MON.-FRI., ON THE HOUR FROM 9-11 A.M. AND 1-3 P.M.; $5,
544-1264 or www.boeing.com/companyoffices/aboutus/tours
You're probably thinking . . .
So we get to drive up to Everett AND watch a bunch of union guys stand around chatting about layoff rumors and killing time until retirement? Sign me up!
Here's what you get
Chicago may have wooed away the Boeing suits, but we're still the Jet City, babe. Our slightly tarnished bastion of blue-collar pride still pops out planes 24 hours a day, and they let us watch if we behave. The site is easy to find (there are signs everywhere, and it's a monstrously big factory—just try to get lost nearby), so get there a little early to make sure you're not crowded out by a group of schoolkids or senior citizens. Tickets are first come, first served unless you want to pay double for reservations.
No purses. No cameras. No cell phones. If it can collect or transmit data, they don't want to see it, and yes, they do blame the events of Sept. 11 (as if they used to encourage photos in happier times). Also note that all tour-bound children must be 4 feet 2 inches (127 cm) tall; there are, mysteriously and somewhat ominously, no exceptions to this rule. Visitors can bide their time in the charming lobby, filled with general aviation and corporate history exhibits, or head out across the parking lot to the gift shop, sure to launch jet and aerospace fetishists into a frenzy of commemorative consumption.
Hurry back—each tour starts promptly on the hour with a cheery guide reminding the group (a mix of retired folks, foreign tourists, and well-meaning locals with out-of-town guests) of the noelectronics rule and presenting two short films about Boeing's past and present. The montages of historic stills and action sequences are full of uplifting music and are refreshingly free of narration. The group is quickly ushered out of the theater, onto a bus, through the security checkpoint (where an armed guard inspects the bus for electronics by way of a friendly wave of his hand), and finally off to the Big Building.
The tour group walks a third of a mile down a seemingly endless tunnel underneath the main floor (leave those heels with your purse), then rides a freight elevator up several stories, not quite halfway up the building. The immensity of the place is dumbfounding; it houses thousands of humans and quite a few almost-planes. The bulk of the tour is spent milling about a comparatively small platform, listening to facts about the building (seven-tenths of a mile long!), the construction process (a whole corral of bicycles is maintained for workers to ride around the place!), and the planes themselves (Rolls-Royce makes jet engines!). The facts tend to get lost in the sea of visual stimuli, though—the fetal jets look naked and vulnerable, each tiny worker is special and unique with a story of his or her own, and the distant walls are papered with gargantuan, yet inscrutable, exhortations to work more safely and productively.
The group dissolves a bit as people focus on the guide, or some particularly interesting Boeing employee far below, or the question of how to heat a supersized building. After 20 minutes or so of gawking, fact delivery, and question answering, it's time to revisit the freight elevator and the long, long tunnel, then take a fairly brisk bus tour of the painting and finishing facilities. Not nearly as overpowering as the construction site, the finished and nearly finished planes are familiar and comfortable, and the guide dishes a little inoffensive dirt on Boeing clients and their varied needs. Wave to the fire department as you head back to the gift shop.
It's easy to think of Boeing as a dusty, not-quite-authentic relic of the old days, like a Renaissance Faire, but watching the very much larger-than-life work is humbling, resistant to that as we might be. The tour guide may be used to it all, but the rest of us get to experience the kind of awe that just can't be described as "awesome." Surely that's worth $5 and a short drive.
The Boeing Everett plant is the largest building in the world—by volume. Sure, other buildings are taller, but any one of those pretenders could fit inside our own gentle giant. Expose the tyranny of height!
It's not you, it's me
If, like me, you're prone to catastrophic loss of self-esteem, bring a crutch (flask, pills, Snoopy, bible, whatnot) to help you through—this tour is giant scale. I came to feel that we exist only to help jets propagate themselves. So small . . . we're so very small. . . .