Nathanael Brown celebrated his 10th birthday with a VIP tour of Boeing's Everett factory after his mother reached out, letting company representatives know Boeing's "biggest fan" was coming to visit.
New Zealand natives, the Browns are on a short-term visa, living in Oregon. Nathanael's parents, Fiona and Michael, decided to surprise their son with a trip for his birthday to the Seattle area, including Boeing.
On the Brown family's blog, Fiona Brown describes her son as "knowledgeable on all things Boeing."
Nathanael "loves Boeing. Every day he reads the Boeing website -- just to keep himself informed on their news. He also gets their press releases sent straight to his email," she writes.
By contacting Boeing, Fiona Brown hoped the company would make a minor gesture to make her son's visit special -- maybe give him a free pen or T-shirt.
When the Browns arrived May 5 at the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour, they were welcomed with a message on the outside reader board: "Happy Birthday to our biggest fan -- Nathanael Brown turns 10 today."
Nathanael and his father were taken on a special tour of the factory. Instead of viewing the production line from a balcony, which is part of the standard tour, the Browns were down on the factory floor, zooming from spot to spot in a golf cart.
Company spokesman Doug Alder noted that Boeing doesn't receive many requests like that from the Browns. And the company receives even fewer requests that Boeing can accommodate.
"It's really more the exception than the rule," Alder said.
But there was something about Fiona Brown's earnestness and Nathanael's enthusiasm that grabbed the attention of Boeing officials and persuaded them to give the OK to take Nathanael on the type of tour reserved for VIP guests, he said.
Sandy Ward, marketing director for the Future of Flight, said several people pitched in to make Nathanael's day a memorable one. The aviation center and Boeing both sent the Browns home with souvenirs. And Michelle Champoux, from the Boeing Store, supplied a homemade birthday cake, decorated with airplanes, of course.
"It was just really fun," Ward said.
The Browns were astounded by the effort made by Boeing and the Future of Flight.
"They didn't need to do anything at all," Fiona Brown noted on her blog. But "they really did something special, for a certain 10-year-old boy who simply loves planes and loves to know 'stuff' about the business of flying."
Boeing's response with Nathanael Brown also shows the company has learned from a past mistake.
In 2010, the company sent a form letter in response to an airplane design submitted by then-8-year-old Harry Winsor. Harry's father, John Winsor, blogged about Boeing's response, sparking a backlash via social media. Boeing promptly reached out to Harry and made amends, winning kudos from John Winsor.
The company still receives drawings and other fan mail from children, Alder said. Boeing has worked with the Future of Flight to find a spot to display the artwork at the aviation center in Mukilteo. In fact, the family of 9-year-old Joey Hill, from the Chicago area, has considered a trip out to Washington just to see Joey's many drawings on display there, Ward said.
Like other aerospace companies, Boeing has good reason to foster the interest of young people like Nathanael. As his mother suggested, Nathanael "may be back with either a pilot's license or an engineering degree one day."
Boeing is pushing for more science, technology, engineering and math throughout the education system. The company sees a great need for pilots, engineers and mechanically inclined workers in the future.
"Anything we can do to further someone's interest in aviation, we're glad to do," Alder said.