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Originally published Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Boeing and Puget Sound — shared DNA

It's manifestly hard to design something as complex as an airliner without a stable team of brilliant engineers and skilled workers, writes Sam Howe Verhovek. That was a major Boeing advantage and is not the sort of thing that can be quickly replicated elsewhere.

Special to The Times

RESEARCHING a book about the first generation of jet airliners, I've often circled back to a core question: Why Seattle?

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, to paraphrase Bogart, how did Seattle wind up as home to the most creative and successful builder of commercial jetliners in history?

The question springs to mind again on news that Boeing will buy a giant plant in South Carolina, possible prelude to a new final assembly point for the 787 "Dreamliner."

If Boeing does the Charleston swing, it would be the company's first venture outside the Puget Sound region to assemble any of its world-beating jetliners. It's easy to see bottom-line appeal to moving jobs out of here — lower labor costs, less union hassles. It would be cheaper in the Carolinas; even cheaper in China.

What's much harder to calculate is exactly what Boeing could lose by shipping such critical work out of Jet City. And, of course, people in Seattle — and Everett, and Renton — must answer this in making a case for Boeing to stay.

At a glance, one could dismiss the importance of locale. After all, Boeing started here by happenstance.

A century ago, an Ivy League dropout and heir to a Great Lakes mining fortune came to check out the timber.

When the wealthy young man's fancy turned to airplanes, he stuck around because there was so much good wood in the Pacific Northwest. Thus did Bill Boeing launch an aircraft company on the shore of Lake Union, adopting the slogan "Built Where the Spruce Grows."

In time, aluminum emerged as a better material than wood for airplanes. As it happened, the Northwest was ideal for that, too. New Deal hydropower helped Boeing churn out the planes that helped the Allies win World War II.

But as the 1950s dawned and the Korean War sputtered to a standoff, Boeing faced a tremendous challenge, one sometimes delicately referred to by company executives as "the peace problem."

Civilian airliners were the obvious way to go. But in 1952, Boeing found itself with less than 1 percent of that market. The industry was dominated by a pair of Southern California companies, Douglas and Lockheed. Pan Am, TWA and other airline giants flew the great four-engine propliners of the age: DC-6s, DC-7s and Lockheed Constellations.

Boeing, at the prodding of company president Bill Allen, bet the firm on jetliners. When the board committed to the 707, the company did not have a single customer on board, either commercial or military. But it developed a lead in jetliner technology that it has never surrendered.

One classic lesson here is that industry Goliaths are always in peril from Davids; it's too tempting to sell what works rather than ask what will work better. Somehow, IBM never got around to dominating the computer age. Microsoft and Google will do battle over operating systems for all our digital devices. Who will emerge as winner? I doubt both; possibly neither.

Here's where Seattle comes in. In interviews, I am struck by how so many talented people came here and never wanted to leave, either the area or Boeing. In Southern California, one huge problem for Douglas, Lockheed and other emerging aerospace companies in postwar years was that they kept hiring away each other's talent.

It's manifestly hard to design something as complex as an airliner without a stable team of brilliant engineers and skilled workers. That was a major Boeing advantage, one now essentially stitched into the DNA of the Puget Sound region. It is not the sort of thing that can be quickly replicated elsewhere.

One bright Sunday morning in July 1953, four engineers from the Flight Test Group scaled Mount Rainier and planted a Boeing flag at the summit. They got the idea from photos of Mount Everest conquerors raising the Union Jack. In a way perhaps unfathomable to our children, Boeing was a way of life.

Yes, this is a notion of corporate loyalty (in both directions) that sounds quaint or absurd in today's economy.

Still, I hear a recurring theme from Boeing people of a half-century ago that everyone knew they were involved in a great enterprise. There was immense, almost viscerally parental, pride here when Boeing's 707 won the great race to shrink the world.

Boeing benefited from having everyone in the same place, on the same page, engineers and test pilots and assembly workers freely sharing ideas about how to do better.

After building the plane that defined the Jet Age, Seattle put together more winners. With the trijet 727, the smaller workhorse 737, the jumbo 747 and the next three airliners in a classic series, this region remained at the industry's pinnacle.

Now the revolutionary era of the 787 Dreamliner is at hand, but the carbon-composite plane with the bigger windows and the greater sense of roominess, the cleaner air and the quieter engines, is having a rocky rollout. It is still the most exciting airliner in a generation, but it is troubled.

Given that the 787 has a global supply chain, once vaunted but now marred by delays and distressing quality-control issues, one could argue that it doesn't matter so much where the Dreamliner is actually put together.

"This thing is supposed to show up like a box of Legos, and you just put them together," one analyst says.

Well, maybe. I've tried to assemble my fair share of Lego designs with my three kids over the years, and I always found the task maddeningly complex. Two, I suspect the Dreamliner assembly is a bit more complicated than that.

So perhaps it matters all the more where this airplane is put together. In considering where it's going with all this, Boeing needs to think long and hard about where it's coming from.

Sam Howe Verhovek is a former national reporter for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. He lives in Seattle. His book on the Boeing 707 and Britain's De Havilland Comet will be published by an imprint of Penguin in 2010.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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