Pontifications: Visiting AvGeek heaven

By Scott Hamilton

Feb. 28, 2023, © Leeham News: When Boeing began selling off real estate in the greater Seattle area to reduce costs during the 737 MAX grounding and the COVID pandemic, some sacred cows were among the sales.

All the buildings located in Renton on a former horse racing track known as Longacres were sold. The symbolism was painful. These buildings were the headquarters for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Some buildings where composites were made and research was located were sold.

Buried in the downsizing disposing of the building in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb, that was the long-time home of Boeing’s archives. Documents. Engineering plans. Photos. Film and movies. Records of just about everything you can think of and lots you probably can’t.

And models. Rows and rows and rows of models. Models of every Boeing airplane ever sold. Models of concept airplanes, some really weird.

Boeing archivist Michael Lombardi holds a model of an Avenger Army truck Boeing built during a period of diversification. Credit: Leeham News.

Then there are models and records of things probably 99% of the people who follow Boeing didn’t know Boeing ever did. Boeing built and delivered mass transit rail cars. Military ground vehicles. Small naval vessels. Small passenger ferries.

Where was all this history going to go with the closure of the Bellevue location?

All the records, models, photography, etc., moved to a new and larger location at Boeing’s industrial and design complex in Auburn, a Tacoma suburb. The move was completed in January. I had the opportunity to visit this facility last week.

It is an AvGeek’s heaven.

Much more than a library

Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s archivist, holds a model of a naval ship Boeing built. Few probably know that Boeing did so. Credit: Leeham News.

Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s archivist, has been the company’s historian for more than 30 years. He’s nearing retirement age and can’t help but think about doing so. But his enthusiasm for his work remains high and contemplating life after this career is challenging. Lombardi has a couple of books in mind as possibilities. He certainly has the resources to fall back on to tell stories that haven’t been told, even by the most dedicated of authors.

The new digs in Auburn seem far more organized than the Bellevue location, where everything is wrapped around aisles and walls. Row after row of shelves fills a huge room. Each shelf is filled with boxes. The big shelves nearly reach the ceiling and are probably three-quarters of the room wide. Lining the walls, with a passageway, are more shelves or filing cabinets. Thousands of models are on these shelves or atop the filing cabinets. At one end, the huge models—lobby-sized models—are stored.

This room is climate controlled to 65F degrees. A second, much smaller room, is kept at about 45F degrees for all the film, photographs, and other sensitive records. Row after row after row.

Protecting the archives

With open rotors once again being considered as a new engine for future airliners, Michael Lombardi holds a model of the Boeing 7J7 open rotor airplane concept from the 1980s. The concept never went into production. Credit: Leeham News.

Lombardi says that despite the cost-cutting, Boeing was dedicated to keeping these historical documents, photography, and models, investing in converting the Auburn space into the new archives. According to the fire code, the rooms must have sprinklers in them. But a new system was installed designed to detect the slightest smoke particles. An alert is sent to Boeing’s security offices in the complex (which happen to be across the street). If an alert is activated, security can be in the archives within minutes, ahead of any sprinkler activation.

Boeing is digitizing all the records, film, and photography. But it will take decades to complete the task. The earliest record dates to 1910, when founder Bill Boeing was building the now-famous Red Barn factory.

Unusual stuff

This is one of the weird Boeing airplane concepts found in the Boeing archives. Credit: Leeham News.

Having visited the Bellevue archives years ago, I knew the archives included early models of the 747, concepts for the 767, and so on. But this visit revealed some really oddball concepts. There’s an unusual early concept for the 757 that has STOL (short take-off and landing) features to it. Three-engine 747 designs. A really weird concept that I can’t begin to understand.

I knew Boeing dabbled in passenger hydrofoils. One appeared in the movie Hopscotch and one in operation today is based in Hong Kong. But I had no idea that Boeing designed and built small passenger ferries used in the Puget Sound area and elsewhere. Nor did I know that Boeing at one time built rail cars for mass transit. (Think Bombardier in its heyday.)

