On the 100th anniversary, company veterans from machinist to CEO talk about key moments in their time at Boeing.
Mention the name “Boeing,” and the first image that invariably comes to mind is of a streamlined aircraft soaring overhead to some far-off destination.
Yet behind each airplane is a team of people — currently 165,000 in 65 countries. Their collective efforts have kept Boeing at the forefront of aviation for 100 years.
In these three segments, ten longtime Boeing people — from machinists to engineering legends to CEOs — talk about what working at the company has meant to them and how Boeing has evolved during their careers.
Craig Dupler, engineer and technical fellow
Though Craig Dupler, 66, trained as an accountant, a strong interest in computing at the dawn of the personal-computer era led him to a top technical job at Boeing.
After attending an early PC trade show in Seattle with a Boeing friend in 1983 — a time when Boeing’s old-school computer division managed giant mainframe computers — Dupler said he realized that “local area networks were going to change the world.”
He was hired to help with an IT project on Boeing’s “Peacekeeper” multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) project.
The stealth mission of his small group was to put a PC on the desk of every engineer on the project, “so they’d do their own documentation and eliminate the typing pool.”
It worked, and the project needed one-third fewer personnel than the Air Force expected.
Dupler was hooked for life at Boeing. He rose through the ranks working on IT network systems, helping put a PC on every desk in the corporation.
Eventually he earned the prestigious title of “Technical Fellow” and worked on many new jet programs.
What most impressed Dupler about Boeing’s airplane-development work is what he describes as “inventing on a schedule.”
“You develop a concept of something you’ll build, then you invent a whole lot of it as you go along,” he said.
Because this approach inevitably means working through blind alleys and mistakes, he said, the company’s engineers had of necessity developed “a culture of blunt honesty,” which he came to admire.
Dupler recalls a supervisor verbally ripping apart his presentation at a preliminary design review in his early days at Boeing.
With hugely expensive airplane-development plans at stake, Dupler said, “It’s critical you don’t waste time. You have to get bluntly honest from the get-go. You can be nice about it but you cannot hold back.”
To his dismay, he saw that attitude disappear on the 787, he said.
At typical Boeing review meetings, charts are presented with itemized project details color-coded — green, orange or red to denote progress on each.
“On the 787, I remember going to a computing preliminary design-review meeting,” Dupler said. “Every chart was green. There were no problems. Nobody was panicking.”
“Every chart should have been flaming red,” he said. “In effect, they became spinmeisters.”
Yet Dupler is optimistic about new CEO Dennis Muilenburg, because he’s a former engineer.
“Let’s hope he manages to turn things around,” he said.
Alan Mulally, CEO of commercial airplanes
Boeing was in dire straits in 1998 when Alan Mulally, who’d earlier led the successful engineering development of the 777, took charge of Commercial Airplanes.
Half-finished jets were still piled outside the Everett and Renton plants in the wake of a massive production crisis that had shut down Boeing’s assembly lines as the parts supply chain choked.
“We clearly had to take very decisive action,” said Mulally, now 70. “Our No. 1 priority was to complete the airplanes already partially assembled and slow down our production so we didn’t end up with more airplanes not completed.”
The toll of the cuts to production was enormous. In Mulally’s first three years leading Commercial Airplanes, Boeing shed 22,000 jobs in Washington state.
Then, in 2001, the Sept. 11 terror attacks hit.
“None of us ever thought commercial airplanes would be used as a weapon. It was devastating,” Mulally recalled. “We knew right away that this would have a huge impact on travel worldwide. … The effect on our business was dramatic.”
As production dropped from 527 jets in 2001 to just 281 jets two years later, Mulally cut an additional 27,000 Boeing jobs here.
“You have to move decisively to match your production resources with the demand,” he said. “If not, you start burning through so much cash you put the company at risk.
“As hard as the decisions were, I think we did absolutely the right thing,” he added. “We saved Boeing.”
Things finally looked up again at the end of 2003, when after years of hesitation Boeing at last launched its latest all-new airplane, the 787 Dreamliner.
Mulally led Commercial Airplanes for almost the first three years of the program and presided over setting up the 787’s globally outsourced manufacturing model.
A year after he left to become CEO at Ford, the 787 turned into another crisis for Boeing.
Mulally denies responsibility for the problems that appeared after his departure. “I wasn’t there,” he said flatly in an interview.
