MIAMI — Welcome to part two of our multi-part epoch on the fascinating history of the Boeing Everett plant. We will be rolling the series out over the next month, so sit back, grab a glass of your favorite beverage, and enjoy the read.
Did you miss part one? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back: READ IT HERE!
Less than a year later on September 30, 1968, and only three months after the first sketch was completed, the first Boeing 747 aptly titled “City of Everett” rolled out to thousands of employees and the world’s press in an impressive affair, complete with champagne christening and flight attendant’s representing the Jumbo’s customers. This first 747 weighed 710,000 pounds, well beyond the original estimate of 550,000 from 1966! At a length of 231 feet and the height (at the tail) of a six-story building, some doubted whether it would ever get off the ground.
Nevertheless on February 9, 1969, with test pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle at the controls and Jess Wallick at the flight engineer’s station, N7470 took off on its first flight under marginal weather. Despite a minor problem with one of the flaps, the crew confirmed that the Jumbo handled extremely well. Production of the 747 continued simultaneously with the flight test program, though completion work on four of the original 747s happened in Renton which were all completed before the end of 1969.
A Jumbo Crisis
The Boeing 747 entered service on Pan Am’s flagship New York JFK to London Heathrow route somewhat ignominiously on January 15, 1970. The six-hour late departure and equipment substitution was caused by an engine failure on the taxi-out. These engine failures would have enormous impacts on Everett almost immediately. The under-powered Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines were suddenly responsible for lifting 20,000 more pounds that they were supposed to. As a result, engine flame outs were common.
Faced with engine redesigns, airplanes were leaving the factory every three days at first, eventually getting up to 40 per month by March 1970—an all-time record–but without engines attached. Concrete blocks were hung on the engine pylons scattered around the factory, a scene reminiscent of the 787 Dreamliner’s production woes 40 years later. Paine Field became one big Jumbo Jet parking lot.
As if things weren’t bad enough with the production challenges, the national economy dealt a severe blow to Boeing’s fortunes. During the deep recession of 1969-71, Boeing only sold seven 747s during the trough of 1971. In the same year, Congress cancelled the Boeing 2707 SST which was a tremendous shock to the area and the industry at large. There was a modest economic recovery in 1972-73 as 747 orders increased, though there wouldn’t be any further U.S domestic carrier orders during that time.
U.S. carriers, with the exception of TWA & Pan Am who flew the bulk of the long-haul routes, found they couldn’t fill their 747s and replaced their Jumbo Jets with the new wide-body tri-jets: DC-10s and L-1011s. During this brutal period, Boeing cut more than 60,000 jobs and Seattle’s unemployment rate soared to 13%, more than double the national average.
Seattle became known as the “City of Despair”. Things turned so sour that two real estate agents famously purchased space on a billboard that requested “Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights.” The billboard, near Sea-Tac Airport, was displayed for only fifteen days in April 1971, but the message struck a nerve. Conditions began to improve in 1972 when Boeing’s employment increased to 45,000, but was still well below the 1969 peak.
The oil embargo crisis of 1973-74 combined with the rampant inflation of the late 1970s further crimped 747 sales. Still, the 747 Jumbo Jet had acquired iconic, pop culture status appearing in movies and changing the way the world traveled. Largely due to its sheer size the airplane raised the bar in luxury while lowering the cost for airline passengers to travel on a per-seat-mile basis. On the right routes, the behemoth Boeing was a money minting machine. In October 1975, the worldwide 747 fleet carried its 100 millionth passenger and on November 19, 1980 the 500th 747 would be rolled out for SAS.
Twin Solutions to a Growing Competitive Threat
Despite its acclaim and strong international sales, the 747 was under pressure. Competition from the new Airbus A300 twinjet and the twin-aisle offerings from McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed motivated Boeing to respond with a product that would bode very well for the future of Everett.
In a clear nod to the importance of fuel efficiency, Boeing sought to develop two new dual programs in the mid-1970s: the 757 and 767. These aircraft were groundbreaking being the first commercial airliners with digital avionics and significant amounts of composites. The 767 in particular, was innovative for being the first wide-body with a two-pilot cockpit though some airlines, such as Trans Australian initially operated for a 3-pilot configuration. United became the launch customer with a $1 billion order for 30 767s on July 14, 1978.
The single-aisle 757, designed as a 727 replacement, would be assembled in Renton while its twin-aisle sister ship, the 767 would be assembled at Everett. In 1980 Everett’s factory footprint was expanded by 45% from 42.8 to 63.8 acres and the factory volume from 205,600,000 to 298,220,043 cubic feet to accommodate the new 767. A completed 767 consisted of 3.1 million parts supplied by 1,300 vendors.
In a harbinger of things to come with the 777 and 787, foreign suppliers, particularly the Japanese, would play a pivotal role in the aircraft. Italy’s Aeritalia and the Japan Aircraft Development Company (a consortium of Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, and Fuji) were the key foreign outsourced program participants.
Final assembly of the first Boeing 767 began on July 6, 1979 with parts fabrication and major assembly in July 1980. A line flow process was used, with seven major work stations. Every four days, partially completed 767s were moved from one workstation to the next using one of the overhead cranes.
Roll out of the prototype N767BA occurred on August 4, 1981. By the roll out, the 767 program had garnered 173 firm orders from 17 customers with United and Delta the first to take the airplanes. On September 26, 1981, the first 767 took its maiden flight under the command of company test pilots Tommy Edmonds, Lew Wallick (of 747 fame), and John Brit. The maiden flight was largely uneventful, except for the inability to retract the landing gear because of a hydraulic fluid leak. The first delivery occurred on August 19, 1982, to United Airlines and the CF6-powered airframe received certification in September 1982 clearing the way for the 767 to enter service.
Production rates increased as newer 767 came down the line and fewer design changes were made. For example, the first had 12,000 design changes during assembly whole the 17th 767 only had 500 fewer people. The 767 would accumulate over 1,100 orders and remains in production today although at reduced numbers. More profoundly, the 767 would set the course for most of Boeing’s future twin-aisle programs, and the 747 as well. With its first-in-class ETOPS capabilities making it more and more a dominant fixture on the North Atlantic, the 767 proved “twin is in”.
In our next installment, we’ll look at the first major redesign of the 747, the 747-400; and how the 777 dominated Boeing Everett’s attention in the late 1980s and 1990s.