Most Boeing Co. employees help build jetliners laden with futuristic technology. Then there’s Michael Lombardi, whose work encompasses not just carbon-fiber 787 Dreamliners but also World War II bombers and antique wood-and-linen seaplanes.
From a basement near the planemaker’s Seattle-area industrial hub, Lombardi tends to shelves full of old engineering drawings, priceless airplane models and 50,000 cans of motion-picture films documenting the evolution of flight. He’s the chief company historian. As Boeing turns 100 Friday, he’s never been busier sifting through boxes of donated artifacts, dredging up historic memorabilia and helping plan centennial events.
Lombardi, 56, is the third person to hold the post at Boeing and is a stalwart in a small band working to preserve U.S. company records. It’s a coveted job, given the low turnover and Boeing’s role in shaping 20th century events such as the Normandy invasion and the race to the moon. Since Lombardi took charge of the company archives in 1994, five chief executive officers have come and gone.
“The hard part was waiting 15 years for my predecessor to retire,’’ he said.
Boeing built a pavilion at this week’s Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom with a mock-up of one of company founder Bill Boeing’s first wood-and-linen planes dangling from the ceiling. Blown-up photos of some of the most famous aircraft designed by Boeing and the planemakers it acquired blanketed the trade show’s central pavilion.
For all the interest in the past as the centennial approaches, Lombardi remains mindful of the business case for maintaining the collection and his staff of five people across three sites. His team has helped engineers trace how their predecessors solved a design problem. A recent task involved sifting through Boeing’s photo collection — including 4 million photographic negatives — for images to post to a new Instagram account.
The anniversary is “one small thing that we provide in the bigger picture,” said Lombardi. “I don’t believe we can survive, keep this program relevant, if we just focus on that one aspect.”
At Boeing, Lombardi’s workload has more than doubled as departments from the cafeteria to the legal team clamor for reminders from bygone eras. Then there are the boxes of donated artifacts arriving daily to be cataloged, plus the constant interview requests, which Lombardi fields with a broadcast-worthy baritone.
The trove includes a century’s worth of human touches. There are B-17 horn buttons pocketed by World War II bomber pilots, sometimes bearing lipstick from a “Rosie the Riveter” at Boeing’s factory.
He has a menu from a company soiree honoring Charles Lindbergh on Aug. 18, 1927, two months after the pilot’s first trans-Atlantic flight. Lombardi has the contents of Alan Mulally’s desk when he left Boeing to head Ford Motor Co. a decade ago.
During a recent tour of the archives, Lombardi strolled by aircraft models carved from engineering mock-ups in the years before computer-assisted design. One set of miniature planes traced the evolution of the 747 under chief engineer Joe Sutter, from a rejected double-decker design to the hump-backed icon dubbed the queen of the skies.
He held up a failed design for the Boeing E-3 Sentry, a military plane better known by its acronym: AWACS. In that approach, the signature radar dome was fused into the adapted Boeing 707’s tail. Later designs settled on struts attached to the fuselage.
“The planes that we build, they just don’t spring up overnight,” Lombardi said. “There’s a lot of intellectual effort that goes into designing these things. Lots of stops, starts, with the idea that you have to get it right.”
Boeing by the numbers
Boeing easily holds the title as the largest private employer in Washington. Even though its head count has edged down in recent years, nearly half Boeing’s global workforce is based in Washington: more than 77,000 workers, topping Amazon and Microsoft combined.
As state officials reported this spring that Boeing had saved $305 million in state taxes last year through Washington’s aerospace tax incentives, the company reported the other side of that coin: In 2015, it spent $13 billion in Washington on payroll, supplier purchases and capital investments.
But its economic effect stretches further, fueling an aerospace sector that in 2014 generated 93,400 direct jobs at Boeing and supplier companies, and an estimated $59.5 billion in gross revenues in the state, according to a study for the Washington Aerospace Partnership.
The Seattle Times