Renton Municipal Airport, home of the 737.

Renton Municipal Airport, home of the Boeing 737

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 Southern Threshold of Renton's runway.

The southern threshold of Renton’s runway

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.

A couple of 737s awaiting their first flight at Renton.

A couple of 737s awaiting their first flight at Renton

BONUS: Check out our Behind the Scenes tours at Boeing’s Renton Factory

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.

An overview of Renton Municipal Airport.  The two Large Buidlings at the top are the Boeing 737 production facilities.

Overview of Renton Municipal Airport. The two buildings up top are the Boeing 737 production facilities – Image: Google Maps

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.

A closer look at Renton Airport's Parking spots for 737s - Image: Google Maps

A closer look at Renton Airport’s parking spots for 737s – Image: Google Maps

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.

A Great parking area adjacent to the runway.  Gives great views and during summer, their is a picnic table to enjoy some lunch in the summer sun.

A great parking area adjacent to the runway. Nice views and during summer, and there is a picnic table to enjoy some lunch in the summer sun. (Editor’s Note: nice license plate, Mal!)

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!

CORRESPONDENT - SEATTLE, WA. Mal is an Australian native who has been a huge fan of airlines and aviation and currently works in airport-related operations. Email: [email protected]

http://www.airlinereporter.com
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22 Comments

Nice post, Mal. Renton is an interesting airport, at least for departures. Since building the B-29 in the late 40s and other types, as you noted, the KC-97, 707, 727, 757 and **multiple thousands** of 737s, all departing rarely returning, I wonder if Boeing has ever popped (or plunked?) one into Lake Washington. I know that many years ago there was some need to take a 747 from BFI to Renton and that it had a minor runway excursion event. (I no longer recall the reason for attempting to take a 747 into Renton and, as I recall, there was a ‘Small event.’ Despite several searches, I’ve never located a report of any other Boeing aircraft dipping into Lake Washington. Do you folks know of ANY L.W. ‘dips’ in the last 50-60 years? If so, please let me know the date or some other detail with which I can identify the event and report.
Yes, I’ve flown into/out of Renton on small, GA aircraft; it is much like any other airport for that purpose. It also probably holds at least the U.S. record for loose parts and hulls arriving and then nearly delivery-ready airplanes. Bonus! I did not know that Boeing Renton had their own paint hanger; I thought that most 737s were painted at BFI or elsewhere. By any measure, Renton Municipal airport can be considered a ‘productive little field, likely having produced more than 15,000 aircraft. If Boeing claims something closer to 20K, I’d believe them. Again, any knowledge of Lake Washing dunks other than the arriving 747? Thanks.
-Craig

One of the 747s that came back to Renton was RA001, so that is a very special aircraft in my heart of course. I haven’t heard of any aircraft taking a dunk, but I have heard of one American 737-800 returning to Renton after a Birdstrike. I remember watching a video at one point, but can’t seem to find it again.

Hi Mal, Yes, I think RA001 was the returnee with the ‘runway’ issue that I recall. At least in theory, it IS possible that there have been no other events. The ‘direct’ route from Renton-Muni to BFI is short and about as simple as they come – and, if there is a problem, the facilities at BFI are better. Perhaps the Renton count is a Resounding Zero, with the ‘escape route’ targeted on BFI or SEA. Thanks for the note. You write some very interesting posts – and well. Thanks. -C.

There definately was a 737 that returned. It barely made it in, and it was quite the exciting approach.

The 747 that landed at Renton was RA003. The incident happened on December 13, 1969 when they attempted to land the third 747 at Renton for refurbishment prior to delivery to the customer. The aircraft ended up landing short, and sheared off the RH wing landing gear. It was the first and only time a 747 has attempted to land at Renton. There is a good video on youTube of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D9PlMdQwDc.

Little information regarding the Boeing 747s at Renton. The first four 747s built were refurbished in the Boeing Renton Factory. On December 13, 1969, Number 3 aircraft (N732PA), when landing on the 5382 foot long runway at Renton Municipal Airport, landed short. The right wing landing gear was torn from the aircraft and the number 3 and 4 engine nacelles contacted the runway. I was almost 10 years old when I was with my Dad standing on the tarmac on the west side of the runway and watched Number 3 come in short of the runway. Number 3 had a small black and white checker board square on the fuselage and a picture of a roadrunner bird. That was the first 747 to land at Renton. FYI, Joe Sutter, the Father of the 747 was in that plane that landed short. Later in 1970, I was also in the 4-81 or 82 building when all four 747s were inside.

