In the past, we have featured plane spotting guides for Paine Field and also other airports like Anchorage or Tokyo Haneda. With numerous airports in the Seattle area, including SeaTac and Boeing Field, there is sometimes a forgotten, but quite important, airport for plane spotters which provides a continuous stream of aircraft to spot. I am speaking of Renton Municipal Airport, the home of Boeing’s narrow-body aircraft plant.
The Renton Airport traces its history back to World War II. Originally built on reclaimed land from Lake Washington, the airport was built by the Department of Defense (DoD) to support Amphibious Aircraft being built by Boeing on Lake Washington. The PBB Sea Ranger project was cancelled after the prototype was built, so Boeing ended up using the facility to produce the B-29 Superfortress. By the end of the war, a total of 1,119 were built.
After the war, the City of Renton purchased the airport back from the DoD for $1 and the facility laid dormant for a few years. In 1948, the KC-97 Stratofreighter project brought the airport back to life and thus began a long and productive history of aircraft to flow out of the Boeing factory doors. The first Dash 80 aircraft, famous for the barrel roll over Lake Washington, rolled out in May 1954. Renton was the home of every single 707 built.
The 727 & 757 were all built there as well. However, Renton is famous these days for being the home of the 737, where production stands at a massive 42 aircraft per month.
These days at Renton you are going to see one of two types of aircraft – General Aviation (GA) or a 737. If you are anything like me, all you care about is the 737 really. The GA planes will mostly be doing the same thing, circuit training. But the big 737s are where the lure is right?
Well you need to remember one thing with them – the flights are one way. When they leave Renton, they don’t return. Renton’s runway is short, especially for jets. With limited space and production capacity ever increasing, they need what space they can get! So once they leave their home, they complete their test flight, and then land at Boeing Field for final prep.
Like many airports, there are numerous vantage points, but Renton is a little unique in that one end of the runway adjoins Lake Washington. It allows float aircraft to take off on the lake runways directly at the end of the main runway. In my experience, the main runway adjoining the lake won’t be an issue with 737 hunting as you won’t be shooting approach photos.
Your shots are either aircraft under taxi or during a take off. Boeing has three main parking areas for their new aircraft. Two (1 & 2 on the map below) are on the factory side of the runway, while the third (number 3) is on the Seattle side (although this seems to be more the overflow area). The main two parking areas will have either good views or blocked views of aircraft.
There is also usually one parking spot designated for military aircraft (since the P8 program is based in Renton) and it is usually the last parking space adjacent to the runway in parking area 2. Aircraft will either be fully painted at Renton or in the green protective coating still. Aircraft in the green will be painted at Boeing Field, so with just a general rudder and winglet paint job it can be some fun working out what airline is what.
The best place to take photos of the Boeing activities at Renton is spot 4 on the above map. This is a fairly decent-sized parking area, located up and above the runway on a road that parallels the main runway (Rainier Ave N). The runway is right in front of you and you have great views to all positions. There are unfortunately a number of light poles around that can block some views, but they should not stop you from getting good photos.
Boeing 737s do have a particular process they must go through before departing. After they get their departure clearance and run all their pre-takeoff checks, there will be a request for taxi test clearance. This will essentially shut down the airport for about 10-15 minutes with all other traffic in and out having to wait.
Generally they will run a northbound slow taxi to the far end of the runway, turn around and then do a high speed back. This is generally your best bet of getting a very good taxi shot as it will have you facing the aircraft as it comes to the southern end of the runway. The aircraft will then turn around on the runway itself facing north (lining up for runway 34) and take off on a “Bellevue 2” departure. With a 400-500mm lens you should be able to get a departure shot, with Bellevue in the background, moments before it disappears from sight.
Renton may not be the busiest airport in the area, nor will it have the most exotic of traffic. However, one thing remains in that the airport will be consistent. Some days there could be as many as four Boeing sorties of new build aircraft heading off on their first flight. With 42 aircraft a month in current production, that is a good amount of new aircraft to see. Happy spotting!