Having visited a Naval museum in Bremerton (WA) years ago, I learned Boeing designed and built small naval fast boats for use in places like Vietnam during this conflict. But I didn’t know Boeing designed and built larger vessels (but still small by blue-water ship standards) until visiting the archives. Nor did I know Boeing built ground vehicles and weapons for the Army. These came during a diversification effort during the recessionary periods of the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

More than just history

Boeing’s new, larger archive at its industrial complex in Auburn (WA) is much larger than the Bellevue (WA) space closed in the disposal of real estate to cut costs. But Boeing dedicated expanded space to preserve records, artifacts, film, and photography dating to 1910. Credit: Leeham News.

Most probably assume the archives are about Boeing’s history—and this includes documents from the companies Boeing acquired over the years: McDonnell Douglas, North American, and so on.

But those using the archives include Boeing’s marketing team (no surprise here), and, surprisingly, even Boeing’s legal department. Lombardi says his group will be contacted by Legal occasionally to dig out records relating to lawsuits that can be used for the defense. Records relating to environmental cleanup can identify what chemicals may be on site. Movie producers may ask to license and use film clips. Boeing’s own engineers have sought historical engineering plans to review for current or new projects.

Other companies, including Airbus, have visited to understand what Boeing does to maintain records and how it does so.

Say what you will about the direction Boeing is going today. Its sense of history remains strong and intact.

45 Comments on “Pontifications: Visiting AvGeek heaven

  1. Nice! Knowing behind every model there are so many discussions, fought over choices, compromises, won and lost competitions.

  2. Lombardi’s stuff which used to be in the basement of the 33-05 is fantastic. Hopefully he also got a vault in the new location. Some of that stuff is quite valuable – especially some of the gifts from customers.

    I would not have characterized the selling off of the old Bellevue campus (formerly the Bellevue airport) as a cost savings. While I long argued that the company should have sold off that property long ago and integrated the IT functions into the rest of the company (see my book, The Tao of IT), I would characterize any significant asset that has been sold under the GE regime as part of the liquidation of the company. Positive free cash flow generated while piling up billions in losses is hardly a sign of cost cutting, especially not from a discipline continuous process improvement program in which costs go down while quality, and key performance metrics are improving. At least the execs at Avaya had the decency to do the right thing in trying to save their company, buy going Chapter 11 once their balance sheet went negative in the equity section.

  3. Lombardi has the best job at Boeing. He won’t retire, they’ll have to drag him off the property kicking and scratching. But it’s a very good thing that they maintain the full history of everything Boeing, that includes the services that were once schemed but they could never deliver on. Connection anyone…
    So Lombardi is planning to write a book and profit on it based on proprietary information, tell me it isn’t so.

    “Auburn, a Tacoma suburb” boy we can tell you live on brain dead, I mean, Bainbridge Island. 😂
    Good report, Scott. Thank you.

  4. I’m sure they could get a fair few volunteers in to digitize that lot much more quickly. I’d be happy to volunteer in an instant if I was local.

  5. Everyone in Boston knows about Boeing’s trolley cars of the ‘80s The MBTA bought a large number of them to replace the old PCC cars and they were terrible. Complex doors with microswitches that wouldn’t fully close when sand and snow blocked the tracks. An air conditioning condenser placed UNDERNEATH the car body where all the brakes are. The list went on. The engineers obviously thought trolleys must be easy compared with aircraft so they never asked anyone familiar with the issues.

    • Well there’s digital and then there is digital.

      The primary reason that the 747 program had to come to an end was the fact that a huge chunk of the plane was still on mylar, or so the standard telling of the story goes. Estimates of how much of the plane was still that was range as high as 45%, but it’s really hard to say. One of the main goals of the -800 (sorry, I still don’t like the M/D model nomenclature) was to convert as much of the critical systems as possible to CAD. One of the reasons, and there were many, was to make the “Save the Whale” program possible. That one would put the forward sections of the 747 with some modifications, onto a 777, which would make a very nice large cargo freighter, but I digress.

      Actually, those non-digital drawings are or were stored on aperture cards. For those that have never seen one, an aperture card is a standard IBM punch card with 80 columns in 25 rows. Enough of the card is cardstock such that it can be punched for identification, sorting and retrieval. In the center right of the card is a large rectangular hole, I’m guessing that it is about 1.5″ high and about 2″ wide. A bit of microfiche is mounted here, which is where the drawing is.

