Sprawled out before us sits the exterior of the world's biggest building by volume. They make airliners here. Big ones.
"Let's go see some airplanes!" says our Boeing VIP tour guide.
I remind myself: This doesn't happen very often.
Yeah yeah yeah, Boeing offers public tours of this 98.3-acre airliner factory north of Seattle every day. This ain't that. This is special.
As part of a convention of aviation fans called Aviation Geek Fest, we're gaining ultra-exclusive access to the factory FLOOR. The public tour is limited to the balcony. We're about to walk knee-deep where Boeing gives birth to some of the world's biggest and most advanced airliners, including the 747-8 Intercontinental, the 777 Worldliner and the 787 Dreamliner.
But not so fast -- before we go inside, Boeing has laid down some rules: no photos, no video, for our eyes only.
Here's a painful development: Our smartphones have been confiscated. Gulp. I'm already suffering from phantom phone pangs.
We enter through a small, inconspicuous door marked S-1. Suddenly, we're surrounded by partly assembled airliners in a room so big it takes on the feeling of an entire world. In some spots, we gaze across an unobstructed view measuring a quarter-mile.
This building is so flippin' big that -- years ago -- it created its own inside weather patterns, including vapor clouds. They eliminated that by installing a special ventilation system. Today's factory forecast: avgeeking, with continued avgeeking and a favorable chance of avgeeking later in the day.
Here are a few cool tidbits:
The thrill of being so close to the planes literally stops you in your tracks. Seemingly everywhere you look there's another five- or six-story-tall airplane towering over you. Some are covered with a green, protective temporary coating. One Dreamliner tail is painted with the familiar British Airways red, white and blue. Another sports New Zealand Air's cool black-and-white.
Boeing paints the tails before they're attached to the planes. Then they carefully adjust the tails for balance. Paint adds hundreds of pounds of weight, which would ruin the plane's balance if the tails were painted after being attached.
Soon these behemoths will jet across vast oceans as they carry travelers to far-flung destinations.
'You've gotta have secret clearance'
The planes' huge fuselages are joined together with the help of a giant piece of equipment called a "saddle." This U-shaped metal cage straddles the top of the planes during the body-joining process.
The "Wing Build" area -- where workers attach wings to the planes -- is the loudest part of the entire facility. The staccato of rivet guns pierces the heavy air. Whooshing vacuums suck up any dust that may be created when workers drill into the planes' lightweight carbon composite material.
Security concerns in the plant are real. "Conversation-restricted area," says one sign.
As we walk past a fenced-off zone, our guide quips, "You've gotta have secret clearance. I can't even go in there!"
The rock star engine
Then, like a holy relic brought back from the Crusades -- Boeing lets us touch "it."
By "it" we mean the GE90-115B. Guinness calls it the most powerful commercially produced jet engine in the world.
We gather around this rock star engine like thirsty travelers at a desert oasis, each taking turns running our hands across its silver exterior. The lip of the engine's mouth feels rough, like it has countless scratches etched into it. That design, engineers discovered, helps reduce noise.
This 19,000-pound monster hangs from the wing of a giant 777, but the engine still looks humongous -- measuring more than 11 feet in diameter. In fact, Boeing says it's so big you could fit the body of a 737 airliner inside it.