Voices from the factory floor

Boeing 747-8

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Some grill juicy burgers, others collect Smurfs. Yet others haul million-dollar aircraft wings around or field calls from Hollywood. A peek behind the scenes with the people who work for the biggest US aircraft manufacturer

Boeing 747-8

Crane operator Jeff Johnson maneuvers huge sections of aircraft into place from his workplace 40 meters above the Boeing factory floor

© Jens Görlich
The following video contains no captions. You will find a description on the website.

Jeff, the crane operator

Jeff Johnson: The crane operator who talks with his hands

“I’ve been a crane operator with Boeing since 1999. Picture me sitting nearly 40 meters off the ground, lifting huge sections of a 747-8 and transporting them from one end of the giant production hangar to the other – complete wing assemblies, tailplanes, whole sections of fuselage. But you can also find me on the hangar floor giving hand signals to other crane operators. That is by far the more nerve-racking part of the job. Two fingers pointing straight ahead means: a couple of centimeters forward. A fist means: Stop! No further! Because sometimes it really is just a matter of centimeters. I don’t fly often myself, but my dream destination is Hawaii. I always pick an airline by the aircraft they use – Boeing, what else? So there’s a fairly good chance the plane I fly in is one I’ve helped to build.”


 

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

Shelly Strayer: The canteen boss and her Rodeo burger

People who build big, beautiful airplanes need to eat a proper meal. What’s on the menu?
Pizza, spaghetti, pancakes, plus healthy options, like salads and vegetarian dishes. We even have our own sushi experts. But most of our people tend to go for comfort food, like hotdogs, hamburgers and fries.

What makes a good burger?
Our classic is the Rodeo burger. We take a five- ounce slice of Angus beef and garnish it with fried onion rings, lettuce and toma- to, and then add a slather of delicious barbecue sauce. I like to top it off with one or two slices of cheese. Unbeatable!

Do you have a special 747 dish?
No, but one of our cooks did come up with a very nice idea. On special occasions, he chisels away at a three-meter block of ice, sculpting some really amazing figures. Once he came out of his corner of the kitchen with a plane – a Boeing 747 with a three-meter wingspan made entirely of ice.


 

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

Tom Brown: The painter with the spray gun

“I must have spray-painted about 600 jumbo jets. There aren’t many airline liveries I haven’t done. I usually work on the nose of the plane. With a 747-8, that means taping 72 windows, all by hand. I’ve been a decorative exterior painter at Boeing since 1989. Painting the 747-8, our largest plane, gives me the most satisfaction. We once painted an aircraft we called the “whale plane.” A 12-year-old girl had won a design competition in Japan and we had the job of spraying an enormous plane exactly the way she had pictured it – covered with fish. In the end, the plane itself looked like a large whale. They flew the little girl over to see the result. She was amazed when she saw a huge plane covered with pictures of fish.”

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

Eileen Dickson: The guide who knows everything

Eileen Dickenson admits that her first love is horses. She has one called Delilah. But she also likes airplanes and working at Boeing, which she’s done since 1986. Eileen is a visitor relations specialist who takes VIPs on tours of the production plant. In preparation for this she had to spend entire days in overalls, hammering in rivets and screwing bolts tight. “I can’t explain a job properly unless I’ve done it myself,” she says. When someone asks an unusual question, she ferrets around the Boeing universe until she has the answer. Over the years, she has become something of a walking encyclopedia, accumulating trivia – for instance, that Boeing has 19,000 landline extensions and that the 16,800 on-site computer stations are connected by 12,000 miles of cable.


 

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

David Rowntree: The mechanic who likes to dance

You’re responsible for preflight deliveries. What exactly does that entail?
When a 747-8 comes off the production line, we prepare it for painting, fueling, functional tests and its first flight. I have the delightful job of coordinating everything.

You need to know a thing or two about the aircraft to be able to do all that.
Absolutely. I came to Boeing as a mechanic in 1978 and got to know just about every technical process here. The first 747 I worked on had the number 329. Today we are getting close to number 1500.

Does any particular job come to mind?
I worked on the President’s “Air Force One” and on the SP short version for a sheik.

Could you fly a jumbo jet?
No, and I’ve never wanted to. Airplanes are wonderful machines and they are exciting to work on. Nothing gives me a bigger blast than seeing a plane take off for the first time.

What do you do in your free time?
I have a car, an old English 1974 Triumph 206, which I love tinkering with. My wife and I also enjoy dancing.

Dancing?
We enjoy ballroom dancing, swing, cha-cha-cha, rumba.


 

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

Jeff Robinson: The advertising manager who is inspired by chaos

As head of global advertising at Boeing you’re a pretty important man. But you have a reputation for the untidiest desk in the corporation.
Some call it chaos, but I like to think of my desk as my creative platform, my thinking zone. It’s the environment I need to come up with good ideas. And my job calls for creativity on demand, flashes of inspiration at a moment’s notice.

What are all those things on your desk?
Pictures, model airplanes, sayings, the sort of stuff I pick up on my travels. Like these little Smurfs from McDonald’s, they’re kind of cute. McDonald’s doesn’t just produce hamburgers, you know; it’s now the world’s biggest toy distributor, too. These little guys are icons. They capture the essence of our culture almost better than anything else. To represent America with a piece of plastic a few inches long – that takes genius!

Do you like airplanes?
Of course I do! I’ve loved them ever since I was a small boy. We lived in California then, near the Edwards Air Force Base, and I regularly got to hear the sonic boom. I now live quite close to the runway in Seattle. I still run out and look up whenever a plane flies over our house.

And how do you market them?
The main message we want to get across is that flying has to become an adventure again. Right now, it’s become so routine that we’ve lost the euphoria we used to feel in advance of a flight. Flying is something special, and should never be merely a matter of getting from A to B.

Boeing 747-8
© Jens Görlich

Michael Lombardi: The guardian of the archives

Michael Lombardi regularly gets calls from Hollywood – whenever there’s an airplane scene to shoot, in fact. They ask him things like: What did stewardesses wear in the 1960s, what did the Boeing 707 look like inside, and what should Leonardo di Caprio wear in Catch Me if You Can? Michael Lombardi knows all the answers. He was the expert aviation source for the movie Air Force One starring Harrison Ford, and advised the makers of the cult series Lost. Lombardi, an historian, has been with Boeing since 1979. His archives contain about four million photo negatives, 20000 films, and hundreds of model planes, as well as old captain’s caps, emblems, posters and badges: the history of Boeing and a significant part of aviation history, too. Lombardi can even show you a photo of Marilyn Monroe lounging lasciviously on an airplane bed in the 1940s long before she became famous. The photo has never been published and there’s only one copy of it – right here. It could be worth millions. Lombardi’s best piece is an old leather armchair, from which Bill Allen, an iconic boss, steered Boeing’s fortunes from 1944 onward. He was sitting in this chair when he made the decision to build the 747 in the 1960s. Lombardi smiles to himself as he runs his hand lovingly over the old leather. Then he returns to his fantastic collection of models, original plans and rockets. Rockets? Yes, Boeing has always been into spacecraft, too. Which is why Lombardi sometimes remarks in passing that he often lunches with people like Neil Armstrong.


 

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