      The cards are stored in steel card trays and using them requires a card sorter, a keypunch machine for making replacement cards, a fiche camera system or scanner, and a fiche viewer. If you want to generate a full size hard copy you need a big plotter (we used to call them J size, but they have ISO standard designations now). Then you have to have the hard part, which is the software to make it all work. Now imagine connecting a card sorter and a fiche reader to your laptop and you can begin to see some of the challenges involved. The -800 program actually had all of this stuff in the Everett factory.

      Now the sad part is that the aperture card stored drawings for almost all Boeing products prior to about 1980 or so, were destroyed long ago, and they were not transferred to something like a JPEG format beforehand.

      So, when someone says that they would volunteer to do some digitizing, that is appreciated and is a kind thing to offer; but the task might be a tad bigger than what such a volunteer might be imagining it to be, assuming that any of the drawings are left.

      • The actual story is simpler , the subcontractors for the large fuselage sections didnt want to continue.
        Originally the whole fuselage panels ( except nose/cockpit section) and tail /empennage was made by outside contractors .
        According to my 1968 Flying Review International magazines I bought recently, Northrop and Vought ( as LTV) did the above and with Goodyear and Fairchild-Hiller more minor parts. Even then, the story reads, there were delay deliveries from subcontractors across the industry.

        Northrop Grumman bought out Vought and continued from the mid 90s passed on the contracts/facilities when the production numbers fell and I think Boeing took on some itself
        This was the Hawthorne plant in LA

        Pity about the Punched cards/Microfiche records as modern scanners and photo software could have automated the complete digitalisation and of course online storage is relatively cheap now

        • There were many factors. But you are right about the suppliers. You can only beat on your suppliers so much before they no long want to do business with you. I think a company would have to be very foolish to make any sort of investment of its own money to get a contract with Boeing these days. You would probably want to insist that they pay up front as well.

          • No one can make money at 6 planes a year, the 747 final assembly rate in 2016 after it changed from 1.3 pm to 1.0pm and then 0.5pm
            In 2013 it was 2 pm

          • Maybe. In a life before Boeing (I was 33 when I changed careers and joined the company) I was a CPA doing audit work – mostly computer related when I had the chance.

            There was a common belief in corporate America in the 1970s that idle facilities could not be used profitably for low rate production programs that could not afford the overhead. Then someone came up with the idea of thinking about cost differently, and Activity Based Costing was born. The concept is fairly simple, don’t treat continuing overhead burdens from previous business activities as a cost that must be bourn by new ones. Companies like Caterpillar really benefitted from this change in thinking.

            Typically, in ABC, the old and proposed new are different lines of business, but they don’t have to be. And in effect, there is a similarity between the thinking in this and Boeing’s old program accounting methodology. Look beyond GAAP and see if the net net will work out.

            Applying this to the 747-800 program, if one were to think of assembling a new airplane that is no longer profitable as a normal production program as something else, maybe that change in perspective suddenly makes it look profitable. In essence, this is how the 767 was put on life support for a few years while tanker scandal number one worked its way through. One might compare this to the way one would a look at it if it was a an MRO activity for a super refurb, such as putting on new skins or wings. If the cost of one plane per month added to the overhead, the subtracting the sales price ends up being less than the total site cost at a zero rate, then it makes sense to go for it.

            I am not arguing for having continued the 747 program. It’s time be be eased out had come. But, part of it almost certainly should have been retained. The forward sections could have (and still could be) reworked and used to make a 777 nose-door freighter, with a double deck 777 passenger configuration as an option if someone wanted it.

  6. Would be amazing to have some of this on display to the public. Would love to see some of the models. Could space be dedicated at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field or at the Future of Flight center at Paine Field?

    Also, Boeing designed and built the transit cars that MUNI used in San Francisco during the 70s and 80s. Let’s just say they should have stuck to making airplanes.

  7. I don’t know about Boeing ferries, but I rode on a Boeing hydrofoil around 1980 when the company was trying to get the Washington State Ferries to buy some. They had several routes across Puget Sound and a longer one from Seattle up to Port Angeles. The state was curious because walk-on traffic to downtown Seattle was growing rapidly as suburban growth across the Sound skyrocketed.

