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Suitable for Flight
John Purvis won’t step on a plane without a jacket.

Image: Mac Holt

The Museum of Flight has been around about as long as the commercial air travel industry. So too has retired Boeing engineer John Purvis, a museum trustee and one of the knowledgeable docents who gives tours of the building’s many wings. As the museum celebrates its semicentennial this September—flush with a pair of $15 million donations from the Boeing company and the Boeing family to fund education programs—Purvis is most excited about passing the torch to a new generation of aerospace enthusiasts.

How did you get involved at the museum?

I got my engineering degree from the University of Washington and put myself through school working for Boeing. I stayed on with them after college, mainly on the customer support side. I also lived overseas and eventually became the manager of air safety investigation. I was with Boeing for 40 plus years. After I retired in 1998, I was giving a safety talk at the museum and someone said, “With that background you really ought to come down here and be a docent.”  

What did you do as an air safety investigator?

You’ve got airplanes flying all over the world. Once in a while something bad happens. Our group supported the National Transportation Safety Board, mostly in other parts of the world. August was the 30th anniversary of Japan Airlines Flight 123. It crashed into a mountain. Five hundred and twenty died. I was on the scene, picking up pieces, trying to learn from those lessons and make sure it didn’t happen again. 

What’s the most noteworthy change you’ve witnessed in commercial air travel?

I was really involved with the 747. I didn’t design parts, but my expertise led to thinking, “Customers are going to use this airplane. Let’s make it usable and safe.” And that of course spread to other airplanes. Back then I don’t know if anyone ever envisioned commercial aviation as it exists today. The biggest change I’ve seen is an improvement in safety.

What do you enjoy most about this job?

Working with kids is immensely satisfying. They’re little sponges. Like the students at the Raisbeck Aviation High School. They have a permanent home here, and the kids have free rein, buzzing around the library, the archives. The whole place is like their own personal learning lab.

How enthusiastic are the kids?

The five- and six-year-olds love this stuff! Last year my wife’s great-grandkids were in the Aerospace Camp Experience program, and they ate it up. That was a wild week for us, with four children running around. I’m 78 and my wife is 81.

What’s your favorite museum exhibit?

The Red Barn. The building itself is an artifact. Mr. Boeing started his company out of that barn. It used to be on the river, a mile and a half away. We actually wheeled it off the land, put it on a barge, and moved it upstream. It was an interesting sight.

Was flying as glamorous as it looked?

Absolutely. I still wear a jacket when I fly, dammit.

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