Getting inside Boeing plant helps realize another secret fascination
I’ll tell you something: I’m a lucky guy. A few weeks ago I mentioned my secret fascinations with meteorology and aviation. Lo and behold, with a little help from my friends, the first thing you know I’m visiting with Josh Marthers over at Channel, 2 getting a behind-the-scenes look at the production of developing a weather forecast. So life’s pretty good, I’m thinking.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a few Boeing employees in my medical practice who have pretty much been at Boeing’s enormous production plant since the beginning. Every time I see one of them I can’t help but ask, “When the heck are you going to get me over there for a look at the place? No one’s going to mind if you take me in there and show me around — are they?”
First there’s the squirm, then the sheepish look, and then the tired explanation, which they’ve already given me dozens of times. “Come on, Doc. You know I can’t just take you back in there. That would just get me fired and you thrown out. No one gets in unless it’s part of an organized tour. You know that.”
The people in public relations and education relations do put on tours, with an emphasis on young people. In fact, I discovered that the Carolina Youth Development Center already had emailed the P&C that its youngsters were scheduled for a Boeing tour as part of its Summer Biz Camp program. Messages were sent that I wanted to tag along and would be writing a column. After a few mixed signals, the deal was sealed.
Carolina Youth Development Center was initially founded in the 1790s as the Charleston Orphan House and was headquartered for years at the northeast corner of Calhoun and St. Philip streets. In the early 1950s it relocated to North Charleston, where its stated purpose is to assist some 600 youngsters each year in reaching their full potential as healthy and well-adjusted individuals.
(The beautiful old orphanage house on the peninsula and its famous chapel designed by Gabriel Manigault were razed for a Sears & Roebuck building and parking lot in one of the great preservation calamities of the 20th century. Sears has long since left the peninsula, and the College of Charleston has the property.)
Coincidentally, CYDC is one of six non-profit agencies supported by The Post and Courier’s annual Christmas Good Cheer Fund. Boeing is one of a number of sponsors of the center’s Summer Biz Camp, a five-week program aimed at helping youngsters in foster care prepare to be on their own.
As you might expect, we were warmly greeted by the Boeing staff and were taken to an observation platform within the final assembly building for a full viewing of several Dreamliners in various phases of production.
The building is pristine — so clean as to look like the inside of an operating room — and massive. Its footprint is about the size of 10 1/2 football fields, with 642,720 square feet of covered space and 1.2 million square feet of usable space. It is nearly a fifth of a mile long (1,041 feet), an eighth of a mile wide (618 feet), made of 18,000 tons of structural steel secured by 450,000 bolts, with columns that extend 86 feet high at the peripheral truss level, supporting a roof that peaks out at 114 feet.
Furthermore, it pushes green energy and recycling potential to the max.
Aft fuselage sections are constructed in their entirety here in South Carolina, whereas mid-body parts and major subassemblies are received from partners in Italy and Japan via the huge Dreamlifters, a fleet of pregnant-looking 747-400’s — one of which can invariably be seen on the right off International Boulevard just as one approaches the airport.
Needless to say, the 787 Dreamliner is a state-of-the-art aircraft with the latest in weight management and fuel efficiency (constructed of carbon fiber instead of aluminum), noise control, remarkably flexible wing technology (which can move so much as to look like they’re flapping), cockpit electronics and computer systems, stow bins, closets, partitions, entertainment stations, touch-screen passenger porthole shade control, attendant modules, and so forth.
Each little part is checked and double-checked, and each layer of construction is managed to perfection with utmost efficiency and time management, moving up a pyramidal network of supervision and oversight, culminating in a handful of aeronautics engineers who literally understand all the workings, all the systems and all the construction details of the entire aircraft — something that strikes me as impossibly mind-boggling.
At peak production, it will take the plant about 30 days to start and complete an aircraft. It will then be test-flown by Boeing pilots, then tested again. Next, representative pilots from a slated purchasing airline will test the aircraft, and test it again. If everyone’s happy, the purchaser will cut Boeing a nice fat check — starting at $200 million — and fly away with a new airplane having an expected shelf life of 30 to 50 years, at which point it will be broken down into parts that can be mostly recycled.
About the people
Near the end of the presentation I had the chance to meet the man himself, Jack Jones, vice president and general manager of Boeing SC, in charge of about 6,000 local employees who represent a self-contained city of mechanics, engineers, scientists, efficiency experts, a variety of managers — even health-care providers! — who affiliate with one of the great powerhouses in American industry, a company that didn’t miss a beat with its recent battery crisis (resolved and signed off by the FAA in only 30 days, which is unbelievable), has a waitlist of orders extending out five years, and thriving stock values.
About the people
“Do you really understand everything there is to understand about this company, including all the aeronautical science?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “But I can find people here who do.”
I like that. And now, Jack, if you’d just let me come back at a future date so I can actually walk down on the floor among the airplanes. I’ll try not to break — or even stumble into — a thing.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.