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Boeing display at Museum of Flight
Boeing employees Teresa Felix and Laurie Staples check out the windows at an exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of Flight during the company’s centennial festivities. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

The Boeing Company pulled out all the stops today to celebrate its 100th birthday – from the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, to the “Boeing 100” flag flying atop Seattle’s space needle, to the old and new Boeing airplanes lined up at the Museum of Flight.

But it was the old and new people in the company’s extended family who provided some of the most touching highlights at today’s kickoff for the centennial weekend.

June Boeing, the 90-year-old widow of William Boeing Jr. and the daughter-in-law of company founder William Boeing, reminisced about her husband after receiving a gift of the company’s original incorporation papers, filed in Seattle on July 15, 1916.

“I always thought I was his first love. And soon after we were married, I found out I wasn’t,” she said. “The Boeing Company was his first love.”

Another moment came when Mawut Mayen, one of the “lost boys of Sudan” who grew up to become a manager with the 777 program, recounted how Boeing helped him find a happy ending to his refugee story. “I have a great future ahead of me,” he said.

Boeing centennial crowd
The crowd gathers at the Museum of Flight for Boeing’s centennial kickoff. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Olivia Shiffer, a teenage University of Washington student interning with Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon program, told the crowd at the Museum of Flight that she wanted to be a Boeing engineer like her father since her days in kindergarten. “Here, the sky is not the limit,” she said. “We have a universe to explore.”

Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s board chairman, president and CEO, was the master of ceremonies for the first in a string of events scheduled today through Sunday at the Museum of Flight.

“This is a monumental occasion,” he said, “literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us.”

The museum has been reserved strictly for Boeing employees and their families this weekend. Boeing erected a portable amphitheater next to the museum building to accommodate audiences of more than 2,000 at a time. By Sunday, more than 100,000 people are expected to walk through the carnival-like grounds.

Droves of volunteers guided visitors around displays that included a lineup of nine jets on the Boeing Field tarmac, ranging from a rare 707 tanker (brought in by Omega Air Refueling) to ANA’s shiny-new 787 Dreamliner.

Visitors climbed through a WWII-vintage B-25 bomber and a classic Douglas DC-3 jet. One of Boeing’s newest planes, a KC-46 Pegasus tanker being built for the U.S. Air Force, shared the skies with one of the oldest flyable Boeing planes around, a Model 40 mail delivery plane from 1928.

Boeing made room in the celebration for the “heritage companies” that have been brought into the corporate family over the years, including McDonnell Douglas as well as some of the business units from North American Rockwell and Hughes Electronics.

Tonight, a white Boeing 747 will serve as one of the projection screens for a movie celebrating the centennial. The 10:45 p.m. show will be webcast via Boeing’s “Founders Day” page. The centennial is also being celebrated in locales across the country and around the world.

The Boeing employees behind the weekend’s celebration were upbeat about the company’s birthday. “We’ve been planning the centennial for a couple of years now,” said Madia Logan, one of the staffers at a Boeing souvenir store set up in a tent on the Museum of Flight’s grounds.

Among the volunteers was Laurie Staples, who works at Boeing’s Seattle Delivery Center and can trace her family’s lineage with the company back to the B-17 Flying Fortress. Her son also works for Boeing, at the Renton plant where 737 jets are made.

“We love our company,” she said. “This is our heritage, too.”

Amelia Wilson in nose compartment at Boeing centennial
Boeing employee Amelia Wilson takes her turn inside the nose compartment of a B-25D bomber.

The company is facing challenges galore as it marks its centennial: Boeing is vying with Europe’s Airbus consortium for aircraft sales, amid what some analysts say is a slowdown in demand. In the wake of this week’s Farnborough Airshow in England, Boeing is trailing Airbus in orders by a large margin.

The KC-46 tanker program has had its problems, and the company’s recent deal to sell jets to Iran is facing tough sledding on the political front.

Boeing still ranks among the heavyweights in employment, with more than 75,000 employees in Washington state and more than 158,000 worldwide. But its commercial airplane division is in the middle of job cuts that could amount to 8,000 by the end of the year.

Muilenburg didn’t dwell on the downside in today’s remarks. Rather, he rallied Boeing’s legions to take on the challenges ahead with the same spirit that got the company through its first century. “It is up to each of us to carry forward the torch of aerospace excellence and human achievement,” he said.

And if that didn’t raise goosebumps at the gathering, the thunderous sound of a B-25 and a P-51 Mustang passing overhead surely did. At least it did for Keith Littlefield, a retired pilot whose wife still flies 747s for United Airlines.

“Goosebumps all over,” Littlefield said as he brushed his hands over his bare arms. “This is a goosebumps day.”

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