Wings of desire

David Whitley sees the future of flight north of Seattle.

I'M INSIDE the biggest building in the world: the Boeing Everett factory, just north of Seattle, which covers 39 hectares. For a sense of perspective, on a walk around the building's perimeter you will cover 3 kilometres, while 55 World Cup football pitches or 911 basketball courts could fit inside.

You won't, of course, see giant sport-a-thons in there. But you will see many planes in various states of undress.

For aviation geeks, this must be something close to nirvana. There are plenty of said geeks on the official tour of Boeing's major plant. They revel in the minutiae and surround the tour guide, asking questions about wing construction and riveting techniques.

For non-geeks, it's a case of staring and cooing. It feels like looking into a gigantic doll's house with millions of working parts.

There are plenty of oddities, too. The planes, for example, are all covered in a green plastic coating, which is later stripped off with hot water. This is to protect the aluminium shells from damage.

But it's the building and the ecosystem within that fascinate more than what the 6000 or so workers are building. It's 500 metres from the outside door to the lifts, a system of navigation tunnels sits underneath, with thick reinforced concrete above to stop the planes falling through.

Surprisingly for a technological giant, climate control is very simple. A combination of body heat and that given off by tools and lights keeps this super-hangar warm enough. And if it gets too hot, they simply open one of the football-field size doors.

The logistics are overwhelming. Our guide says there are more than 1 million lights within the assembly building. At a generous estimate of a bulb lasting 18 months, that means an average of 1828 light bulbs need replacing every day.

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Such tasks, it turns out, are the duty of the midnight shift. But this is not just about tidying up and maintenance. The planes are made during the day but they're moved around at night. The assembly plant is separated from the paint shops and the testing runway by a busy highway. The planes have to be towed across a bridge, the wings extending beyond the sides. Boeing prefers to move them between 2am and 3am, when gawping-induced traffic accidents are less likely.

Most of the assembly plant is reserved for the construction of Boeing 747s. But the 787 'Dreamliners' are also being made here. The company's new darling, made of secret composite materials and capable of flying from Sydney to London non-stop, has been plagued with problems. The much-delayed delivery of the first 787 took place in September - to All Nippon Airways.

At the time of my tour, with the Federal Aviation Administration yet to give the 787s the go-ahead, a few of the completed planes were tucked away within the assembly building and many more lined the airfield.

It was clutter of epic proportions.

The tour ends at the Future of Flight exhibition, which is largely about how aircraft have developed and how they'll change in future. Highlights include being able to design your own plane and play with the controls in a mock-up cockpit. Again, though, it's all about a dramatic sense of scale. When boarding a plane, you never quite realise how big the engines are. The one you can sidle up to here looks like some sort of deadly weapon.

But it's the 747 tail fin that's most surprising. Because you usually see them attached to a much larger plane, they seem relatively small. Stand next to one and you realise they're about four storeys high. Humbling doesn't even come close to describing it.

The writer was a guest of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The 90-minute tours of the Boeing Everett factory, including the Future of Flight exhibition, cost $US18. Phone +1 360 756 0086, see futureofflight.org. The complex is 40 kilometres north of Seattle.

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