Aviation and Aerospace - The First 50 Years

As The Austin Company, Boeing, Aviation Week and others celebrate their centennial of Aviation in 2016, it is also, ironically the 50th anniversary of the start of Boeing’s Plant in Everett, Washington. In 1966, Boeing contracted with Austin to Design and Build the giant Everett Plant; and it had been fifty years since Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company made the same decision in Buffalo, New York.

For Austin, these are the bookends of the first fifty years in designing and constructing aviation facilities. There are striking similarities between the projects, while the proportions of the facilities are representatives of the magnitude of advancements in the industry. 

The Curtis JN-4 “Jenny” was a two-seater, propeller-driven plane with 44-foot wingspan and a 90-HP engine, capable of flying at 75 MPH. The facility in Buffalo was needed to support the use of airplanes in WWI. As noted in the article, Austin was commissioned in 1916 to design and build this project due to our ability to deliver rapidly. Austin did not disappoint, designing and building over 600,000 SF of manufacturing and support space in less than 120 days.

Twenty-five years later, the midpoint of this first fifty years, another war effort was underway. Consolidated Aircraft had designed the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and a significant ramp up in capacity was needed. On a former stockyard in Ft. Worth, Texas, Austin delivered an astonishing 4.9MM SF of straight-line aircraft assembly space in a windowless, controlled conditions plant in under ten months.

But the B-24 was significantly larger than the JN-4 Jenny, with a 110-foot wingspan and a cruising speed of 300 MPH, with four 1200-HP engines and a range over 2100 miles. It had a crew of 11, including bombers and turret gunners. Its maximum height was about 18 feet.

Importantly, both the Jenny and Liberator were not unusually large and were able to be built in more conventional industrial space. Therefore, standardized structural systems were devised that allowed the building to be assembled like an erector set. Not so twenty-five years later.

Boeing hired Austin in 1966 to plan, design and build the new plant for its 747 jumbo jet – a plane 2.5 times larger than Boeing’s flagship 727 aircraft. Again Austin responded, with a 1.9MM SF facility in about twenty months. What it lacked in area compared to the B-24 plant, it made up for in volume. The 747-100 features a wingspan of about 180 feet and a tail height of 63 feet. The plant was designed to allow for movement of the aircraft from one position to the next, so the manufacturing process required a lot of room and clear height.

Austin designed and built the 1.9MM SF based on a bay size with a clear span of 363 feet  and a clear height of over 90 feet to the bottom chord. The truss depth was over 36 feet, meaning that the top to bottom of the trusses were about the height of a three story building that began 90 feet up. The hangar doors were about the size of a football field. All built on a remote elevated site that was a “forest and swamp with bears” when Austin opened the site.

Innovation on any major project is a must, and these were no different. The Buffalo project required unique logistics solutions to get the materials to the site in an orderly and dependable fashion to support what must have been a just-in-time schedule and plan for construction.

The Fort Worth project used innovative building materials to create a “lights out” building, so it could not be seen at night. A similar project for Boeing in Seattle during WWII had a roof that was painted and decorated as a urban neighborhood, so that the plant was “camouflaged” to enemy aircraft.

The Everett plant schedule required work overhead in the trusses concurrent with work at the floor level. Since each bay had cranes running the length of the plant, Austin built a rolling work platform that allowed all trades working overhead to have an enormous work platform that moved down the bay as sections were completed, allowing work to carry on at the floor level without conflicts with the work going on above.

All three projects were designed and built by Austin in incredibly short schedules, requiring innovation, determination, excellent communication and Owners who were as focused on the final solution as we were. Interestingly, all three buildings, although completed in very short timeframes, are still in use today. Both Ft. Worth and Everett buildings are still used for aircraft manufacturing. Designed and built to last by innovative and creative architects, engineers and builders.

It is an amazing legacy that we carry on in our daily work.


“Progress always involves risks. You can't steal second base and keep your foot on first."

Frederick Wilcox

"The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you. Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."

William Jennings Bryan

“What you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it is another matter."

Peter Drucker