Craig Platt gets a close look at the construction of Dreamliners and jumbo jets on Boeing's factory tour.
So this is what dreams are made of. Well, Dreamliners anyway.
I'm looking at a cutaway piece of fuselage made of carbon fibre inside Boeing's 'Future of Flight' museum. The huge exhibit shows one of the many technological advancements of the plane manufacturer's new 787 Dreamliner jet, a revolutionary design that promises greener, cleaner, more fuel-efficient and more comfortable flight.
If it ever gets into service. The Dreamliner has been delayed, and delayed again, for the past few years due to technical problems and issues with some of the suppliers. But, from all reports, the first 787 will be delivered to launch customer All Nippon Airways this year.
But Boeing's 'Future of Flight' museum, at its factory in Everett just outside Seattle on the west coast of the United States, is not what we're here for. It is merely the entrée before we get a chance to experience the main meal: the Boeing factory itself.
Although Boeing's headquarters have been in Chicago since 2001, Everett is where the true heart of the legendary plane manufacturer can be found.
It's here that many of the company's aircraft are constructed, including the Dreamliner 787, the 777 and, the most famous of all Boeings, the 747 jumbo jet – the largest passenger jet in the world for almost 40 years, until the arrival of the Airbus A380 in 2007.
The company's founder, William Boeing, took an interest in air travel almost as soon as it became possible – he completed his degree in engineering in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers made their first flight. By 1910, Boeing had purchased an old shipyard in Seattle where he began building planes.
Boeing's first branch in Everett was created in 1943, but it was not until 1967 that the current factory opened, specifically designed for building the 747 jumbo. Since then, the factory has grown, and grown, to the point were it essentially IS the town.
Not surprising when you learn that Boeing employs more than 75,000 people in the state, the vast majority in Everett.
The size of the main factory building alone is mind boggling. All the production lines, each, of course, larger than an aircraft hangar, are contained in one enormous building. At 13 million cubic metres, it is the largest building in the world by volume.
Employees use bicycles or motorised carts to get around the huge space and a vast series of tunnels connect various parts of the plant.
Once we're kitted out with safety goggles, we head out on to the production floor of the 777 – a twin-aisle, two-engine jet used by Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand, among many others. There are several 777s on the floor in various phases of construction. We enter close to the end of the line, where a near-complete 777 is plastered with a large banner reading “The third 777 for Ethiopia Airlines”. With no paint job on the bare grey metal as yet, the banners are the only way for visitors to identify where an aircraft is headed.
It's strange to see a plane in this state of undress – particularly the engines, which are one of the last parts attached to the plane and we are able to get a good look as the exposed parts inside.
From here on the ground it's possible appreciate how big those engines really are – the 777s GE90 engines are the largest in the world (over seven metres long and 3.4 metres in diameter).
There's high demand for the 300-400 seat 777s and Boeing is currently churning them out at a rate of seven per month. The planes take 49 days to build from start to finish and the factory operates 24 hours a day in order to meet demand. Despite this, Boeing is currently well behind on meeting the orders for various aircraft around the world.
While the 777 is an impressive aircraft, we're keen to move on and get a look at the two new kids on the block.
The company has developed a new version of its 747 jumbo, the 747-8 – it's biggest aircraft yet and able to seat 467 passengers, 51 more than the previous 747. There are several under construction at the time of our visit, including the first one to roll off the assembly line.
Photos: Boeing's 747-8 jumbo jet
Unlike other aircraft in the factory, this one does not feature a large banner identifying who the plane is for. That's because the first 747-8 to be delivered is going to a private individual, whose identity the company will not disclose. (It is, however, widely believed that the private jumbo is headed for the Middle East.)
What the interior of this luxury VIP airliner might look like is unknown, but Boeing's own design concepts for the 747-8 private jet feature a spiral staircase, vaulted ceilings, a large dining table and a library.
The Dreamliner 787 assembly has a different feel to the 777 and 747 lines. Unlike the other aircraft built in Everett, the manufacture of many of the Dreamliner's components has been outsourced, so we don't have the opportunity to see the Dreamliner in the same state of infancy as other jets. It's a shame, as I would have enjoyed seeing the jet-black carbon fibre fuselage before it was covered up.
(Boeing has admitted that the use of external suppliers has been one of the reasons the Dreamliner has faced so many delays.)
The near-completed Dreamliner at the end of the line is marked as being for Air India, while Qantas has 50 of the jets on order for itself and subsidiary Jetstar.
Photos: Inside the Dreamliner
As we head back to the bus for the ride back to Seattle, we see the previously completed Dreamliners ready for the launch customer, ANA, sitting idle, lined up outside the factory building.
Nearby is the strange looking Dreamlifter, a huge, modified 747 designed to deliver the pieces of the Dreamliner constructed at other locations to Everett.
Looking at the enormous cargo aircraft and the smaller 787s, which could well represent the next leap in the evolution of air travel, I consider William Boeing and his excitement at the potential of air travel all those years ago. I wonder if this is what he envisaged or if, even for him, it is beyond his wildest dreams.
The writer travelled to Everett as a guest of Air New Zealand.
Boeing offers 90-minute Everett factory tours daily, on the hour from 9am to 3pm. Tickets are $US15.50 for adults and $8 for children. Tours are highly popular, so purchasing tickets in advance is recommended. Phone +1 425 438 8100 or visit http://www.futureofflight.org to purchase tickets or for more details
Follow Traveller on Twitter @FairfaxTravel