    Ultimately, the state passed as the hydrofoil cost as much to buy as a 737, the union contract with the ferry staff required an engineer, even though there was no purpose for one, the hydrofoils cost a lot to operate and had no capability to carry cars.

    Boeing also built some larger militarized ones that operated off of Key West to patrol the waters between the US and Cuba.

  8. Mike Lombardi is a treasure of The Boeing Company, and his guardianship of the archives is God’s work. Mike is not your stereotypical librarian guarding the cloister; he is also a podium star when invited to speak. Moreover, he thrives on doing new things and doing them in new ways. I worked with Mike in supporting an external author who has written superb coffee table books about the 737, 727, 757, and YC 14; Google Boeing 737 The World’s Jetliner for a sample. I’m proud to have worked with Mike and hope it continues as long as he can stand it!

  9. Sadly, this Boeing retiree sees Boeing’s past as much brighter than its future.

  10. Boeing still has a missile division on Huntsville Alabama and includes the former Douglas space rocket launchers .
    The ICBM used by the USAF the Minuteman III was made by Boeing.
    The Los Angeles based plants still make satellites ( but maybe Douglas or North American heritage)

  11. Its a shock Boeing did not bring in the shredder and chew up all of it and onto the landfill.

    A ray of good in a gloomy landscape.

    I had friends in Auburn for many years. I could make hide nor hair of the street number system and they were still at work when I got there. I finally had a Eurkea thought, if anyone would know its the Post Office. Yep, they took me in back (those were the days) showed me the map and pinpointed it withing a quarter mile on the far out edge of Auburn and which side of the road. Yea. Drowned rat from cycling up from Oakland, deluged in Oregon, slept on a picnic bench that night, got dried off with an electric hand dryer at a Pullout.

  12. Although not much of it probably showed up in archived models (although maybe in documents), Boeing was also involved in alternate energy in the early 80s in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo of the mid 70s. This included things like offshore oil, nuclear waste disposal, wind power electricity generation, solar power, recycling, etc. Although most of those projects didn’t make it to commercial fruition, they consumed a lot of time and effort and resources for a few years.

      • https://www.boeing.com/history/products/mod-2-mod-5b-wind-turbine.page
        ‘The Boeing wind turbine research and development program pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies in use today, including: steel tube towers, variable-speed generators, composite blade materials and partial-span pitch control, as well as aerodynamic, structural and acoustic engineering design capabilities.”
        Seems they worked ok and pushed the technology well along but wasnt the demand back them there is now ( the Hawaiian power generator went bankrupt)

  13. I am amazed the cost associated with such cultural pride has escaped the scrutiny of the ex-GE financial executives running Boeing today.

    Hopefully they miss this article. They would likely relocate it to a “Center of Excellence” in Oklahoma City or better yet offshore it to India. Think of the potential savings.

    • I have often pointed out that they have missed one of the biggest cost cutting opportunities. I’m sure that C-suite talent could be had at a fraction of the current cost by off-shoring that to India. Of course, that would presume that the cost cutting was about cost cutting.

  14. I feel that all senior Boeing management and directors and CEOs ought to be made to do a year in the archives, before they’re let lose running the company…

    • Well put. Reminds me of that old classic book “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.”

    • Matthew:

      I love it, true Hell for a Bean Counter.

      What, not even an Abacus?

  15. I wonder if they have archived all the Douglas aircraft developments such as the DC-1 through the DC-3… If not I hope it is secure somewhere… And accessible.

    • Very good question. They claim the Douglas and MD heritage for aircraft numbers so………………………..

      Scott mentioned lawyers so for a bean counter that would be a good reason to keep it all.

    • I would think the volume of paper work and design drawings ( actual blueprints) back then would be pretty tiny compared to now.
      In a way digitising the earliest documents and drawings first would make sense to give a wider access and preserve them for posterity.
      I understand back in the early days the calculations for structural and airflow used complicated formulae ( usually proprietary) and early mechanical calculators to provide the answers. Modern computers allow more simple formula to be used but repeated countless times for different locations of the airframe. But still you cant replace the wind tunnel which would be used alongside the numerical methods.

