By Terry Stephens
Nearly a dozen aviation museums in the Pacific Northwest celebrate the accomplishments of the past, but the new Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour facility at Paine Field celebrates the future of aviation.
Opened in mid-December, the $23.5 million tourist attraction focuses on the commercial aviation industry, the history of airliners and what the flying public will see in the future. Visitors are enticed with interactive, touch-and-feel experiences, including the ability to examine a composites-built barrel section of a 787 Dreamliner. The airliner will go into production this year at a facility a few hundred yards from the flight center.
“This place wasn’t built for my generation,” said Executive Director Barry Smith. “It was built for the youth of today, the next generation of engineers, pilots and passengers. It’s an education center meant to inspire as much as to inform. We’ve received great response to it already, including international visitors and world press coverage.”
At the Boeing Tour center that is part of the facility, as many as 250,000 people a year are expected to visit the nearby Boeing 747, 767, 777 and 787 assembly plant. It’s the only place in North America where the public can watch airliners being built. Before the center opened, more than 100,000 people took the tours, making it the most popular tourist attraction in Snohomish County.
“This year, for the first time, the Boeing tours are open on weekends, along with the Future of Flight,” Smith said. “Another big change is, of the thousands of people going on the tours, 20 to 25 percent are now registering on our website to reserve specific tour times. Before, tours were filled on a first-come basis.”
The tours begin in the Boeing Tour center’s new digital theater. The opening film is a rapid, time-lapse sequence movie that shows the assembly of an airliner in the Boeing factory. Afterwards, the groups board buses to the Boeing factory, where they take elevators to platforms high above the plant floor. At the 777 viewing platform, visitors can also see a life-size statue of Bill Boeing, the company’s founder, creatively built entirely of aircraft parts.
The 73,000-square-foot Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour experience is expected to become a global attraction for tourists, aviation enthusiasts and the corporate aviation community worldwide. The 28,000-square-foot gallery of exhibits presents the advances in flight technology in general and both the past and future of commercial airliner development in particular. One popular exhibit demonstrates three-dimensional holograms of jet engines, showing how student mechanics may soon be able to build and repair engines in a virtual-reality setting.
Rather than the typical museum exhibits placed side-by-side in display cases, the Future of Flight emphasizes touch and experience. The gallery space allows for huge exhibits as well as smaller ones, and looks like the floor of a factory, intentionally similar to the floor of the Boeing assembly plant most of the visitors will see on their tour.
Attractions in the gallery include a composite fuselage of a 787 Dreamliner, which will begin production at the Everett Boeing plant later this year. To learn about flight principles and aircraft development, multiple computers invite visitors to design their own airliners. Early composite aircraft in formation are suspended from the ceiling.
Parents and children have fun sitting in the cockpit mockup of a 1960s-vintage 727, flipping switches and working the controls, while others are drawn to the interior mockup of the 787, a four-story 747 tail and a giant Pratt & Whitney jet engine that powers the Boeing 777. The engine, with a diameter of more than nine feet, is a favorite photo backdrop for visitors. Friends or family members are photographed in front of the engine or sitting on the edge of the engine housing.
The facility houses conferences rooms, a café, the Future of Flight store with Pacific Northwest merchandise, and the Boeing store with airliner models, jackets, photos and other corporate products. Boeing plans to use the conference center for client meetings and to showcase the company’s prominent role in commercial aviation. Boeing’s section of the facility includes a large-screen theater, which shows pre-tour films to several hundred people at a time.
Because the Future of Flight and Boeing Tour facility is adjacent to the north end of Paine Field’s runway, visitors enjoy a panoramic view of the Boeing plant, three giant paint hangars and rows of airliners waiting for flight tests before delivery. Flights to and from the airport include occasional test flights of the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighters being reproduced at Paine Field. After a new taxiing strip is built this year, aircraft will be able to roll up to the flight center, where Boeing plans to hold aircraft delivery ceremonies.
The Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour facility is a major contributor to Snohomish County tourism, and is expected to add $3.5 million annually to the county economy. It’s also considered a major tribute to the nation’s airliner industry, which touches millions of people each year as they fly to various parts of the globe.
“This isn’t just a local attraction for those who live here. It’s a world-class center that will have global appeal,” Smith said. “The Future of Flight has a powerful synergy that attracts the aviation community, corporations that want to become involved with the new center, airline passengers, tourists and local residents. It’s proven to be especially appealing to children and teens, along with adults who still have some kid left in them.”
Operated by the nonprofit Future of Flight Foundation, the center is a joint public-private venture of the Boeing Co.; Snohomish County, which also owns Paine Field; and the Snohomish County Public Facilities District, which funded much of the project. Key personnel from Paine Field, Director Dave Waggoner and Deputy Director Bill Lewallen, supervised much of the development and construction of the center. Lewallen was the land development and project manager for the project.
In October, Hilton Garden Inn opened across the parking lot. The hotel serves visiting Boeing executives and clients, as well as tourists who may want to stay in the area for more sightseeing after visiting the Future of Flight facility.
The fee for both the Boeing tour and admission to the Future of Flight Center is $15 for adults, $14 for seniors and military, and $8 for children 6-15. Parking is free.
For more information, and to make reservations for the Boeing tours, visit [http://www.futureofflight.org] or call 800-464-1476.