Boeing, Boeing, Gone to Seattle

Travel, they say, broadens your mind and narrows your arteries. Now back home in wonderfully green and Springing England after a couple of weeks in downtown Redmond, it looks like I survived the combined effects of altitude sickness, jet lag, and airport aggravation. Perhaps I'm becoming a "seasoned traveler". Especially as the dictionary definitions of "seasoned" include "hardened", "tested", and "weathered". I probably fit into all of those categories; and probably "soaked in alcohol" as well, though probably not "rubbed with herbs".

Perhaps it's also the reason that my weekly rants regularly seem to include airports. Mind you, I am rapidly becoming a fan of Schipol airport in Amsterdam (which, I'm reliably informed, is the is the only international airport located below sea level. That must be scary for pilots when their altimeter starts to go negative...). Unlike most airports, Schipol seems to have been designed especially so that people can use it to get on and off 'planes; without having to take a train or bus trip, or go through three security barriers.

Talking of airports, I really like the quote from Terry Pratchett who says "It's no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase 'As pretty as an airport' appear." Likewise the comments I heard from one of our local comedians this week. He asked why we say "I'm going to the airport", like there is actually only one. He pointed out that this would make traveling somewhat boring. The only flights available would start and end in the same place, but they'd probably still be able to lose your luggage.

However, what I really wanted to talk about this week was not airports, but airplanes (see how I cover a broad range of topics each week). When I was growing up, we lived on air bases all around the world and so I'm a long time fanatic of all things connected with planes, especially military ones. Therefore, two of the highlights of my recent trip to Seattle, other than a visit to Archie McPhee as described last week, were visits to the Boeing Museum of Flight and the Boeing Factory Tour.

The Museum of Flight is quite amazing. As well as loads of planes (including an SR-71 Blackbird hanging from the ceiling in the main hall), they have displays and memorabilia commemorating space flights, and whole halls devoted to WWI and WWII planes and events. Outside, you can wander through the cabins of Concorde and an old "Air Force One" 707 from 1959. I liked the way that there are little signs pointing out the features of the presidential airliner, including one in front of the mass of extremely ancient communication gear that says "The fact that it never worked very well was only revealed after the aircraft was decommissioned". That could have been a little worrying. Imagine if, when deciding whether to start a nuclear war, all that Eisenhower or Kennedy could hear was whistling noises and odd chunks of broken speech... There is also a little label on the president's desk pointing to a hole in the table that says "Cup-holder". Shows you how old the plane must be if it only has one cup-holder. I've seen baby buggies fitted with two.

Saturday morning was the trip to the Boeing Factory. This tour, called the Future of Flight takes you round the factory where they build the 747, 767, 777, and the new 787. After a half-mile walk through a tunnel full of pipes and cables that reminds you of some futuristic science fiction movie, you pop out onto a balcony overlooking a production floor so large that I didn't actually notice a Jumbo jet parked in one corner (probably back for its annual service and oil change) until the guide pointed it out. I wonder if they get delivery pilots wandering around asking if anyone had seen their 747? "Hmmm, I'm sure I left it over by that pile of tail fins..."

But it really is stunning to see six airliners lined up in a row still under construction. You almost can't appreciate how big the place is. Even if you are not wildly passionate about aircraft, it's worth going just to marvel at the size and the technology. Best of all is the facility where they're assembling the new all-plastic 787 "Dreamliner". It seems that they make the parts all over the world, and fly them in using a fleet of strangely modified 747s that look like they're pregnant (they call these "Dreamlifters"). Then they just have to glue all the bits together in the main hall, and nail on the engines and wheels. It all sounds like those model airplane kits I used to build when I was a kid. Except they seem to make a lot neater job of painting theirs.

There's also some nice displays of associated technologies. I especially enjoyed seeing the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines they offer as an optional extra when you order a new 'plane. They make these engines in a factory only a few miles from where I live. One of my friends who works there likes to tell everyone about how they test them by firing fresh chickens into them with a special compressed air cannon while the engine is running at full speed. I wonder who gets the job of cleaning them afterwards - I can't see Boeing being terribly pleased if they drip blood all over their nice clean factory floor when they unpack them.

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