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Originally published Friday, September 7, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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The world's No. 1 jumbo jet languishes, looking for a savior

Boeing's neglected No. 1 needs the community it helped define.


IT'S JUST an airplane.

That's what I was telling myself, climbing toward a piece of history I had admired since kindergarten.

My brain was grasping this, but my gut was having none of it. Just seconds before, taking the last few steps to one of the world's most famous jetliners, a flutter had gone through me, and I had to catch my breath.

It was embarrassing, in a hard-proof-of-your-airplane-geekdom way. But in hindsight, it's probably the very reaction many other Boeing brats would have if given the chance to poke around inside 747 RA001, or as a lot of us around Seattle have always known it, simply "No. 1."

As a Museum of Flight employee swung the thick forward door open, the 43-year-old behemoth's dim interior came into view, and I repeated the mantra.

It's just an airplane.

Except, of course, it isn't. And wasn't. And never will be.

It is a local treasure. Aside from the Space Needle, this jet, which revolutionized modern, long-distance air travel, is the most-iconic thing ever created in Seattle (yes, Everett and Renton, too), by Seattleites. Nothing says Seattle like a 747. Especially this big, once-beautiful, red, white and silver one.

This jumbo jet and its "second generation" of commercial flight dragged Seattle out from beneath the old growth and into the spotlight, leaving a lot of us squinting to this day. The plane has carried everything from the Space Shuttle (piggyback) to the president of the United States. And every day around the globe, hundreds of its hulking progeny touch down with a small puff of tire smoke and a big message: Hello, world. This is us.

And it really is "us," I thought, scanning the fuselage and wincing at the sight of paint worn to bare aluminum. Or at least was us. While driving Interstate 5 above Boeing Field, many locals who crane to catch a glimpse of the plane aren't just looking at some relic.

They're remembering life as we once knew it in a company town brought to you by the "old Boeing." Long hours and short vacations. Hard times and good times. All reflected in a massive machine which, at the time, seemed unthinkably complex — yet was designed and assembled, piece by a million pieces, by blue-collar people like my dad, your dad and someone else's mom.

To outsiders, this probably sounds like goopy nostalgia, and it is. It's very possible that if you never ripped through the front door of your house as a little kid, ran out onto the lawn to point skyward at a passing jetliner, and screamed, "My daddy built that one!" none of this is going to make any sense.

That's OK. Take our word for it: Of all the gleaming creations to roll off the assembly lines at the Lazy B, this airplane, for anyone with a familial connection to Boeing from the early 1960s through today, took plenty of hearts up with it every time it left the ground. It meant something profound, and still does.

All of which made it that much more painful as I stepped onboard, drank in some of the musty air and realized, in an instant, that No. 1 is dying.

THE FAINT LIGHT filtering through the long rows of little windows does not reveal a glorious picture. Plane double-ought-one was built as a test machine — a sacrificial lamb, if you will, for a coming fleet of birds now numbering more than 1,400. This plane made 12,000 test-flight cycles, and it shows.

Save for a klatch of ballast barrels in the aft section, No. 1 is an empty shell. The industrial look is accentuated by the lack of a plane's normal false ceiling or side panels. Walking its full, 231 feet gives you an X-ray view into the immensity of its structure — and engineering history.

"It's mostly intact," says tour guide Dan Hagedorn, the Museum of Flight's senior curator, over the hum of a large dehumidifier.

The floor, simple plywood in sections, is worn and creaky. An aluminum air duct runs along the plane's spine. Seemingly everywhere overhead, an array of steel flight-control cables winds through mazes of pulleys. Some parts bear numbers on old-fashioned black-and-white label-maker tape.

We climb the narrow, trademark spiral staircase and in "the hump" find the plane's lone creature-comfort space — a workers lounge resplendent with ashtray-equipped sofas upholstered in faded burnt-orange fabric that could be straight off the set of "Mad Men." Steps away is the surprisingly cramped cockpit, with its bewildering banks of analog gauges and dials, manual flight controls, heavy-duty metal switches and full-on engineering station — all now aeronautical relics.