Do you have any details that can be traced? I’m certainly not an accident chaser, but for a plant that has build so many airplanes… Even month/year would help. Thanks. -C.

The return was specifically a 737 in Full New American Colors. That puts it either this year or last. I have a feeling it was late last year, I do remember seeing a video on it, but lord knows my googling has failed.

Thanks Kris for the update about it being RA003 not 001 🙁

Plane-Crazy Joe

Malcolm, Seattle locals, and fellow PLANEIACS, I do an extended spotting trip out to Puget Sound every Summer. Over time, I found that late July > latter August works best for me; with long days, many days of fine / clear weather and strong sun. Most importantly, I’ve had MINIMAL rain – if any – to contend with! Concerning the identified ” Point 4 “, in the above RNT Overview, Locals know that’s where the ( now closed / moved ) Renton Chamber of Commerce WAS. Two or three Summers ago, while I was spotting at that car park, an airport official drove to and entered that CLOSED building. When he emerged from it … I had a brief conversation with him; asking him if that property would be sold and developed for commercial use. He told me it WILL NOT; it will remain airport property. Wheeeeeeeeew! Another comment is that I usually go to that point in the afternoon; when the lighting is better as the Sun had moved around. Furthermore, if you want a ” clean ” shot of 73s across the runway on the main ramp, on weekends usually there’s no Boeing truck snuggled near Door 1R of a target that attracts your attention. It may be that contracts limit which Ramp Tramps work on weekends? However, this MAY change as Boeing increases production to as many as 63 frames a month. Finally, tracking and experience have shown me that the majority of 73s departing RNT on their First Flight depart between 1000 > 1100 and eventually land at BFI around 1230 > 1300. They normally fly first out to Moses Lake, then do a Touch & Go and Missed Approach at PAE and then proceed down to BFI. However, there are some First Flights that depart RNT in the early afternoon. Btw, the majority of 73s I’ve seen at RNT aren’t painted! Rather they bear the green protective coating they were shipped to RNT ( by train ) in. I can recall seeing ONLY one 73 Departure out of RNT; as Green 73s do NOT attract my attention. So, I usually shoot a few frames at RNT – depending on something REALLY interesting such as a Special Scheme or a fully painted new operator – and then leave. GA types are of no interest to me.

Plane-Crazy Joe

A few weeks ago, someone replied with VERY SNARKY comments to my comments / position regarding the report on this site about blocking seatbacks from reclining into the face of the passenger behind. He included NO e-mail address in his comments; to allow me to respond to him. Will that coward do so NOW?!

Kris, Mal et al, thanks for trying and the details that appeared. I’ll check on Kris’s video. The NTSB report that I read concerning the 747 mishap at RNT was considered but a few months ago. As I recall, Boeing’s engineers, test pilots and some FAA folks went to rather extreme lengths to ensure that the landing could/would be safe. If I recall correctly, they were within inches; no one was injured.
One of these days I’ll track down the new AA 73 that Mal mentioned. The FAA and NTSB generally don’t make these events vanish unless they are simply not *events*. Even Boeing is usually forthcoming with something… At this point, even a a slightly tighter date range would help. Thanks to all.
Idle thoughts: a new, somewhat incomplete and very light airframe airframe CAN fly from a short runway; Boeing has proved this many thousands of times. I still cannot quite believe that they have not dunked one or two of RNT’s looog history of of substantial production. Those first flights from RNT-Moses Lake-Paine-Boeing Field, are careful, routine events for Being’s test pilots, but most interesting for Geeks. Long Live Boeing! -Craig

Addendum: One more and I’ll let it go… @Kris was kind enough to include a YouTube link (above) of the failed 747 landing. After viewing the short clip several times, I’m struck dumb but the offset from runway’s center line, strongly suggestive of a moderate cross wind. One must ask… In an operation that already required extensive study and engineering analysis, why on earth the landing was attempted in anything less than absolutely ideal conditions? That’s just not the Boeing engineering and test flight program that I know, even in 1969. Sorry youngsters, but even when Boeing was in serious financial trouble (68-very yearly 70s) they cut darn few corners. Why not wait for better weather? Here endith my inquiry… -Craig

737’s actually return to Renton every so often. It is not all that uncommon, and it is perfectly safe. For example, in 2010, there was a seat supplier that falsified data, and as a result, many airlines, including Continental, had to have their deliveries delayed. As a result, there were about six of seven 737’s for CO that had completed their flight testing, and were waiting for new seats, which took several months. With no room at BFI to store these birds, Boeing flew several of them back to Renton for storage. Here a a few photos of 737’s landing at Renton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/krislhull/4313631624/in/set-72157623306148368, https://www.flickr.com/photos/krislhull/4605363820/in/set-72157623306148368. I do not know of any past serious issues at Renton involving Boeing aircraft other than the 747 in 1969.

