WASHINGTON — Deep in the basement of an anonymous building in Bellevue, Washington, is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring collection aviation memorabilia. Here, down a dimly lit hallway and behind nondescript doors, exists hundreds of thousands of artifacts that would induce an aviation enthusiast to salivate. The valuable collection is so vast that it occupies 18,000sq ft of a password-protected, fireproof, temperature controlled vault. When the collection moved to its current location in 2000, 24 semi-tractor trailers were needed to transport it all.
Inside this ultra-secure site are hundreds of unique development and display models of airplanes that never flew, and many did; original engineering drawings for aircraft the changed history; materials so sensitive that non-US citizens aren’t allowed to see them by government order; 100,00 rolls of film and video tape documenting many of the major milestones in aviation history; nearly four million still photographs dating back to the dawn of aviation history; personal effects and mementos belong to the pilots, engineers, and executives who were associated with these incredible machines; original marketing proposals to airlines and the US Air Force; multi-million-dollar purchase contracts for massive aircraft orders; obscure, unexpected treasures; and time capsules commemorating the end of production of some of the world’s most successful airliners.
This incredible place is not a museum consigned to documenting history, but a living, working, relevant archive that plays an active part in charting the future course of the world’s largest and most successful airplane manufacturer. The Boeing Company Corporate Archive rivals any aviation museum in the world, but yet it is not open to the public. Fortunately, Boeing Corporate Historian Mike Bombardi gave Airways a very rare tour of this ‘Louvre of Flight’.
At the outset, Lombard—a 33-year Boeing veteran and archive director for 17 years—makes it clear that the world ‘archive’ is something of a misnomer here. “The difference is you think of an archive as a place you store things,” he points out. “A history program is where you take your history and you leverage it, you put it to work. What’s different here at the Boeing Archive is that our history works for the company every day.”
Lombardi continues: “A lot of businesses don’t do this, don’t see the value in it. But fortunately here at Boeing we have it. The secret, I think, is you don’t have a history program or an archive that just collects neat stuff and then rolls it out for an anniversary. It’s got to work for the company, and be able to justify its activities in dollars and cents. A lot of what we do is aimed at ‘How we make history work?’ and a big part of it is supporting our engineers. Boeing is an engineering company, and realizing we’ve had brilliant people working here throughout our history, who done amazing things, we want our engineers to be able to build on that collective knowledge. That saves time, and therefore money. Why re-invent the wheel every time we design a new airplane?”
This mission spans many ongoing projects in areas such as design, engineering, marketing, public relations, patents, internal communications, branding, and corporate outreach. Lombardi recalls that during design of the Sonic Cruiser, which began in the Nineties, Boeing drew on research for the 7X7 project in the Seventies during what Boeing calls its ‘homework period’, for direction. “The Sonic Cruiser was a transonic airplane that would have flown at Mach 0.98 up to 1.07,” he says. “The company had, years before, looked at every aspect of design and performance in different markets of airplanes. They did a lot of research into transonic airplanes and this work was revived years later rather than starting over.”
Lombardi adds that “some of the engineering for the Sonic Cruiser, such as the canards and their associated hydraulic and control systems, originated from research into the XB-70A Valkyrie supersonic bomber, built in the Sixties by North American Aviation, which later become part of Boeing.”
Beyond engineering, an unexpected but major user of the archive is the Boeing legal team. As Lombardi reveals: “It’s a sad reality in America that businesses are often being sued for you name it, so we provide a great deal of support to our legal team and have this resource where we actually know our history. We can find records to provide a great deal of support to our legal team. Because we have an archive and institutional memory we can go back and accurately find out the facts. So a lot of frivolous lawsuits don’t come at Boeing anymore because the would-be plaintiffs say, ‘Oh we’ll go after an easier target,’ because our collect and historical knowledge has built a wall against them. Our legal staff is very pleased that the company has this resource.”