In April 1942 Boeing opened a factory in Renton, and over the past 75 years it has produced some of the greatest advancements in aviation including the most technologically advanced airplane of World War II, the world’s first tankers, the world’s first successful commercial jet and one of the most advanced production systems in the world.
Renton was originally selected by the U.S. Navy as the assembly site for the Boeing PB2B Sea Ranger, a long range flying boat patrol bomber, and ground was broken for the new plant on the shores of Lake Washington in September 1941.
As World War II progressed, the U.S. Navy began to rely more on land based bombers rather than flying boats, resulting in the cancelation of the Sea Ranger program. Fortunately, this was not the end for the Renton plant.
While the Navy was looking for land based bombers, the U.S. Army Air Force was looking for a site to build the most technologically advanced airplane of the war — the Boeing B-29 Super-fortress bomber.
The Army constructed an airfield next to the plant and on December 30, 1943, a B-29 called the “Renton Girl” became the first of thousands of Boeing planes to make their first flight from the airfield. The production system devised to assemble the B-29 was one of the most modern in the world, making it possible for Boeing workers in Renton to achieve an amazing production record of 160 B-29s during July 1945.
After the war the plant reverted to government use, but Boeing returned in 1949 to build the C-97 Stratofreighter and later the KC-97 — the world’s first production aerial refueling tanker.
Following the KC-97 was one of the most important airplanes in aviation history. Given the Boeing model number 367-80, it would go down in history as the “Dash 80” — the prototype for the 707. The Dash 80 rolled out at Renton on 1954 and was christened by Bertha Boeing, wife of company founder William Boeing who was the guest of honor.
The Dash 80 lead to two different airplanes: the Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, the world’s first jet tanker, and the 707, the world’s first successful commercial jet. Renton produced all 707s and KC-135s. The plant also built all of the 727s that followed — the first of which rolled out fifty years ago this month on November 27, 1962. That same year Boeing purchased the Renton plant from the Air Force.
In 1966 to accommodate assembly of the popular 727 and the highly anticipated Supersonic Transport, Boeing built the two high bay assembly buildings which dominate the site today.
In 1970, an economic downturn led the company to a number of diversification programs including hydrofoil boats. Renton built six USS Pegasus class Hydrofoil Missileships for the U.S. Navy as well as 24 commercial Jetfoils.
The airplane business turned up in the 1980s and Renton launched the 757, which along with the 767 introduced the two-crew “glass cockpit” to commercial aviation.
Following in the tradition of the B-29, Renton has been a proving ground for a number of highly effective production innovations, including the moving line and the “Move to the Lake” consolidating the resources of a once sprawling site into the major production buildings, putting engineering and other resources next to the production line.
Today Renton is the home of the 737 and the site continues to make history as one of the world’s most productive airplane assembly plants, going to a staggering 47 planes produced a month.
While in the midst of making commercial aviation history, Renton is also producing the P-8A Poseidon in the original buildings built by the U.S. Navy in 1941 — after 75 years the historic plant is finally building long range patrol planes for the U.S. Navy.