A 'Jumbo' Three-Ring Circus

By Martin Aubury

April 2016

We called ourselves the "Everett Incredibles." Fifty years ago, we built a plane twice as big as any before, and it changed air travel forever.

In 1966, I was working as a very junior structures engineer on Concorde, but the plane faced persistent threats of cancellation, so the "brain drain" to America looked tempting. Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing were all courting U.K. recruits with full-page advertisements and job forums. Newly married, my wife and I chose Boeing.

Boeing had set itself three years to design, certificate and deliver its giant new 747. Such an excruciatingly tight schedule seemed necessary because the plane was perceived as just a stopgap until a supersonic airliner, much bigger than Concorde, was ready.

As 50,000 new employees flocked to Boeing, Seattle was bursting at its seams. We were greeted with great hospitality and sometimes repaid it unkindly by swapping tales of U.S. insularity. For instance, some of us from England were complimented on our grasp of the language and occasionally asked if we had to learn English before migrating. More than once, we had to explain why Independence Day was not celebrated in England!

The company gambled its total worth on the 747 project, but even then had to recruit risk-sharing partners. The fuselage came from Northrop in California, the tail from Ling-Tempco-Vought in Texas and other large sections from all over the USA. A new production facility was needed. Boeing bought land at Everett, just north of Seattle and erected the world's largest building to house the assembly line.

It was fascinating how Boeing mustered, managed and motivated its workforce. To keep us mindful of the 747's size, the plant was festooned with cartoons depicting bizarre uses for the fuselage, such as a drag strip or a golf course. Team building, incentive awards, constant training, performance appraisal, performance pay -- all were practiced long before they were taken seriously elsewhere.

All of 1967 was frantic -- what Americans liken to a three-ring circus, too much happening at once. So at the end of the year, in recognition of the disruption caused to family life, Boeing arranged a jumbo party for staff and families, and it featured a real three-ring circus.

We worked long hours. We also had the biggest computers and the smallest desktop calculators, when slide rules were still the norm elsewhere. We coordinated by fax, 20 years before those machines became commonplace.

The 747 started passenger service in 1970 and eventually became the backbone of long-distance tourism. It tamed the tyranny of distance. Should I be proud or saddened that we now accept as commonplace 450 airline passengers eating and being entertained while flying eight miles high, in a thin aluminum tube? It awed us 50 years ago.