, a Boeing tour guide. "Darker colors have more pigments so they weigh more. A lot of people don't realize that that's why some airlines don't paint their entire airplanes."

Inside the factory, guides lead visitors through wide, cement tunnels and up freight elevators to reach balconies with views onto the assembly floor. You may feel like a pea in a giant pod when you board a 747, one of the world's largest airplanes. But when you step into the Boeing factory all sense of scale and perspective fly out the door. Inside this mammoth building, which sprawls across 98.3 acres, at least a dozen jumbo jets sit on the assembly floor.

Pickups dart around the factory floor, ferrying parts from one station to the next. Employees follow painted white lines as they bike to work or perhaps to the closest Tully's coffee shop, up to a quarter mile away (Boeing supplies 1,300 bikes for its workers' use). The factory has four telephone prefixes, its own electrical substation and fire department, and 19 cafeterias, including the Dreamliner Diner and Twin Aisle Café. It's truly a city within a city, where employees can shop, get a massage, rent a video, and get their teeth whitened.

"I used to work for Ford, and now I work for Sikorsky helicopters," said Eric Heller, 40, of Monroe, Conn., on a factory visit. "I've been to so many assembly plants that I didn't expect to be impressed. But the scale of everything is so amazing; it's enormous, unbelievable."

With your bird's-eye perspective from one of the observation decks, you can watch workers install seats and landing gear. You may also see one of the overhead cranes in action as it hoists a section of fuselage and maneuvers it into place.

Back at the Future of Flight Aviation Center, you can get up close to authentic airplane parts: Sit in the cockpit of an old 727, touch the vertical fin of a 747 that rises 63 feet above the gallery floor, stand on the engine of a 777, or go for a wild ride in a flight simulator. Then walk through a scaled-down version of the Dreamliner's cabin: It has tons of headroom, room to store full-size, carry-on bags in the overhead bins, a ventilation system that helps passengers stay hydrated and prevent jet lag, and special lighting that simulates nighttime, complete with stars, or a bright blue daytime sky.

One of the most thought-provoking interactive exhibits looks at how people board and disembark an airplane. Visitors collect boarding passes, grab one of six types of carry-on bags - anything from a roll-aboard suitcase to a backpack or briefcase - then board a mock 747 cabin. Cameras capture the process and the videos are later analyzed to find out where there were bottlenecks and to determine how to board planes quickly and more efficiently.

"It's a motion study," says Michael Pitton, a supervisor for the Passenger Experience Research Center at Teague, the company that designs Boeing's airplane interiors. "We want to see how people in real-life scenarios use the overhead bins and store their bags, and see if people are tripping up in the same spots."

Another exhibit lets you build your own virtual aircraft using a computer program. Choose the engine, fuselage, wings, and design scheme and the computer will offer feedback, such as: "Wings are undersized, not enough wing area for flight" or "looks interesting, and it will fly, but it won't be economical."

You can also stand on a roof deck overlooking the runway at Paine Field Airport and watch planes take off and land on test flights. The Strato Deck, as it's called, is wired up to the flight tower, so you can hear pilots talking to tower staff.

For a look at vintage planes in flight, visit the Flying Heritage Collection, tucked down a dead-end street at the other end of Paine Field, during one of the museum's Fly Days. Every other Saturday, from June to October, several planes from the collection are taken on short flights over the airport to keep each functioning properly. Inside the working hangar, you'll find one of the country's largest collections of workable warbirds.

"If you're into planes, these are the crown jewels," says Adrian Hunt, executive director of the collection. "They're so iconic and rare, and the way they've been restored is amazing. . . . We've used all authentic parts or, if we couldn't find them, we custom-made them to the original specifications."

The museum has 15 aircraft on display, including the German-produced Focke-Wulf 190D-13, the only one of its kind in the world today. Placards give information about the types of warbirds in the collection and the history of each specific plane.

Whether you are interested in historic planes, state-of-the-art aircraft, or the city inside the world's largest building, it's worth setting aside a day to explore this aviation mecca.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at


If You Go

Future of Flight Aviation Center

8415 Paine Field Blvd.

Mukilteo, Wash.


Boeing factory tours begin here. For center and tour (visitors must be at least 4 feet tall) adults $15, seniors/military $14, ages 15 and under $8. Advance booking recommended ($2.50 extra).

Flying Heritage Collection

Paine Field

3407 109th St. Southwest



Adults $12, seniors/military $10, ages 6-15 $8, under 6 free.

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