Aviation veterans gather to marvel, reminisce
Seattle Times business staff
Retired Boeing executives turned out in big numbers to mingle and talk on Monday evening amid the the Museum of Flight’s dazzling collection of historic airplanes at a reception marking the 90th birthday of Bill Boeing Jr., whose father founded the giant airplane manufacturer.
Appropriately, the gathering included the screening of a PBS movie documentary about the achievements of key airplane pioneers.
Frank Shrontz, chairman and chief executive of Boeing from 1986 until 1996, famously warned this region in a 1991 speech that it could turn into “an aerospace rust belt in the 21st century” if Washington state didn’t become more business friendly.
Did he feel the state paid enough attention to him?
“No,” said Shrontz flatly, adding that it’s still “a real risk.”
“We’ve got to be competitive,” he said.
On the other hand, Shrontz, now 80, is optimistic about the current booming state of Boeing, which has multiple new airplane programs in the pipeline.
“I’m encouraged. I think Boeing is doing well,” Shrontz said. “We’ll be in the business for many years to come.”
Nearby, John Quinlivan, a sprightly 70-year-old and a composites-materials expert who used to manage all the widebody jet programs in Everett, delivered a glass of wine to Carolyn Corvi, a youthful 61-year-old who used to run the Renton narrowbody plant and perfected lean manufacturing there.
Supposedly retired, Quinlivan isn’t really.
He’s still working at Boeing at the highest level as part of a “senior advisory group” consulting on big strategic decisions.
Quinlivan said Boeing Commercial President Ray Conner has given the senior consultants “very specific” and highly significant tasks to address.
Would that include crucial, closely held decisions like how to build the wings of the 777X?
Quinlivan smiled and said, “yeah,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
The museum event was planned to celebrate both Bill Boeing Jr.’s upcoming 90th birthday — this year on Thanksgiving Day — and the extraordinary impact of aviation in the 20th century.
In a speech before the movie screening, Boeing Chief Technology Officer John Tracy pointed out that Boeing flew the 747 jumbo jet and Americans landed on the moon in 1969, within one life span of the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
“One of my grandparents was alive at both ends of that deal,” Tracy marveled. “It’s unbelievable what progress we’ve made.”
Bill Boeing Jr., a living link to a key pioneer, moves around now in a little electric cart but is still a lively raconteur.
With a blue 787 cap and big owlish glasses, Boeing Jr. wore a broad smile throughout the evening.
“Father was a serious person,” he said, as he recounted how Bill Boeing was stung by the aviation bug in 1914 when he took his first flight from Lake Union, and within a few years had his own company building airplanes.
His father’s career in aviation was cut short in 1934, when government antitrust regulators broke up his burgeoning company into units that later became United Technologies, United Airlines and the Boeing we know today.
Boeing Sr. intensely resented the breakup, left the company and sold his shares. “Father was very disappointed with the politics,” said Boeing Jr.
His dad devoted the rest of his life to owning horses, yachts and real estate and to playing the stock market. He made lots of money and enjoyed its benefits.
Boeing Jr. recalled days spent fly-fishing with his dad in Duncan Bay on Vancouver Island, using lures they made from polar-bear fur.
Despite his distance from the company he built, Boeing Sr. was invited back to witness the start of the jet age. He was there for the first flight of the Dash-80, prototype of the 707, in 1954.
Bill Boeing Jr. had a career in the aviation business himself.
He founded a helicopter company, Aerocopters, 50 years ago. It flew supplies into the Kennecott copper mine in Alaska and flew smoke jumpers in and out of Missoula, Mont.
He later founded, then sold, the Vancouver Island Helicopter company, which still exists.
But Monday he was lauded for his achievements in preserving aviation history — he helped secure for the museum the original Boeing Red Barn plant — and for his philanthropic support of education.
Dominic Gates, email@example.com