Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Day of Airplanes

On Tuesday Thorsten and I were off for another relatively long drive: this time to the Boeing factory in Everett outside of Seattle. We had scheduled a guided tour at 10.30 am in advance. We arrived early, however -- so we were offered to join the 10 am tour, which was fine with us.

After a short introductory movie in an auditorium, we were taken to a bus along with 35 or so other people. Most were American, but there were some other foreigners there too (the two young men behind us were Swiss; several others were Korean).

The bus took us to a giant hangar-like building. In fact, Guinness World Records list the Boeing factory as the largest building in the world by volume at 13.3 million cubic meters. (link)
Though it was huge, it was hard to fathom that it was the largest in the world -- I guess it was hard to gauge as we only saw a very small part of it, and it spreads out far into the distance.

For an aerial picture of the factory, see here.

The factory employs about 30 000 people, and pretty much functions like a small city, with stores and cafés, fire department and a medical clinic. People use bikes to get around on the factory.

The guide took us through some underground tunnels, up in a big lift, and up onto a bridge where we could see the planes being put together down below us on the floor. It was quite a sight. They move the planes around on extremely slow-moving rails from "station" to station, and people and desks move along with them. When the parts have to go somewhere else, they are lifted by a system of giant cranes attached to the roof.

Only the assembly is done here -- parts are shipped in from all over the world (Japan and Italy were mentioned). The unfinished planes (we saw them in all stages of assembly) are a deep emerald green, interestingly enough. While they are still being put together, they are coated with a protective green material. This is removed when the planes are finished, and they are then transported to another building to be spray-lacquered by hand -- a long and tedious process. It takes about four days to assemble a plane, and the Everett factory produces 747, 767, 777 and the newest addition, the 787 Dreamliner.

When a finished plane is sent to be lacquered, it must first be towed across a big parking lot, and then over a bridge to the painting building. For that to be possible, the lot must be cleared of all vehicles first. The specially made signs are then flattened to the ground. The guide also told us that this part is usually done late at night, to avoid causing too much of a traffic jam down on the highway under the bridge. Naturally people stop to take pictures of the plane sliding across the bridge, and on busy afternoons traffic chaos ensues...

After 90 minutes of being shown around, we were driven back to the main museum buidling. There, we walked around for a while looking at the exhibition and the souvenir shop. Then we walked up to the sunroof to look at the planes taking off and landing.

Coincidentally, there was a ceremony going on in front of the museum building. Boing 777 number one thousand had just been sold to Emirates airlines, and as the airplane waited to take off a small crowd of people had gathered in front of it. (When an ailine buys a new Boeing from the factory, the usual procedure is that they send their own pilots to go pick up the plane at the factory and fly it to their chosen destination. We had actually passed the two Emirates pilots on the staircase as we made our way up from the exhibit.)

After some ten minutes, the 777 number one thousand started taxiing up to the runway. Together with a crowd of people on the roof we watched it successfully take off. I overheard a man next to me mentioning that they had a 14-hour flight ahead of them to Dubai, and that a couple of Boeing employees hitched a ride with the plane as they needed to go there (for whatever reason).

After a coffee at the café (we had shared a sandwich earlier) we stayed and watched a few more planes land and take off before we drove away. One of them was a beautiful green plane that still had not been painted.

Still not sick of airplanes, we then headed for the Museum of Flight, also outside Seattle (but located on our way home).

I am not going to say much about the museum, as it is late and I hope the photos speak for themselves. I think out favourite part of that museum was getting too see (and walk into) a Concorde, though (along with other big planes, it was standing outside, looking forlorn and sadly immobile in the pouring rain). Also memorable were seeing and visiting an old Air Force One plane.

Apart from that, we saw an amazing selection of old airplanes from the US and Europe dating back to before WWI. The museum additionally had a whole section dealing with space travel, something that especially Thorsten found interesting.

It was a huge exhibition, and we didn't have a chance to see (not to mention read) everything in the 2.5 hours we had to our disposition. We spent the last twenty minutes rushing through two world wars' worth of planes!

When the museum closed, we drove home. I think we've had enough airplanes for a while now.

Unfinished green plane
Inside Air Force One:


Monday expedition

On Monday we again got up early to take advantage of the car. We didn't feel like doing a long trip again, so we decided to go to Point Defiance Park, which lies some eight kilometers outside of Tacoma. The weather was gray and chilly, but at least it wasn't raining.

Once there, we decided to go check out the zoo and aquarium before going on a walk in the park proper. We started out with the aquarium, then went outside to see the penguins, puffins, seals, otters and walruses. I think our favourites among these were the walruses and otters. The walruses were absolutely huge, but curious and agile -- they kept sweeping by the windows (we were standing under ground level and could look right into the pool through thick glass), looking at us inquisitively . The otters were adorable; it was like looking at swimming dogs. Again we could experience them up close through a window, and see them swimming, floating on their backs, playing enthusiastically with all kinds of plastic toys, and storing seashells on their bodies.

Later we went to take a peek at the polar bears (we only got to see them from afar), and the tigers. It was a pretty sad sight. They looked bored and out of place -- though who knows what's going on in their heads.

After passing a red wolf (it looked and behaved like a friendly dog you might want to pet in the street) and a few bundles of fuzzy little Arctic foxes, we went to look at the gibbons, who shared a cage with a tapir. The tapir didn't do anything but stand around and eat his pellets, but the apes where extremely mobile -- running and swinging around like hairy, long-limbed, hyperactive little people. They were amazingly agile. In between they would sit down next to the completely unfazed tapir and much his food. Thorsten remarked that, looking at them, it is amazing that anyone can deny that we're related.

We ate an uninspired burger (with fries for Thorsten, sweet potato fries for me) at the café, wandered around in the zoo until they closed at 4 pm, and then drove off to park closer to the seaside promenade.

Once on the beach, we followed the promenade until it stopped, and then just kept walking on in direction the Point itself. By then the weather had become quite nice. The farther we walked, the more complicated did it become walking on the beach, as it was covered in fallen and washed-up trees and branches. Though the landscape around here doesn't look too different from Bergen, the beach with all the trees and the clay wall rising from the beach (inscribed by hundred of people -- see picture) were quite different from what we know. For some reason it reminded me of Robinson Crusoe's island.

We climbed on the best we could. When we passed a man walking his dog, Thorsten asked him if it was possible to continue this way. The man replied that there was a path that went up the hill not far from here, and explained to us how it looked. So we kept walking until we got there, and then headed up into a lush forest consisting of huge trees. The birds were singing all around us.

After walking on for some twenty minutes we made it up to the main road that circles the point. We followed the path running parallel to it, and continued to a main lookout. There we crossed the forest to get back to the car. All in all we had walked some ten kilometers, and we were pretty tired by the time we made it home. Again a good day, where we got to do something that would have been difficult without a car.