If I was to ask you about the largest building on the planet, I’m going to go out on a limb and say your first guess probably wasn’t an aircraft assembly factory in Washington State. Forget St Paul’s Basilica, forget Buckingham Palace and forget the Louvre – these don’t even register anywhere near the top 10.
The Boeing Everett Factory, located in the town of Everett 22 miles north of Seattle, is a true beast. With a volume of 13,385,378 cubic metres (472,700,200 cu ft), it stands head and shoulders above everything else on the planet. If you’re having a little trouble with that figure, it’s equal to roughly that of eleven Houston Astrodomes and roughly five and half times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza – which tells you just how unbelievably big that is.
Built in 1967 to house the construction process of the new 747 airliner, the factory has undergone numerous expansions, which tend to have coincided with the increase in the size of aircraft being produced there – the 747 was joined by the 767, the 777 and most recently the 787. It is a building of an astonishing scale, but with many in the aviation industry now teetering on the verge of disaster, what of this most iconic company and its colossal factory?
Boeing’s history goes back to 1916. Founded in Seattle by William Boeing it has gone on to become one of the most well-known aircraft manufacturers on the planet. But their work has stretched well beyond aviation, with significant contributions to outer space travel, marine crafts, agriculture, energy production and transit systems.
If Covid-19 has been a painful sucker punch for airlines around the world, Boeing’s problems began a couple of years before with two fatal crashes involving the new 737 Max (built in Boeing’s Renton factory and not in Everett). This led to the entire fleet being grounded with plenty of uncomfortable questions asked of Boeing. Did they know about the problems beforehand? Did they choose to ignore it?
Boeing then announced that production of the 737 Max would cease in January 2020, just a couple of months before Covid-19 began rapidly spreading around the world, decimating the airline industry as it went. At the start of 2020, Boeing recorded just over 160,000 employees across the globe, but it’s thought that close to 50,000 of those have since been laid off.
In 1943 the company relocated some of its production to Everett, close to where the current factory sits to provide subassembly points for the B-17 under construction in Renton. In 1956, parts of the B-52 and KC-135 were also relocated to Everett, along with 283 employees. This was a place that Boeing felt at home.
The World’s First Jumbo Jet
The aviation world took a dramatic turn with the emergence of the first jumbo jet, the 747. We have done an entire video on the 747 so I won’t spend too much time talking about it, but it is important to mention, particularly in this story. If you’re looking for a whole treasure trove of information specifically about the 747, then why not head on over to that video after this.
The story of the 747 was said to have begun over a handshake in a fishing boat off the coast of Alaska. The two men on board that day were Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am, and Bill Allen, president of the Boeing Corporation. The two had long been friends, but the conversation that day regarded something visionary – an aircraft that would be two and a half times the size of the largest aircraft flying at the time. At the end of the trip, the two shook hands and left one another with the immortal words,
“If you build it, I’ll buy it,” said Trippe
“If you buy it, I’ll build it,” Allen replied.
We take it for granted now, but the 747 is an enormous plane. The first version to appear came with a length of 56.3 metres (184 ft 9 in) and a wingspan of 59.6 metres (195 ft 8 in). But Boeing had a problem here – where can you mass produce something of that size?
The answer was to build a factory purposely for these new giant aircraft, but again, the question was where. Boeing employees fanned out across the area in search of the perfect location that would combine size with adequate rail and road connections as well as room to build a gigantic runway. But they settled on a spot that had already been visited by Boeing the previous year to discuss renting hangar space. That spot was Paine Field – and funnily enough, there was even a small airport already next door. Either referred to as Paine Field or Snohomish County Airport or even simply PAE, the small airport had been used by the U.S military as far back as 1936 and conveniently came with a 2,773 metre (9,100 ft) long runway, which is still used by Boeing to this day.
In April 1966, Pan Am delivered their order for the first twenty-five 747s, worth some $525 million (about $4.2 billion today). At this point, a deal to buy the nearly 100 acres needed in Everett had still not gone through, but soon enough the pieces began to fall into place. Those refusing to sell their land were finally persuaded with some eye-wateringly high prices – one source stated that houses worth $4,700 ($40,000 today) were being sold for $50,000 ($425,000 today) – which no doubt softened the blow.
A new highway was authorised along with sewer and water service expansions and in June 1966, Boeing signed a 75-year lease. All in all, it’s thought that the costs of the new aircraft, along with the brand new factory was going to cost Boeing in the region of $1 billion ($8 billion today) – more than the value of the entire company. It was a hell of a risk, but one that certainly paid off.
