How Boeing transformed aviation and the Eastside

Long before the Seahawks practiced there and The Landing became the major shopping destination it is today, Boeing helped Renton take off.

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The interior of a 1960s-era 747. The plane held a lounge, cocktail bar, and even a piano, making it both technologically advanced and glamorous.

With a history that includes seaplanes, Rosie the Riveter, and commercial 737s, Renton and Boeing have long been on the front line of aviation and American history. The company’s relationship with the city began in 1941, when the U.S. Navy built a factory on 100 acres next to Lake Washington. The planes built there were destined for World War II, and Boeing was selected to build them.

Boeing started churning out XPBB-1 Sea Rangers that year, and — save for a brief post-war stint when the plant was shuttered — has been churning out planes since. In the process, Boeing has changed the landscape of the city and aviation in general.

“It’s not just local. This is world history, and every day the airplanes that are built (in Renton) go everywhere around the world,” said Boeing company historian Michael Lombardi. “Every airline in the world has at some point flown a 737. That’s just one way that the little town of Renton touches the entire world, and has changed the world.”

 A 1930s-era Model 247D flies over New York City. The all-metal, twin-engine plane is known as the first modern passenger plane.

A 1930s-era Model 247D flies over New York City. The all-metal, twin-engine plane is known as the first modern passenger plane.

Lombardi, a self-proclaimed “airplane nut,” grew up in Renton and long has been fascinated by the factory in his hometown. Now he takes care of Boeing’s archives and artifacts.

Boeing incorporated on July 15, 1916, and this month celebrates its centennial. Integral parts of the company’s operations take place on the Eastside in Bellevue and, of course, Renton, where about 30 percent of today’s commercial fleet was built, according to the company.

Roughly 12,000 people work at the Renton site, which spans 225 acres and has 1.1 million square feet of factory space. “Our past, present, and future (are) intertwined,” said Adam Tischler, communications director for the 737 and the Renton site. “It’s a partnership in the truest form.”

A woman works on wings at the Renton plant during World War II. The influx of women in plants inspired the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” ads during the era.

BOEING ORIGINS 

The Wright Brothers took to the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. William Boeing and his company hit the skies just 13 years later.

“Bill Boeing really took the baton from the Wright Brothers and carried it forward. So, (Boeing has) got quite a legacy there that really traces back to the beginning,” said Lombardi.

Russ Banham, author of Higher: 100 Years of Boeing, is a historian who has written about Ford, Coors, and other mainstay American companies. When he set out to write about Boeing, he took his usual first step: contact the archivist. On other projects, Banham personally dug through files. With Boeing, there were more archives than he alone could handle.

“At Boeing … (the archives are) the size of an airplane hangar,” Banham said. So he worked with Lombardi on the book, which was published last year by Chronicle Books.

“You come to every project thinking you know (about the company), but then you dig into the history and find out the contributions to the world at large,” Banham said.

A woman working at the Renton plant during World War II.

A woman working at the Renton plant during World War II.

MILITARY BEGINNINGS IN RENTON 

Bill Boeing built his first hangar next to Lake Union in Seattle in 1915. A year later, when he incorporated Pacific Aero Products Co. for $100,000, Boeing bought 998 of the company’s 1,000 shares of stock and moved the company to a former shipyard on the Duwamish River, a site he had purchased in 1910.

The Renton factory was built on the southern end of Lake Washington, Lombardi said, so the company could make Navy seaplanes and push them “out the back door and onto the lake” — no airfield required. After all that, Boeing made just one Sea Ranger, which earned it the nickname “The Lone Ranger.”

As demand for seaplanes diminished, the U.S. Air Force bought the site in 1943 and built an airfield. Renton was then tasked with building a super-bomber, known as the B-29 Superfortress. Under Air Force guidance, production in Renton skyrocketed. In January 1944, the plant delivered two airplanes. By July 1945, the number had increased to 160 airplanes a month. The B-29 was the most technologically advanced airplane of the war, Lombardi said, and Renton was building five of them a day.

The first international mail flight on March 1, 1919. Bill Boeing, pictured holding the mail bag, and Eddie Hubbard flew a Model C from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The first international mail flight on March 1, 1919. Bill Boeing, pictured holding the mail bag, and Eddie Hubbard flew a Model C from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia.

BOEING AND THE MODERN JET 

Boeing transitioned to commercial-airliner production after WWII. The company rolled out the 367-80, better known as the Dash 80, in 1954. Pan American World Airways adopted the Dash 80 at a time when most commercial fleets consisted of propeller-driven planes.

Commercial jets had a poor reputation after crashes involving British-made models, so Boeing embarked on a successful safety campaign to change public opinion. The Dash 80 gave way to the 707 commercial jet, which took to the skies in 1957. The large 757 also was built in Renton, with production lasting from 1981 to 2004.

Now, Renton is home to the 737, one of the world’s most popular planes. As of December 2013, 737s had cumulatively flown about 119 billion miles, a distance equivalent to 640 round-trip flights to the sun.

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By 2019, Boeing hopes to ramp up 737 production from the current 42 planes a month to 57. “The site has continued to reinvent what it is capable of,” Tischler said.

An original 1941 building is now where 737 wings are assembled. Renovating that building has required significant investment. During significant investment in of factory buildings 2014 and 2015, the company has drove 1,750 piles, erected 6,000 tons of steel, and 3,600 truckloads of concrete. “The investment here, in the 737 and the site (alike), is profound,” Tischler said.

The building’s exterior looks mostly as it did in the 1940s, but inside it’s been transformed. The company expanded production space by stacking platforms over one another, just as bunk beds are stacked in a dorm room.
Renton employees will celebrate “Founders Day” on July 15 with a barbecue and other activities. This year, the day will be special, as it marks the company’s 100th year. But that milestone is just a waypoint for a company that continues to look to the future.

At Renton, the 737 production is changing, speeding up, and evolving. There’s a lot to celebrate, but even more to look to in the future.

“This is a site with a positive view of the future,” Tischler said.

ABOVE AND BEYOND 

The Above and Beyond exhibit, presented in part by Boeing in conjunction with its centennial, will be on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle through Sept. 10.

Above and Beyond is an interactive flight exhibit that debuted at the Smithsonian. It features the past as well as the future, with interactive flight exhibits, historic touchstones, future concepts, and inspirational stories. Design a supersonic jet, pilot a drone into a hurricane, and experience what it’s like to fly as a bird. You can even take a ride to the edge of space.

ON THE WEB

Learn more about Boeing’s 100 years with a wealth of online content. Browse stories, a timeline, and more.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of “425 Business.”