EVERETT, Wash. -- What is it about flying that continues to thrill, baffle and terrify us? How is it -- really -- that 270 tons of metal-and-wire filled with 130 tons of cargo and human life can remain for hours on end at a height of 37,000 feet?
"Hundreds of thousands of parts flying in close formation," as someone put it.
For an answer, we went to the Boeing Everett manufacturing plant, about 30 miles north of Seattle. There, the level of confidence and enthusiasm is easily through the clouds.
A visit to the main factory building, a hangar the size of 58 football fields, is mind-boggling. To an outsider, it holds more suprises than an adventure park and is more intellectually absorbing than a chess game.
Manufacturing and purchasing parts for a single 747-400, for instance, can involve distant places and exotic names such as Fuji, Kawasaki and Mitsubishi, Japan; Hawker De Havilland, Australia; General Electric, Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, Rockwell International, Northrop, Pratt & Whitney, Wichita, Korea and China.
Other necessary steps are sales and marketing, financing, contract negotiations, ordering and fabrication of parts (18 million a year) and maintenance costs.
Now for the aircraft itself. It begins to take shape in what is called subassembly, then goes to final as sembly, painting and decals, pre-flight activity, flight test and delivery to customer.
Subsequently, there is after-sales customer service.
At the Boeing factory, where work is proceeding on the all-new 777 (the world's largest twin-engine jet, to enter service in 1995), the cavernoushangar is full of familiar shapes.
Among the forklifts and cranes are frames, bulkheads, horizontal stabilizers, flaps, doors and landing gear. Busy at work are engineers, maintenance staff, analysts, executives and salespeople.
And for us, the awed visitors, the intricate plot hurtles to an astounding finish. It just doesn't seem possible -- for all the months it takes to purchase materials, complete business transactions and order and manufacture parts -- that workers put all the pieces together to form the basic shape of an airliner in a single work shift.
It is endlessly fascinating, if a touch unnerving, to see these giant metal birds taking form. The size -- close up -- of a single engine resting on a trolley is staggering. To think of it as being one of four attached tosomething even more colossal is almost beyond comprehension.
And yet, says a factory manager: "Building an airplane is a logical process. Like anything else, it has a beginning, a middle and an end."
That brings us to our original question. How does it stay in the air?
The answer, from a Boeing executive, de-mystifies flight in a single sentence:
"Air is a medium and therefore, like water, it can be navigated," he said matter-of-factly.
Full of confidence after our visit to the Boeing manufacturing plant, we boarded a brand-new British Airways 747-400 on its delivery flight to London.
The delivery flight went smoothly. Without cargo, the jumbo jet felt light as a feather.
Here are some facts about the 747, as compiled by Boeing Commercial Airplane Group:
* When fully pressurized, about a ton of air is added to its weight.
* It has 6 million parts -- 3 million are fasteners and about half of those are rivets.
* The 747-400 wing area is 5,600 square feet -- large enough to hold 45 cars.
* One wing weighs 28,000 pounds.
* It contains 2,000 pieces of tubing, which placed end to end reach 123 miles.
* 747-400 has the greatest interior volume of any commercial jet: 31,285 cubic feet, the equivalent of more than three 1,500-square-foot houses.
L * It has 16 main landing gear tires and two nose gear tires.
* Its tail is as high as a six-story building.
% --Gunna Bitee Dickson
If you go . . .
Getting there: TWA has daily service to Seattle.
Tours: Boeing has 104,000 employees in Washington state. The company-run tour center provides free guided tours of the Everett plant to an average of nearly 100,000 visitors a year.
Information: Boeing (206) 342-4801).