“I Think We Can Build a Better Airplane”

On the 1st of September, I headed to the airport and flew to Seattle. P1090212The Transport Geek was in fine form that day, headed to see The Boeing Company – to the 737 production line, then, the following day, on a test flight for aircraft serial number 31075, a brand-new, $70-million Boeing 737-800. In 1915, after his first trip into the sky, William Boeing, son of a German immigrant who made a fortune in the Minnesota timber industry, said “I think we can build a better airplane.” And for the next near-century, that company has done just that, creating a succession of aircraft that flew faster and safer, that secured our freedom, and that made it possible for ordinary people to get across our nation in five hours, or back to the Old World in eight. Boeing is not without warts, no company or person is, but they are to be admired on many levels.

The reality of my forthcoming separation from American Airlines made the trip all the more special, and a bit urgent. In four months, no one in a Boeing ball cap would hold up a sign with my name on it, as Carl did when we arrived at Sea-Tac, as locals call their airport. We ambled to the parking lot, hopped in a navy Suburban, and motored north to the factory in suburban Renton. Just before two, I met Brett Churchill, Boeing’s lead customer engineer for American, an affable fellow Minnesotan. Off we went, into the plant. I marveled at everything: the way-efficient moving production line (way better than the old static process), the assembly kits that combined parts and tools for each task; the accumulated know-how that made it all possible. And most of all, I admired the proud men and women who built those magnificent machines. I asked each one I met at least two key questions: how long had they worked at Boeing? And were they proud of their work? The answer to the latter was always emphatically yes. And that made me smile.

Brett took me along the line, from the fuselages (which come from Wichita, Kansas, by train), to the finished product rolled out the big doors. I saw some cool stuff, like the process of mating wings and body. Brett was sort of a classic engineer, quiet but very knowledgeable. I enjoyed the visit immensely. Truth was, I could have ambled around the plant for six months, learning, asking, maybe even doing. Toward the end, I picked up a rivet, my souvenir of the visit. Only downside: no photos allowed on the premises.

Carl drove me to my digs, a Travelodge (this trip was on my dime, so $60 a night felt just fine). Quickly changed into sneakers and walked a few blocks south to the P1090148Tukwila station of Sound Transit, a light-rail line that whisked me into downtown Seattle in 25 minutes. Closer in, one of those sad but common Seattle scenes: a wino gets on and topples to the floor. The city has long had a problem with drifters and addicts.

Hopped off at Westlake, possibly the most elegant public-transit station in the U.S., to rival the chandeliered stations of the Moscow subway. P1090150
Wow, I thought, these folks are spending on infrastructure, a good thing. I ambled a few blocks west to one of Seattle’s greatest places, Pike Place Market, a 102-year-old public mP1090174arket, brimming with produce from land and sea. Colorful wreathsP1090168 of chilies, fresh Alaskan halibut, Gerber daisies, blackberries from nearby farms. Way, way cool. Stopped to admire the “market theater” at the Pike Place Fish Market, fishmongers playing catch with a five-pound salmon, to the delight of tourists. I had to buy one of their vinyl aprons, the second souvenir of the day.P1090165

I was thirsty, and headed up a flight of stairs to the Pike Place Bar and Grill, for a pint of Hale’s Troll Porter, from nearby Ballard. It was nice to be back in the land of tiny brewers, producers of such variety and quality. Quenched, I walked a block north to Pine Street, to Steelhead Diner, a place I found on the Internet. Awesome. Whoa. One of the best dinners in months, maybe a couple of years: four slurpy oysters from Totten Island, at the bottom of Puget Sound; a nice chunk of King Salmon pulled from the Klamath River of northern California; a side of braised collard greens; and two glasses of really hoppy Supergoose IPA, also from the Hale’s Brewery.