With his leadership spanning some of the toughest years in Boeing’s history, Mulally treasures an unambiguously positive achievement from his early engineering work at Boeing.
He holds a patent for a series of procedures and display warnings that guide a pilot through wind shear — when a downdraft of air can cause an aircraft to lose lift and fall out of the sky.
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During development of the procedures in 1985, Mulally’s team trained some United Airlines pilots how to climb out of danger at the maximum angle possible without stalling.
Soon afterward, a United 727 encountered severe wind shear in an incident that came close to disaster. The pilot credited the training with saving the plane and the lives of all on board.
Dave Huntman, engineer
Dave Huntman, 87, joined Boeing to work on the supersonic transport (SST), first as a structural engineer and then in systems engineering, where he designed ways to cool the skin of that futuristic airplane.
Such versatility was a hallmark of the Englishman’s Boeing career. When the SST was canceled in 1971, he hopped from one interesting project to the next.
“The thing I like most at Boeing, there was always another program going,” Huntman said. “Being an inquisitive sort of guy, I was always looking for something new.”
He worked on the “Peacekeeper” intercontinental ballistic missile project; on the 707-based Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) military command airplanes; and on the 7J7 development program, a canceled precursor to the 737.
The 767 was his favorite airplane program, where as a lead engineer he and a supplier developed the cabin-pressure control system.
In the late 1980s, he worked deep inside Boeing’s East Marginal Way research center on what they called a “Hello” project — a secret program. The windows were covered with wire mesh, and anyone answering a phone wasn’t permitted to say a name or department, just hello.
Huntman said the project gave him “the biggest raise I ever got in my life,” but this one, too, was canceled after Boeing spent more than $300 million on developing and testing two prototypes.
Now Huntman can talk about it: He was working on ways to cool the systems of the Condor, an unmanned spy plane loaded with electronic surveillance equipment. The giant glider-like drone with a 200-foot wingspan was designed to stay aloft for days at high altitudes.
Huntman recalls that after he’d left the program, one of the prototypes crash-landed at Moses Lake and cartwheeled down the runway.
“The local papers in Spokane and Moses Lake had photos of our secret machine,” he said. “That ended the secrecy.”
Like many at Boeing, Huntman passed his enthusiasm on to the next generation. His son has worked at Boeing for more than 25 years.
Charlie Grieser, Machinist and quality inspector
Charlie Grieser, 66, laughs often as he recounts stories from a Boeing career, and to those starting out he offers his own twist to an adage: “Come for the fun. Stay for the money.”
On a dark, rainswept winter night in the 1980s, when he was the sole quality inspector on the 747 assembly line in Everett around 11 p.m., Grieser recalls how a tall, authoritative figure entered the production bay, his features half hidden by a hat and the turned-up collar of a long coat.
The man ordered Grieser to sign “removal” papers for all the planes on the line, granting mechanics permission to remove the movable surfaces on the wings and tail.
The huge doors of the assembly bay then opened and a crew of men swarmed over the production line. Leaving the floor strewn with bolts and wiring, they removed flaps, slats, ailerons, rudders and elevators and loaded them onto a truck.
“By the time the sun came up, they were gone. Every 747 on the line had been stripped,” Grieser said. “And my stamp was all over the paperwork.”
Next morning, Grieser’s managers were aghast.
It turned out the man was a Boeing vice president in charge of an “Airplane On the Ground” team, which mobilizes to repair airplanes grounded anywhere in the world due to a technical problem.
As Grieser later read in Boeing’s internal news, after a hailstorm had damaged some South African Airlines 747s, the airline was tremendously impressed with how fast Boeing delivered replacement parts.
Grieser, now a quality team lead on the 767 Air Force tanker program, has worked on airplanes from a 707 military derivative up through the 777.
When he started at Boeing, people smoked cigarettes constantly at work, reports were bashed out on typewriters and he had to read paper engineering blueprints.
The KC-46 tanker he works on today has its roots in that era.
“We’re taking a commercial airframe designed in the 1970s and we are putting the technology of 2016 inside it,” he said. “It’s unbelievable we’re doing that. It shows how good this airframe is.”
As he approaches retirement, Grieser is proud of his part in Boeing’s history.
“In a hundred years, we’ve gone from cloth wings to composite wings,” Grieser said. “We’ve come a long way.”