The instruments bear the same settings as the last time the plane landed at Boeing Field in 1993, when No. 1 finished serving as a test bed for a new 777 engine. With pilot headsets slung casually aside next to tattered sheepskin-covered seats, it looks like the original flight crew might have just walked off the bridge for a smoke.

The rest of the interior is what the museum hopes will make a nice "before" picture. Blankets of fiberglass batting throughout the fuselage bear streaky signs of moisture damage.

"This is what keeps me awake at night," Hagedorn says.

The dehumidifier keeps things fairly dry. But it's sort of a losing battle, and much damage was done during the decade or more the plane sat, unused, across Marginal Way at Boeing Field.

An aluminum aircraft like this one is basically a 77-yard-long metal shed with tens of thousands of rivets and small openings for rain, birds, insects and other invaders. Including humans. Some Boeing employees sheepishly report that as the plane languished, a homeless person or persons broke into it for shelter, designating the tail section as a latrine.

Nobody at the museum is happy about this; restoring it to flight-test configuration has been a goal for years. It's a matter of money. Fixing the plane's interior alone could cost $1.2 million. The price tag for a complete overhaul is squishier.

"No museum, anywhere, has ever faced a restoration project of this magnitude," says Hagedorn, whose résumé includes two decades at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

After that comes the really hard — and costly — part: To prevent No. 1 and other historic planes here from reverting to leaky-metal-shed status, all of them need to come in from the incessant Seattle rain.

RIGHT ABOUT the time I was born at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, No. 1 was being hatched in decidedly nonglamorous quarters in Renton.

The plane has a purely Puget Sound pedigree. Its distinctive humpback design was sketched out (on paper) in 75,000 drawings by a team of engineers led by Seattle native Joe Sutter, who grew up daydreaming about the magic of flight, and earned a University of Washington engineering degree to put some of that imagination to use.

The mammoth project Sutter, then a 737 engineer, was handed in 1965 had begun as a pipe dream of Pan American Airlines magnate Juan Trippe, who famously told Boeing Chairman William Allen that if the company could build the world's largest jetliner, Pan Am would buy it.

The plane went from handshake to first flight in only four years — unthinkable even by today's computer-design standards. It's impossible not to admire the sheer audacity of that.

The plane was a monster leap into the future, not so much for its technology, but scale. In a world of 200-passenger long-range jets, Trippe wanted room for 400, plus cargo. Boeing committed, even though it was pouring much of its efforts into a Supersonic Transport prototype widely seen as the future of the company. Because of this, the 747 was designed for a short life as an intercontinental passenger carrier and then cargo hauler.

Sutter and fellow design engineer Rowland Brown quickly rejected what everyone expected they would build: a plane somewhat wider than current models, with a full-length, double-deck interior. Instead, they conceived a super-wide, single-level fuselage broad enough to hold rows of 8-by-8-foot shipping containers or spacious rows of seats separated by twin aisles. To make all this fit, the cockpit was kicked up into the rafters. Hence the now-famous hump.

The dimensions were staggering: 2 ½ times larger than any commercial plane ever built. But Sutter and his team plunged ahead.

Early on, legend has it, more than one airline executive given a peek inside a mock-up of the plane muttered the same testament to its biblical dimensions: "Jesus Christ!"

From Day One, the plane's taller, straighter sidewalls created a sense of security for passengers, Sutter noted in his 2005 memoir, "747: Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation." "It felt like a place, not a conveyance," he said.

So large was the 747 that Boeing had no plant big enough to build it. In a marathon project that would make modern environmentalists blanch, 4 million cubic yards of earth were hastily graded in a forested area near Paine Field in South Everett. When No. 1 inched off the line for its rollout on Sept. 30, 1968, the Everett assembly plant literally was being closed in around it.

THE RUSHED status only added to the plane's underdog persona. Not that it needed help: Until the day it actually did, many people insisted the thing was so huge, it would never fly.

