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Originally published December 25, 2014 at 7:29 PM | Page modified December 26, 2014 at 6:50 PM

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Boeing plays hide-and-seek with professional plane-spotters

If Airbus wants to see the latest from its U.S. rival, it can rely on the stalkers around Boeing’s plant and Paine Field.

Bloomberg News


Bernie Leighton leans out an open-sided helicopter into a chilly breeze, Nikon camera glued to his face as he focuses on his unsuspecting photographic quarry.

The celebrity in his lens is no Kardashian. It’s Etihad Airways’ first 787 Dreamliner, parked outside Boeing’s widebody-jet plant in Everett and an object of desire among plane-spotters for a new, secrecy-shrouded paint scheme.

Leighton, of Redmond, is angling for Internet fame as he stalks the 787, already one of the most-chronicled industrial products on the planet for its futuristic design and troubled start. Selling the first aerial shot of the shimmering silver-and-gold Etihad plane would also cover the cost of his $500 copter ride.

“I’d say there’s monetary reward, but not really,” the 27-year-old Leighton said beforehand, facing the hulking factory and an adjacent airfield crammed with new Boeing jets. “It’s mostly about pride, about keeping my streak going.”

In 4½ years of professional plane-spotting, Leighton has snapped more than 35,000 photos and garnered at least 7 million Internet views. He’s among the growing ranks of “avgeeks” who gather and share images of aircraft with the zeal displayed by enthusiasts pursuing rare comic books, baseball cards and other collectibles.

Their ardor creates opportunities as well as challenges for Boeing. The constant surveillance means that the world’s largest plane-maker must play hide-and-seek to keep commercial projects under wraps. Photos also sometimes signal factory woes, as when a buildup of undelivered jets preceded the disclosure of hairline wing cracks on some 787s in March.

If Airbus wants to see the latest from its U.S. rival, it can rely on the stalkers around Boeing’s plant and Paine Field. They sometimes climb trees or fences to eyeball newly assembled aircraft under tow to the paint shop to receive their livery, as an airline’s markings are known. In 2011, Boeing swathed the first 747-8 Intercontinental jumbo jet in paper to thwart peeping eyes before the unveiling of the red-and-orange “sunrise” design.

“When your factory, paint hangars and delivery center sit directly adjacent to a public airport, keeping a customer’s livery a surprise is next to impossible,” said Doug Alder, a spokesman. “That’s why we coordinate with our customers to make sure events tied to a new or special livery are done when the airplane rolls out of the paint hangar.”

Those documenting Boeing’s factory output are a subset of enthusiasts, almost always male, compelled to meticulously track heavy machinery from locomotives to steel mills, said George Hamlin, a former executive with Toulouse, France-based Airbus who is now an aviation consultant.

Each watershed aircraft draws more to the hobby, said Hamlin, who is based in Fairfax, Va. He was captivated by the technology leap embodied in Boeing’s humpbacked 747 jumbo in the late 1960s. “I started taking pictures around that time period,” he said in a phone interview. “There were few if any spotters or photographers.”

Over the decades Hamlin has amassed more than 20,000 slides of aircraft, another 8,000 or so digital shots and watched the ranks of jet enthusiasts swell with the advent of the Internet.

Boeing’s Future of Flight Aviation Center near the Everett plant is a magnet for this group, drawing about 270,000 visitors a year. Shutterbugs flock to an observation deck overlooking a Paine Field runway where Boeing test pilots put widebodies through their paces.

Online tickets sold out in three minutes for this year’s Aviation Geek Fest, according to museum Marketing Director Sandy Ward. It’s an annual gathering that includes a chance to wander the Everett factory, the world’s largest building by volume.

“We’ll have people sitting around the world — it might be midnight in Shanghai — hitting refresh, refresh,” she said. “You’ll have virtual fistfights breaking out.”

Boeing’s involvement reflects a shift in its marketing, from ignoring avgeeks to inviting bloggers to aircraft unveilings and events once reserved for credentialed reporters.

“Aviation Geek Fest is an opportunity for Boeing to embrace people with a passion for airplanes,” said spokesman Alder. “Events like these connect us with an enthusiastic audience for our products in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.”

For plane-spotters, the Dreamliner continues to inspire a photo fascination so intense that die-hards vied for snapshots of the scarlet engine nacelles — the casing visible under the wing — on a Virgin Atlantic 787.

The attention is “an accidental Boeing creation,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Fairfax, Va.- based consultant Teal Group.

Boeing’s first all-new aircraft of the 21st century fired imaginations with its plastic-composite hull, then grabbed headlines as supply-chain snarls delayed the initial delivery by three years to 2011. It was the first jet whose development played out on Twitter, and became a focus of posts by amateur blogger Jon Ostrower, who is now a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Many of those who tuned in for the early Dreamliner drama have stuck around, said David Parker Brown, who founded in 2008. He was inspired by Ostrower’s social-media success, as was Uresh Sheth, a Wall Street banker who pens the AllThings787 blog.

In his spare time, Sheth compiles tables tracking the progress of every 787 assembled and delivered. Sheth relies on tidbits shared by “volunteers,” not leaked internal Boeing documents. He cross-checks each data point.

“It’s a labor of love,” Sheth said in a phone interview. “I’d like to keep this information as current as possible for as long as possible, until they stop building it. It would be a nice resource for people.”

It’s no easy task. Through Nov. 5, Boeing had handed over 204 Dreamliners — and had a backlog of 850 more.

Leighton is most obsessed with Soviet-era military aircraft, traveling to North Korea and Kazakhstan to ride on aging transports. When he’s home in Redmond, Leighton regularly drives 20 miles in his Tesla Model S to ogle planes at the “Lazy B,” as he calls the Everett plant.

A day job with flexible hours — he declines to name his profession — pays for constant travel and tools that include “a small car’s worth” of photographic gear.

Using Sheth’s production charts, Leighton monitored the Etihad 787’s progress through the factory over the summer months. His interest grew as word leaked that the jet would feature an edgier look that’s part of a branding makeover for the Abu Dhabi-based airline.

Etihad got wind of the stir over its new livery and hosted a special nighttime unveiling in a live webcast. That still left a photographic “first,” an overhead shot, to be claimed by Leighton.

That’s how he found himself in a four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter clattering to the Boeing plant on the first sunny day after the late-September Etihad fete. As pilot Daiichi Takeuchi slowed and backed into place about 900 feet overhead, Leighton went to work.

He was done 35 seconds later. His photo of the jet’s abstract desert-themed paint job has been viewed more than 36,000 times on while drawing more than 5,400 “likes” in postings on AirlineReporter and Etihad’s Facebook page.

“No one breaks even,” Leighton said. “We do this regardless.”

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