Factory that produced B-17s set for demolition, cleanup

Boeing, pilots, workers participate in farewell

SEATTLE — Step inside Boeing’s cavernous Plant 2 along East Marginal Way South — large enough to hold eight football fields — and it’s hard to imagine a pilot might fly over this facility and not notice it.

But as Boeing’s CEO Jim Albaugh said Sunday, “When you’re building B-17s, you don’t want the bad guys to know where it is.”

Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, was among the speakers honoring the history of Plant 2, which will be demolished in a massive environmental cleanup.

Although the plant’s greatest achievements lie in the aircraft it produced, most notably the nearly 7,000 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers built here, a favorite story about the facility involves what was on its roof: a fake neighborhood.

Houses, streets and plants were assembled like stage props out of plywood, clapboard, chicken wire and burlap, covering the plant’s roof during World War II. If any Japanese bombers made it this far east, the hope was that their pilots would mistake this for a quiet residential neighborhood.

It’s been 40 years since airplanes were produced in Plant 2, which was constructed partly on pilings over the Duwamish Waterway between 1936 and 1941. The ground and waterway are heavily polluted.

As part of an agreement among Boeing, federal and state agencies and two Native American tribes, a half-mile stretch of the waterway and five acres alongside it will be restored as habitat for migratory birds and fish.

Demolition of the plant is expected to begin this year, with cleanup and restoration starting in 2012 as permits are obtained. More than 100,000 cubic yards of tainted sediment will be removed and replaced with clean sand. Some 500 pilings will be taken out.

Sunday’s ceremony honored not only the industrial plant but the men and women connected with its role in U.S. history. Two B-17 pilots spoke, as did a woman who was among the “Rosie the Riveter” female workers who took war-production jobs during World War II.

“They paid me 65 cents an hour, which was a lot more than the 20 cents I got cleaning houses,” said Georgie Kunkel, 89, of West Seattle. Kunkel worked at Boeing’s Chehalis, Wash., plant, drilling holes in B-17 wing panels that were shipped to Plant 2 for assembly.

Was it hard work? “Not bad,” she said. “But I was young then. I thought it was cool.”

Elden Larson, 87, of Bellevue, Wash., and Walt Creigh, 86, of Buckley, Wash., told of bombing missions they flew from England over Germany in B-17s, targeting rail yards, bridges and points along German forces’ supply lines.

Both praised the durability and ruggedness of the B-17, which flew with a crew of nine or 10.

But flying a six- to 10-hour bombing mission was grueling, Larson said. The plane’s controls weren’t power-assisted, and pilots had to be constantly attentive, since they flew in formations with the adjacent plane as close as 100 feet away.

A B-17 Flying Fortress was on display at Sunday’s event, as was one of its successors, a B-29 Superfortress. Both belong to Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Plant 2 also produced Boeing’s Model 307 Stratoliner, the world’s first high-altitude commercial transport. Other planes built there included the 377 Stratocruiser, the B-50 and B-52 bombers and the first few 737 airliners.

Dennis O’Donoghue, Boeing’s vice president for testing and evaluation, confessed “a bit of melancholy” at Sunday’s event. He said much of the company’s spirit of innovation can be traced to those “who dared to dream of what might be and turned bold ideas into reality right here at Plant 2.”

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