Doubts were so strong, Sutter recalls, that even his wife, Nancy, needed reassurance. On the frosty first-flight morning of Feb. 9, 1969, Sutter drove her to a spot near the runway where he was confident No. 1 would slip the surly bonds of Earth. Stay here, he said, and watch her go.

Not long after that, the world's first jumbo jet — which always appears as if it's moving entirely too slowly to fly — lumbered down the runway and, at 164 mph, lifted gently into the sky — exactly where Joe Sutter said it would. The plane, piloted by Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle, with engineer Jesse Wallick, flew over Puget Sound for just less than two hours, cutting the flight short because of a wing-flap malfunction. Boeing, and Seattle, celebrated.

"It's a pilot's airplane," Wygle said, beaming, afterward. "This is a flying arrow."

Launched in the depths of a recession, at the dawn of an oil crisis, the 747 program literally mortgaged Boeing's future. It easily could have failed, and almost did.

No. 1 was born slightly overweight and underpowered by prototype Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan engines. Only months later were the engines tweaked to bring the plane up to its full (600 miles-an-hour) speed — and full potential.

When the SST project died in 1971, Sutter's 747 went from short-term fill-in to Project One. Over time, the plane that competitors had called Boeing's "Dumbo Jet" rose to Queen of the Skies.

It is no small coincidence that the delayed-success story of the 747 largely mirrors that of the economy in the place, and among the people, who still build its latest successor, the 747-8, in Everett.

But beyond its massive economic impact, the 747 is our best local testament to what ordinary people can do when they think big and plow forward. This airplane was Seattle's moon shot.

"It showed," Sutter says, "what we human beings can achieve when we collaborate."

ANY GLIMPSE OF the plane makes me think of my dad, Ronald L. Judd, who proudly carted me, at age 5, to its first flight, and those of other Boeing jetliners that followed.

A color photo of a gleaming No. 1 soaring over Puget Sound — a handout to all employees — hung on the wall above Dad's basement workshop for most of his adult life. I looked up at it a million times, looked down at his tools, and saw not just an airplane but possibilities.

My father began working for the company in 1959, barely out of high school, painting B-52s in Moses Lake. Like many of his lifelong machinist co-workers, he eventually worked on most of Boeing's missile systems and airplane lines. He took great pride in all that work, but especially in the 747, which he helped produce but never set foot on as a fare-paying civilian.

After he died last spring, I pulled that yellowed photo down from the wall and brought it home, where it will hang in my own garage workshop. I treasure it, and my dad's tools, as a reminder of his unabashed occupational pride — something that seems rare in an era when fewer and fewer of us produce things with our hands.

When I look up at that picture, I still see possibilities. One I hope others share is ensuring that this big lug of an airplane is restored to its first-flight glory. And kept that way.

It wouldn't be cheap. If the plane is restored, the museum needs to preserve it for good by moving it into a new structure that would house all the museum's iconic aircraft now decaying outside. Ballpark estimate: $125 million.

"We're looking at this point for seed money," Hagedorn says.

So far, no sowers.

I mulled all this later, walking beneath the aging plane. Five of these first-generation 747s underwent grueling flight tests to gain FAA certification. Four others were delivered to Pan Am and TWA and, like those airlines, are long gone.

No. 1, alone, represents the genre. The flight crew's names, hand-painted below the cockpit, are fading, as is the "City of Everett" designation on its side. The plane is washed occasionally, but paint this old never really comes clean.

With every passing day, the job gets that much larger. Peering skyward at the six-story-high tail, I feel a wave of sadness and a touch of shame.

For many local people, this is the plane that paid our mortgages, straightened our teeth, bought our football cleats and put us through college. It is a testament to the genius and sweat equity of our parents' generation. But I wonder if ours can even muster the ability to preserve their handiwork.

When we needed it most, the 747 put a roof over Seattle's head. Surely it is not asking too much to return the favor.

Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.