Beware of Low Flying Aircraft!

the northwest's most curious loads ¦ text and photos by chris camp

737 fuselages ride the rails before they can fly

flying too low :: 737 fuselages ride the rails before they can fly...

If you've spent much time railfanning in the Northwest you've probably seen them. Those long silver cylinders patched with yellow tape on the back of flat cars. They almost look like an airplane, but lack many of the necessary parts to BE an airplane. No, the BNSF isin't transporting UFOs (at least not that I know of), but rather some of the largest routine loads in North America.

The loads themselves are the fuselage sections for Boeing 737 series aircraft en route to the assembly plant in Renton, Washington for final assembly. The fuselages are built at the Boeing plant in Witchita, Kansas and travel by train to the northwest by way Stevens Pass. Due to their high value and the need for gaurenteed on-time delivery they are carried on the hottest Z symboled intermodal trains, and because of the great size and weight of these loads, they must travel at the head end, immediatly behind the power.

The extreme length of the loads, (over 100 feet,) requires the use of special idler cars which also carry aircraft components in an enclosed structure at the rear of the car. The fuselages are mounted to their 89' carriers at three points corresponding to the eventual locations of the landing gear struts. At each end of the cars large icicle breakers are fitted to protect the thin skinned aircraft from icicles in the mountain tunnels. Frequently accompaning these monsters are older 40 foot flat cars equipped with icicle breakers and carrying nose and tail cones which will be added at Renton.

Before loading, all openings such as cabin doors, access pannels and the like are sealed with special yellow tape to prevent moisture from getting into the sensitive componenets and causing corrosion en route. The larger openings such as wing spars are covered with clear plastic inserts designed to fit in each location. Each model of the 737 requires a different set of inserts and each insert is seperatly numbered for tracking.

wenatchee bound :: a special train of three fusealges speeds along the columbia river near wenatchee....

Although completed fuselages moving by rail are a relatively recent phenomonon, Boeing has been recieving some of the biggest loads going for years. Throughout the 1960s and 70s large "Boeing Skybox" cars moved up the Oregon Trunk line from California. These enclosed cars contained subassemblies for 747 series aircraft that were made by the Convair Corporation under contract.

When Convair was purchased by McDonnell-Douglas production moved to Witchata, Kansas. Later still, Boeing bought out McDonnell-Douglas, and shifted part of the 737 line to the Witchita plant. Today the large Skybox cars can still be seen, though they have shed their colorful yellow coats for a drab mineral brown. The Skybox cars are usually seen in the form of beveled cowlings mounted on standard 60' flat cars.

A less common variation on these is the 50 foot well cars with retracting hoods used to carry extreemly tall loads such as vertical stabilizers. TBCX 76706 is an example of one of these cars and also shows the beveling of the upper sides of the hood necessary fit through tunnels along the line.

almost home :: a pair of fuselages and a plug head out on the Renton Turn following a quick transfer at Interbay....

The shortest distance between two points... or not. Routing the Boeing high-wide loads on the hot intermodal Z trains makes great sense for the BNSF. The loads arrive quickly and reliably and the customer isin't going to complain about paying the premium for expidited service. The only problem is, they end up in the wrong place. All intermodal trains to Seattle terminate at the South Seattle Yard in Tukwila (Figure that one out), but these loads are headed to Renton, further south. In order to get them there, the train stops at Balmer Yard in Seattle where a waiting switcher cuts out the Boeing cars and switches them into a train bound for Renton. The whole process is completed remarkably quickly and both trains soon head south for their destinations. On the return trip the empty cars are handled like any other freight car in captive service.

If you feel the need to add one of these rare beasts to your life list then you have a couple of options. It used to be the most likley spot was at Balmer yard where they were held before being moved south to Renton. Usually they were parked on the track closest to the yard office which allowed for unobstructed views from the city street. In the last couple of years BNSF has begun taking them immediatly south as I've described above, and so there isn't usually a dwell time at Balmer. If you know one is coming there are several good places to get pictures, one of the best being at the end of Galer St. behind The Train Center hobby shop. From time to time Boeing cars can be found on the old NP interchange track south of Snohomish WA. The final good place to hunt Boeings is on Stevens Pass as they are most likley to be seen on afternoon westbound trains.

a trio of 737s and a tail cone car at balmer yard

trio :: 737s and a tail cone car at balmer yard...

Watching these great silver appiritions emerge from the Cascade tunnel behind a quartet of screaming DASH-9s is indeed a sight and sound to behold! According to a source at Boeing, they recieve usually one train with three fuselage sections a week from Wichita. With the quicker switching in Seattle these loads have become a good deal more challenging, nonetheless, they are an interesting and uniquely Northwest sight and worthy of the effort!

Bellingham resident Chris Camp is a frequent contributor to NWOR. In addition to writing and railroad photography, he models the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway in HO scale. Chris is a member of Whatcom Co. Fire District 14, and also president of the Bellingham Railway Museum. He can be reached at

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