      • Frankly its not. We had whole rooms dedicated to holding the drawings and documentation (as out of date as it was) for simple structures and systems (that should have been digitized)

        It got so bad that they put in a roof fan system inside and I asked when the temp roof top unit that had become permanent was going to get cut out.

        What roof fan system? 3F5HVAC fan and 40 tone Air conditioning unit!


        Its still there. And that is a relatively simple building

    • You have McDonnell and you have Douglas. I would think all of St. Louis McDonnell history is secure. After the C-17 ended in Long Beach, if they sold the land the Douglas history was on the move. If they didn’t sell Long Beach, there’s some prime real estate worth a Billion Dollars today.

      • The C-17 assembly building is now Relativity Space – the folks building rockets using additive manufacturing. The old Douglas assembly building where the “Fly DC Jets” sign is now a Daimler facility. Google Maps says that Boeing still has the three newer office buildings, but that would seem unlikely unless they became a consolidation point for “the Beaches.”

      • The final assembly buildings arent necessarily where the design office, technical centres and HQ are located
        The merged McDonnel-Douglas HQ was at St Louis-Lambert Airport. Douglas Aircraft continued as a subsidiary a bit like BCA while the Douglas space and missiles became MD Astronautics

        This was from when the old airliner factories were silent but the newer C-17 plant across the main runway was still active

        • Nice read. Sidebar: If Boeing still owns the land, now’s the time to sell it.

  16. Actually no, and this is one of the huge problems with older planes that were in production for a long time. The standard practice for changes was to do an update drawing that is a supplement, not a replacement. So when reading the print to find out what is going on, sometimes you have to flip through a dozen or more sheets. It is a lot of work and can be very confusing.

    Now to be sure, this was not always the case, but if something was in production during the war years, and a steady stream of tweaks were being made in response to feedback from the Army Air Corps, then these could be significant.

    I am less familiar with what was going on down in Long Beach, but in Seattle, what Boeing would do is about once a year or so, do a master drawing update that reflected all of the changes that had accumulated over the past year. This is when the model would get a revision designation. The 299 (i.e. the B-17) would advance from the baseline through the G model, but in fact, it would have been uncommon for more than a couple dozen planes to be identical.

    With commercial airplanes it is even more challenging. The customer engineering department generates a fairly big pile of unique drawings for every plane that is unique to a given customer. And, it’s not just cabin systems that change. Airlines often want their own idea of what a standard instrument package is. The challenge for the manufactures is to minimize the standard offerings, make their interfaces highly standardized, and then use pricing to try to “keep the customer in the catalog.” Make it hurt to be too different. If you want a real headache, try changing out the galley in an airplane coming off of lease and being placed with a different customer.

    But, you can see why this situation would arise. There is an attitude on the part of the customers that if they are paying that much for something, then they darned well want it their way.

    • We never kept up with our drawings at the facilities I worked at. I did the control drawings for the one firm (I got the Sepias and changed those then gave the controls company back corrected drawings and got copies for our side) , I had a lot of hand changes on the latter ones.

      then they tore my office apart in a move of stupidity and they took my drawings. I found them stuffed in a drawer but it was, the heck with it, let them enjoy the mess after I am gone.

      They should have gone to electronic conversion but did not. I was all on my own to created file systems, safe info and data and it occurred to me one day, they should have all this in place, I should just send someone updates. I am not being paid what I should be an I am responsible for their mess?

      Now it is all their mess. You get what you don’t pay for.

  17. The item about the ‘Avenger’ army vehicle model mischaracterises it.
    Avenger was the air defense short range missile system developed
    as a private venture by Boeing . ( using Raytheon Stinger missiles)
    The ‘truck’ was just a modified Hummvee
    The launcher and various electronics or rangefinders for ‘cueing’ the 4-8 missiles was just added to the modified chassis.
    Its most recently been deployed to Europe for you know what.
    There was more recently a range of different vehicles suggested for Boeings Avenger system….. Bradley , Stryker etc

    • I think its called Shorads now. Paired up with cannons or machine guns?

      One of those coin flip things, what if you don’t have air supremacy and what about all them thar drones.

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