This is the End of Building Planes in Long Beach

There are mounds of broken asphalt and slabs of concrete in front of the open doors of the remaining hangers at Boeing's Long Beach plant. Looming over them is a 40-year-old neon sign as wide as the hanger doors and nearly as tall. The neon is still lighted at night.

The sign over the hanger doors is a palimpsest of a disappeared industry. There used to be a company called Douglas Aircraft -- the "D" in DC. It began building planes in Southern California in the 1920s, almost at the very beginning of what became aerospace.

The sign used to read "Fly DC 10 Jets." There's a gap in the neon where the "10" was taken out. Cargo hold doors blew open and crashes killed more than 600 passengers. The 10 model got a dark reputation.

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Cash poor and badly managed, Douglas Aircraft merged with the McDonnell Company in 1967. McDonnell Douglas was acquired by Boeing in 1997 and disappeared even as a division of Boeing.

Strictly speaking, there were no more new DC jets to fly, although the blue and red neon over the hangers urged otherwise.

Boeing ended the production of the last Douglas-designed commercial jet in 2006. Only the military side of the Long Beach plant remained in operation, building the C-17 Globemaster military transport.

On Wednesday, Boeing officials announced that the company will shut the C-17 assembly line in 2015 and close the Long Beach plant after 73 years. The rubble in front of the hangers is from buildings demolished in anticipation to the closure.

The hangers on Lakewood Boulevard are two miles from my house. They're part of what had been a complex of hangers and offices that opened on September 26, 1941 as part of the buildup to America's entry in World War II. The new plant was a "blackout" factory designed to be invisible at night, windowless, air-conditioned (a first), camouflaged as a suburban housing tract, and provided with bomb shelters for its thousands of workers.

By early 1943, the around-the-clock workforce was more than 45,000. Many of them were the wives and daughters of the men who had gone to war and made famous as Rosy the Riveter. They built more than 4,000 of the company's C-47 transport planes, 3,000 B-17 bombers, and 2,000 light bombers.

The C-17 Globemaster that Long Beach assembled turned out to be a good plane, although like the DC-10, the design went through years of mechanical fixes, cost overruns, and questions about its value to the military. The C-17 is a massive, four-engine jet designed to lift tanks, troops, and their gear and land them on short runways.

It's been the plane that's carried U.S. aid to places devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. It's also carried the means to make war to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Production of the C-17 has been winding down for years. Foreign orders -- from Australia, Canada, India, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- kept the workforce on the assembly line.

I had a drink at a bar near the plant with one of the men who builds the C-17 on the day he learned his job was going to end. He's 57. He's a quality inspector. He has four daughters. I think two of them are still in high school. When the plant closes, he'll be 60. He'll be unemployable, he says.

According to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, about 3,000 Boeing employees build C-17 components and assemble them in Long Beach, Georgia, Arizona, and Missouri. Perhaps as many as 20,000 others are employed by parts suppliers.

Once, 1-in-10 aerospace jobs nationally were in concentrated in California. More than 130,000 workers were employed in aerospace manufacturing in Los Angeles County during the Cold War.

Less than 40,000 are employed today, according to some estimates.

Most of the aerospace jobs that remain -- even Boeing is opening a design bureau in Long Beach -- are technical jobs, not fabrication.

I grew up in a sort of company town where men and women with a mediocre education could get a job assembling jets and make a fit life for themselves and their families. How fit a life might be made in the future without those jobs is hard to discern.

Boeing has given up on working class Long Beach. But it's keeping in the Boeing logo the elements of former Douglas and McDonnell Douglas emblems -- the globe that had been the pride of Douglas' around-the-world flight in 1924, the outline of a futuristic jet pointed toward the horizon, and the extraterrestrial swoosh of a rocket heading someplace.

From here, across the piles of debris, it's hard to tell where.

[Correction: An earlier version of this post's first sentence indicated that the empty hangers at Boeing's Long Beach plant had been used by the company's C-17 program. They were used by the company's commercial jet program.]

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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