Thanks for this update of Renton. It seems from this story security has beome tolerant of Avgeeks! Two years ago, my friend and I were spotting along the final assembly area (near the short bridge spanning the canal). At one point a security guard cmae up to me and demanded (!) I delete photos taken of various carriers’ 737s along the ramp. Fly Dubai, Pegasus and Transavia were some of the carriers that apparently insisted on the cloak of secrecy. Being a visitor from Canada, I chose not to dispute my case with the guard and the images were zapped.
Next day we were at Everett taking photos of the heavies – go figure!

Hey Frank,

If you are on Boeing property — they can be pretty aggressive. But if you are on public property, they shouldn’t be able to make you do anything. I have found that Boeing security at KBFI seems to be more aggressive than at KPAE. Even at a media event, I had Boeing security watch me delete a photo that I took for the 747-8I taking off. Yes, I was on Boeing property, but 100′ away was public property and I could have gotten the same shot. Some people just have too much of a power trip, but whatever.

I am always polite and try to explain what I am doing and who I am. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Life of an AvGeek :).

David, AirlineReporter

Name Withheld By Request

Having been photographing for more years that I care to mention, my advice is to always be polite, courteous, professional but firm. This approach helped me effectively deal with two very aggressive approaches by Boeing/Allied-Barton Security in the past 18 months where I was photographing on Public property at Renton.

First – under no circumstances are you required to delete images or hand over your equipment. Any attempt to seize or destroy your personal property is a criminal offense and even if they are not successful you have grounds for a civil case. The City of Torrance California paid out a hefty $4M for violating someones right to take pictures.

Second – quickly assess who you are dealing with. My first question is “Are you a law enforcement officer”? If their answer is “Yes” I ask for their badge/ID number and then cooperate. If they answer yes, but don’t /cannot provide ID then a quick call to the Renton Police to have them intervene and clear the matter up should work (and protect you, the photographer). If they answer no, I simply remind them that I am on Public/Public Access property, thank them for their time and continue to walk away from the situation. Never allow the situation to get confrontational.

Third – You are not obligated to, nor should you ever provide identification to any private security personnel. You have no control over how they are going to use the information. Always co-operate with Law Enforcement officials.

You have the right to take pictures of anything, from public property. This includes public access property (property that is private but the public is given access to traverse – such as the walkways on the two bridges at Renton). Public access property does not include railroad tracks which have their own separate trespassing laws. Politely reminding them of your right to photograph usually slows down their assertive behavior.

Above all, we the avgeek community need to co-exist with the various security and law enforcement entities around airports. Cities such as Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, Toronto, & Ottawa have all built successful Airport Watch programs where everyone co-operates in a win-win situation.

Finally – I’m not sure that Boeing Senior Management/Legal Counsel would agree that sending 4 security personnel to find and interrogate a couple of innocent photographers taking pictures in the park at Renton is in Boeing’s best interests nor the public for that matter – but I experienced it first hand. Nonetheless, the more understanding that both sides can build, the better off everyone will be. We all need to promote goodwill in the community and get along.

Having a strong family connection to Boeing aircraft; father was a flight test engineer for 40 years and another relative who won a rather prestigious journalism award writing about the 75, I was aware of the fact these planes never come back. I live nearby an can commute by Renton Field if I chose to and frequently will drive the ring road to just take a look.
By chance I was there at the park on the NW corner, abutting Lake Washington with my 2 dogs when I spotted the landing lights of an aircraft on approach. Having some knowledge of aircraft and a veteran commercial airline passenger, it looked like a big bird coming in on a northerly approach and was still well out over Mercer Island. I watched the approach and was dumbfounded when it became clear it was a 737 on final. It was an impressive sight seeing it land. I have seen quite a few departures of new aircraft over the years, but never this. I don’t recall the livery, but the mention of the seat issues with CO makes me think it was one of these. I’m surprised they wouldnt choose Moses Lake (MWH) to store, but the landing used a lot of flap and and sideslip, but was able to reached taxi speeds by midfield.
Would have love to see a heavy land there 😉
Yakima (YKM) is also used along with Moses Lake and Paine Field for approach and departure. They never touch down at Yakima to save of fees.
I wound up here trying to find out if that is a Marauder (B-26) being kept in the larger southern most hanger on the east side of the field. I caught a glimpse of the war bird make a pass down the runway from the south a couple months ago. Does anyone have input on this?

