King County International Airport, or Boeing Field (BFI) as it is commonly known, is the largest business and general aviation airport in the Seattle area. If you are flying your Gulfstream or Challenger in to Seattle, this is the place you are likely going to be landing.
There are a few scheduled services in and out of this airport, which include Kenmore Air Express and cargo flights with UPS & DHL (FedEx is based at SeaTac). The major traffic at this airport comes from general aviation, business jets via the Fixed Base Operators (FBOs), and Boeing test flights.
Because of this diversity, BFI is a great place to go aircraft spotting.
Boeing Field opened in 1928 after the county’s residents voted to set up their own airport. The airport at the time was still an actual field, until a runway and other facilities were built. As one of the original tenants, Boeing grew as war approached, building aircraft at the airport like the B-17.
The field also underwent cosmetic enhancements (aka camoflauge) to ensure safety of the workers and also protect the country’s military secrets. After the war, Boeing increased production, with the jet age ushering in aircraft like the B-52, which had its first flight out of Boeing Field. BFI was also the prime testing facility for all of Boeing’s commercial jet aircraft. The airport today is still home to major flight testing for Boeing, but is also the main delivery site for narrow-body aircraft – the 737.
Looking at the airport from above, you notice that it is bordered on either side by major arterial roads — making access to spot quite easy. Northwest of the airport are the Boeing Commercial Aircraft facilities and running down the eastern edge you will find the business and general aviation facilities. At the southwestern end of the field you will find the Boeing Military aircraft facility (home of the P8 & Wedgetail programs) and also the Museum of Flight.
Between the Museum of Flight and Boeing on the western side is a handful of general aviation hangars. The airport has two runways, though jet aircraft are only going to operate on the main runway of 13R/31L (to give you an idea, if the airport is running 31L, they are going to touch down at the southern end of the field).
The airport is bordered by high fences in all areas, so unfortunately you will need a ladder if you are thinking of getting any decent photos without barbed wire or chain link fence in the way.
There are a number of locations surrounding the airport where you can get some great photos, and while some spotters may make suggestions, being that they would be on private property, we would suggest you not use them without permission.
I am going to focus below on three locations and they should help you get some of your best photos. The heavy cargo flights will come in around five in the afternoon and head out at random times early in the morning. Boeing will fly 737s at all times during the day, and as for any test flight, be prepared for it to operate on Boeing time (aka expect to do a lot of waiting).
Business jets will come and go at any time, and during the football and baseball seasons, you may see the occasional airliner in as well, bringing in a sports team (less hassle with security than at SeaTac). The three main locations you will see on the map are the Museum of Flight (1), Ruby Chow Park (2) and also the southeastern perimeter (3).
The Museum of Flight is by far the easiest and the best place to get afternoon arrivals into BFI that are landing on 31L. The parking lot fence line provides a great place to shoot from on top of a vehicle (and people wonder why I drive a large truck).
The aircraft will be approaching to your right and in the afternoon you will have the sun behind you. On a good day you may even get some nice photos with Mt. Rainier in the background. If you are lucky enough to be invited up onto the balcony at the Museum of Flight, you will enjoy some of the best views of aircraft touching down, but whatever you do, don’t take photos to the south towards the Boeing Military Ramp… that is a no no!
The second location is at the very north of the airport, located just across the street from the northern fence line. Ruby Chow Park (named after the first Asian American woman to be elected to the King County Council) lies directly under the flight path of aircraft touching down on 13R.
Aircraft will be practically tree-top height as they come in to land, and parking is ample. Special bins are set up around the park for “FOD” (Foreign Object Damage) and a few picnic tables make this the best place for an AvGeek picnic during summer.
The third location is back at the south end of the field. Directly opposite the Museum of Flight is Airport Way and it borders the eastern perimeter of the airport. The very southern end of the fence line is not home to any buildings so views are going to be quite open. Morning photos are ideal, with the sun rising behind you, and as per the other side of the field, a tall ladder or vehicle is going to be required.
Parking is going to be roadside so make sure you pull all the way off, as heavily laden trucks do go past quite often. For me this location is perfect for events like the Blue Angels, as their demonstration will begin right in front of you. It is also a good location when you want a quiet vantage point for a big arrival into BFI, one that would normally draw large crowds. This side of the field is often quieter than the Museum of Flight.
Spotting around BFI can be quite good and give you a good mix of Boeing test flights, business jets, and general aviation. Who knows, you may even see some military fast jets make a quick pit stop!