At right, Kevin Davis, chef/owner, Steelhead Diner

At right, Kevin Davis, chef/owner, Steelhead Diner

At the end of the meal, I had a nice yak with Kevin Davis, the chef/owner, the smiling man I saw in the kitchen that was ten feet from my stool. I ambled down to an overlook, snapped a couple of pictures of sunset above the Olympic Mountains, hopped on the train, and headed back to the Travelodge.

The alarm went off before six, test-flight day! At 6:02, my iPhone rang, Jack telling me he was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. No great business breakthrough – nor a scandal – just his illustration and a nice quote about those way-too-long receipts that stores now issue. I laughed about it all day. Showered, out the door, and onto the #174 bus (my dime, er, $2, rather than a $20 taxi) down the hill to the Boeing Customer Delivery Center at Boeing Field (BFI). Collected my badge at the gate and headed in. First stop, the cafeteria for a yogurt, apple fritter, and tub of coffee. Then upstairs to meet Darrell Boyd and Joe Walker, the AA quality-assurance team, then a number of Boeing people. We were not going to leave at the planned 8:00, because they had to change out a failed hydraulic pump. P1090205At about 9:30, we headed out to the flight line, past fresh 737s for Continental, Ryanair, Turkmenistan, Xiamen, China United, Copa Panama, and others. And there was our Silver Bird, N805NN, way cool. I snapped a bunch of pictures, yakked with Boeing people. More delays.

Captain John Fossard from American was in the left seat and Captain Sheila Beahm from Boeing was in the right seat on a flight that ATC called “Boeing 216.” P1090229They stepped through some very basic stuff – via a radio to a Boeing guy on the ground, they asked for visual confirmation of control inputs to rudder, elevators, and ailerons, the three devices that move the plane on all three axes. “Rudder left, tab right,” and so forth. Basic, but it’s that kind of deliberate approach that makes flying so safe. Assume is a bad thing in flight.P1090213

We were finally ready. Start engines, taxi to the end of runway 14. Whoosh, up we went. Flight! Cool! We headed northwest, across the Olympic Peninsula, looped back over Seattle, then headed east. Tested oxygen masks (pressurized to 14,500 feet, instead of the usual 8K). Did a touch and go at Moses Lake, Washington, came around and called off a landing at 500 feet (cockpit recorded voice yelling “Don’t Sink! Don’t Sink!). Headed back to BFI. Landed and slowed very quickly. The runway is long, so we then did an aborted takeoff, accelerating to 90 knots, then full brakes and thrust reversers. An amazing machine. William Boeing was right about building a better airplane. The whole ride was 2:20. Way cool, way cool.

Twenty minutes before landing, a warning light glowed, possible overheating in the left wing root. Bad news. Gotta fix it before American accepts delivery. Glum folks. We got off the plane and walked around, the QA guys spotting almost-invisible fluid leaks and other stuff. These guys know their hardware!

Jacob, a St. Louis-based AA flight attendant who was part of the acceptance team drove me back to Sea-Tac, and I climbed on a “regular” flight back to DFW. Wowie, what an experience.

As cool as the technical aspects of the ride were, as a geographer I was equally delighted with the landscape below. Looking down, I remembered a wonderful quote from author and pilot William Langewiesche; in his 1998 book Inside the Sky, he wrote, “Flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around, and when we do we can find ourselves reflected within the sky.” Here is just a bit of what I saw in Washington State:

Glaciers, Olympic Mountains, west of Seattle

Glaciers, Olympic Mountains, west of Seattle

Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet / 4,394 m), highest point in the U.S. Pacific Northwest

Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet / 4,394 m), highest point in the U.S. Pacific Northwest

The Columbia River, north of Pasco, Washington

The Columbia River, north of Pasco, Washinton

Irrigated land northwest of Pasco

Irrigated land northwest of Pasco, Washington

Clear-cutting in the Cascades

Clear-cutting in the Cascades

Seattle panorama, on approach to Boeing Field

Seattle panorama, on approach to Boeing Field

Downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle

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