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Originally published March 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 7, 2009 at 4:27 PM

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"I got lucky. I picked composites 28 years ago. This is a composite guy's dream."

Phil Lathrop started working with composite plastics back when airplanes were built with aluminum sheets and endless rows of rivets. Only nonessentials like stow...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Phil Lathrop started working with composite plastics back when airplanes were built with aluminum sheets and endless rows of rivets. Only nonessentials like stow bins were plastic.

Now he leads a small Boeing team trouble-shooting problems that arise in manufacturing tailfins for the world's first airliner built largely of plastic.

"I got lucky. I picked composites 28 years ago," Lathrop said. "This is a composite guy's dream."

As the future of commercial airplanes takes shape with the composite plastic 787 Dreamliner, Lathrop's field is hot.

If that's not enough to make him a rock star, there's this: The ponytailed 48-year-old plays with Boeing workmates in a five-man classic-rock band, The Composites.

"Hey, Mick Jagger is a whole lot older than I am," he jokes.

And Jagger never played Frederickson. The Composites, though, will play for assembled Boeing workers Wednesday at the rollout ceremony for the first 787 tailfin.

Lathrop says people are growing accustomed to the idea of plastic airplane sections as fishing rods, golf clubs and skis are increasingly made from the same light and strong material.

"It's getting more and more understood by the average person," he said. "Ask some 12-year-old kids about composite skateboards and they'll know what you're talking about."

Many of the people working at the Frederickson composites center previously worked on the B-2 stealth-bomber program, where Boeing developed much expertise in building composite structures.

To cultivate the next generation of plastics experts, the University of Washington and local community colleges in collaboration with Boeing offer composites-materials training. And in April, Boeing and the Machinists union will inaugurate a four-year apprenticeship program to produce lead-composites technicians.

Lathrop has been in plastics ever since he joined Boeing, where he started out testing the nonmetal materials used for minor structural parts and interior fittings on jets from the 707 through the 767. He had spent a year as a lab technician at Reichhold Chemical in Tacoma, testing polymers and resins. That first job ended in a layoff, but it set his career on a secure path.

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In 27 years at Boeing, he's never been laid off. The company paid for him to go back to school and get a bachelor's degree to back up his on-the-job expertise.

Now he revels in his newly trendy role as a composites-material expert.

"I get to run around the factory, solve problems where I can, investigate things," Lathrop said.

He has acted as a consultant to Boeing partners around the world, traveling to Australia, Israel, Japan and Korea. Last year, he worked on the spars for the first prototype 787 wings, produced in Frederickson. The production version of the wings is being built in Japan.

Lathrop grew up in Tacoma and lives in Graham, three miles from the plant.

His dad, Willard, 73 and retired, started at Boeing as an apprentice mechanic and progressed from pushing a broom on the factory floor to working on a series of high-tech engineering projects. Lathrop recalls that his dad worked on the lunar rover that NASA took to the moon, and he trained the astronauts to drive it.

Growing up, Lathrop didn't imagine following his dad into Boeing. Now he wonders where his son may end up.

In the 1967 movie "The Graduate," the just-out-of-college protagonist got a one-word piece of career counseling: "plastics."

Forty years later, Phil's son Mathew, a junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham, is studying plastics engineering.

Lathrop says that came as a surprise. He hadn't offered his son that advice.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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