It’s an Invader (A-26) named “Sexy Sue” (N7079G).

Bobby B.

I live just east of Renton Airport in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood and I still look out my window whenever I hear a 737 leaving. They almost always take off to the north but every once in awhile they take off to the south. I remember a long time ago as I was driving down the hill on Renton Avenue South seeing a 707 AWACS taking off to the south. It didn’t have the radome installed yet but these vapor clouds formed on it’s wings as it climbed away. It was a majestic sight. There is a park that runs linear between the Boeing Plant and the Cedar River that parallels the runway and is nice place to walk a dog. Sometimes foot traffic is stopped so that a brand new 737 can be towed over to the runway side. The Boeing people taking a break in the park have always been friendly and knowledgable when answering questions. I did one time take this cumbersome Mamiya RB67 camera on a heavy Bogen tripod and did get the third degree from a security guard but that was awhile ago. I just started to talk about the amazing history of the Renton Airport and Boeing until his eyes glazed over. When the my daughter was younger I used to take her to school at Saint Anthony on the back of a tandem bicycle and cut along the access road on the west side of the runway past all the 737’s in their blast enclosures and the aroma of kerosene exhaust was in the brisk morning air. One time we stopped at the tower and they gave us a tour. Downstairs in the tower building are plenty of historical photographs of the field. Somewhere I saw of a photo of Renton Airport with a herd of elephants when a circus used it to winter over. Oh, don’t forget the memorial to Will Rogers and Wiley Post’s ill fated 1935 trip to Barrow, Alaska where they were killed. There is a monument by the seaplane ramp at the north end on the west side. This is near the spot were the 747 hit the berm and drug it’s starboard side in 1969.

Actually I’m west of the Renton Airport in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. Since I’m back on site, let me ramble on a little bit until everyone’s eyes glaze over. Well there at the north end on there is the Jet-Foil building on a dock that sticks out over Lake Washington that now houses a rowing club. You can walk out onto the dock and look back into the Sawtooth building and see into the assembly line when the doors are open. Along the lake edge are ramps that date back to the flying boat “Ranger” program and as the joke goes since they only built a single aircraft it was known as the “Lone Ranger”……. Awhile back I got to talk to a Boeing test pilot at a Career Fair at the kid’s school and asked what was the most harrowing event on a test flight. She answered that one time a radio started to smoke a little bit…. I know they must inspect those 737’s really well especially when a 60+ ton aircraft for the very first time in it’s life takes off to the south and flies over the kid’s school…..The B-29 Fifi showed up awhile back I think for the 50th anniversary of the Boeing B-29. The kids and I crashed the party and got to see this B-29 up close. They fired up the engines and it blew over chairs and what not…After it taxied away they allowed the spectators to line up near the edge of the runway. Fifi took off and circled back and made a pass 200′ or so above the deck at I guess was full power and at the end of the run did steep climb out. That was an awesome sight. I heard that the B-29 program was the most expensive program of WW2 and that the Manhattan Project was second place. Another piece of trivia was if I got it right was that the Renton B-29 wingspan was a foot shorter because it was a single piece wing installed across the fuselage versus wing stubs to connect left and right wings to…true or not?

One last comment from me, but gosh!, I think I’ve got lot’s of stories about Renton Airport…..
So anyhow, there is a nice little park at the northwest corner were the Will Rogers & Wiley Post Monument stands. There used to be a picnic table there and sometimes the kid and I would eat our take-out lunch there. Just across the chainlink fence is the floating dock for floatplane’s passenger use. Anyhow, we’re scarfing our food and a floatplane is offloading passengers and there is limo waiting. One of the passengers is togged out in denim and oversized sunglasses and permed out “Big” hair. They get in the limo and depart. I ask the guy driving the floatplane recovery truck (Which are crazy looking front cab only of 4WD with 30′ steel beams protruding out the front to sort of forklift the floatplanes around on dry land) who was the fancy looking dude. He says it was the ELO guy. I asked if meant Jeff Lynne? He says yeah, it was Jeff Lynne. So it was Jeff Lynne of ELO, The Electric Light Orchestra, perhaps one of my past all time favorite bands at the Renton Airport. Gosh! , and I didn’t even wave.

Hi Malcolm, great experience you have in Seattle! Thanks for sharing! Do they have or are they offering a short tour guide on their aviation sites for educational purposes? Especially for the aspiring aviators? Thanks!

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