From Forest to Flying
Boeing now had a lucrative contract to build a truly groundbreaking aircraft and a long-term lease to construct it in Everett, but the factory to house it all was still a figment of the imagination. Paine Field was a densely forested area with no main road currently connecting to it. Add in plenty of bears in the area and you’ve got yourself quite the challenging building site. In total, three million cubic meters (four million cubic yards) of earth had to be moved as the mammoth construction site swung into gear. To give you an appropriate comparison for that figure, that’s equivalent to the capacity of 250,000 concrete mixers.
With this being the U.S Northwest, the site received a huge amount of rainfall through 1966 (67 consecutive days if the tales are anything to go by), which was confounded by several labour disputes with contractors which slowed the process even further. As the end of the year came and went, and with pressure coming from Pan Am to deliver the first 747 on time, the first 113 production workers arrived on 3rd January 1967 and got to work – in the middle of this gigantic building site.
In fact, there is a story of how when the first aircraft was nearing completion, the building still only had three walls which allowed the fog from outside to sweep in creating an eerie cloud-like appearance inside. Once the fog mixed with the heat being generated by the machinery, it began raining – inside the factory.
These were no doubt far from ideal circumstances to be building the world’s first jumbo jet, but those at the plant in those early days battled through the weather, the complications of the construction site and even chased off the odd bear. They were soon afforded a title in recognition of their outstanding perseverance – The Incredibles.
As the factory began to grow, so did other parts of the site. A new railway linked the factory with the Great Northern Railroad, a process that required some 917,000 cubic meters (1.2 million cubic yards) of dirt moved to create the bed that the line would run on.
The first 747 – named the City of Everett – rolled through the large bay doors on 30th September 1968 to great gasps from the gathered audience. Among those in attendance were representatives from the 26 companies who had already ordered the 747. The first may have been done, but their popularity was about to explode. The factory was also completed in 1968 with the original structure measuring 42.8 acres – one and one quarter the size of the Pentagon. In 1980, the site was expanded by 45% to accommodate the new 767 and by another 50% in 1993 when the 777 came along.
Inside the Factory
To call the largest building a factory doesn’t really do it justice – a small city is perhaps more appropriate. Like any city, it comes with its own fire department and medical services, security teams, daycare services, fitness centres and also some of the busiest coffee shops anywhere in the country.
Inside, employees need to deal with distances that are more akin to exercising than being at work, so to remedy this, Boeing has supplied 1,300 bicycles that those inside can use whenever they need. There are also a series of tunnels beneath the floor, totalling 3km (2 miles) – which allow employees to move around the factory quickly without getting in the way. This is also where much of the water, sewer and electrical utilities run through. Oh, and speaking of running, apparently these tunnels are also often used for exercising – when it’s raining day in day out, I guess you have to do with what’s on offer. Pre-2020, there were roughly 30,000 people employed at the Everett Factory, working across three shifts of 10,000 each.
The main building measures 492 meters (1,614 ft) from north to south, 1,067 metres (3,500 ft) from east to west and is 11 stories high. The building comes with six monstrous hanger doors (each the size of an American football field) with a vast mural painted across them all, which was at one point the largest mural in the world.
There are thought to be roughly 1 million lightbulbs in the factory but alas, no air-conditioning or heating. When the temperatures climb during the summer, employees simply throw open the large bay doors and allow a nice draft to come in. And if you’re worried about those chilly winter months, the operations going on inside means that the factory temperature remains at a comfortable high even in freezing conditions outside.
This being one of the more environmentally conscious areas of the U.S, Boeing have installed a controlled system of ponds and wetlands to save rainwater. According to Boeing, the largest of such ponds can hold 75 million litres (16.4 million gallons), which is enough to fill the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C two times over.
But the remarkable isn’t just confined to what’s inside. Nearby, Boeing constructed a rail terminal measuring 3,000 square meters (33,000 ft) and with its 5.6% angle, it is the steepest rail terminal in the northern hemisphere, which typically sees 15 rail cars arriving each day to deliver new parts. Another interesting area on site is the aircraft paint hangers which need to be kept separately with specific humidity and climate control. It normally takes between 4 and 7 days to paint the aircraft and at a cost of $200,000 a go, this is something you need to get right the first time around.
As I mentioned earlier in the video, the last few years have not been the best for Boeing. The dark mark put against the company in the wake of the 737 Max crashes was made all the more devastating once the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold. In July 2020, the company announced losses of $2.4 billion along with further job cuts.
While it’s difficult to imagine a company the size of Boeing going out of business anytime soon, it has given pause for thought with how the airline industry might move forward. In recent years, the Everett factory has been producing 12 aircraft every month, a figure that it will surely struggle to get back to any time soon.
Everything about the Boeing Everett Factory screams size and scale. It is a phenomenally impressive structure, but was constructed, and expanded, to satisfy the rabid demands of international travel. How this vast sprawling factory and its thousands of workers fit into the post-pandemic travel world, remains to be seen.