Long Beach C-17 plant clo­sure in fi­nal stages

Boe­ing is hold­ing its first auc­tion of the fa­cil­ity’s mam­moth equip­ment as work­ers fin­ish build­ing the last eight planes

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Melody Petersen

Once there were so many work­ers build­ing mil­i­tary cargo jets at Boe­ing’s sprawl­ing plant in Long Beach that em­ploy­ees put flags on their cars to find them in the vast park­ing lot.

Now the park­ing lot is nearly empty. There are no “go­ing out of busi­ness” signs posted out front, but this month the com­pany is hold­ing its first auc­tion of the plant’s mam­moth equip­ment.

The 25-acre fac­tory that as­sem­bled 279 of the work­horse C-17 air haulers is be­ing dis­as­sem­bled.

Work­ers are putting the fi­nal touches on the last eight planes, but al­ready four of the five man­u­fac­tur­ing bays sit nearly si­lent.

Dur­ing pro­duc­tion, em­ploy­ees wore earplugs be­cause of the clat­ter­ing racket. Now birds sing from the rafters.

“The first time I heard the birds, it was a re­al­ity check,” said Tif­fany Pitts, a Boe­ing Co. spokes­woman who took The Times to see the equip­ment be­ing auc­tioned off.

“Boe­ing is not go­ing away in Cal­i­for­nia,” Pitts added, “but that doesn’t change the sad fact that this plant is closing down.”

The plant’s clo­sure is a painful loss for Long Beach’s econ­omy and the end of an era in which South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s aerospace in­dus­try, and its high-pay­ing fac­tory jobs, helped build a strong mid­dle class.

The C-17 is the last ma­jor mil­i­tary or civil­ian air­craft to be as­sem­bled in Cal­i­for­nia — although there is hope for the fu­ture.

Just 20 miles north, up­start SpaceX is build­ing rock­ets, en­gines and space­craft in Hawthorne for a fast-grow­ing list of gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial cus­tomers. Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic re­cently an­nounced that it would build its new satel­lite-launch­ing rocket in Long Beach. The Pen­tagon con­tin­ues to buy drones built in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. And the state could win a big chunk of the work on a new stealth bomber the Pen­tagon has

planned.

Michael Con­way, Long Beach’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment direc­tor, said of­fi­cials are work­ing with Boe­ing as the com­pany de­cides what to do with the site, which years ago em­ployed as many as 6,000 work­ers.

“It’s been like a big brother to the city,” Con­way said of the plant. “It’s a very sad event.”

The Long Beach plant was built in the late 1980s by Dou­glas Air­craft Co., which won the Air Force con­tract to build the C-17 Globe­mas­ter III. Dou­glas then be­came McDon­nell Dou­glas Corp. In late 1996, Boe­ing an­nounced that it was pur­chas­ing its long­time ri­val.

The fac­tory is part of what was once an im­mense air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing com­plex dat­ing to World War II. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple worked in the fa­cil­ity’s hangars, build­ing planes like the MD-80 jet­liner, the Boe­ing 717 and ear­lier, dur­ing the war, the B-17 bomber.

Those other hangars were shut down long ago. Boe­ing sold much of the site in 2012 to Sares-Regis Group of Irvine. Sares-Regis has been leas­ing parcels to com­pa­nies in­clud­ing MercedesBenz, which re­cently built a large fa­cil­ity there.

The wide-bel­lied C-17 can carry 80 tons of troops and sup­plies. Equip­ment as large as the Army’s M-1 Abrams tank can roll through its rear door.

The four-en­gine cargo hauler can take off and land in re­mote re­gions that lack mod­ern run­ways. It is fre­quently used on dis­as­ter re­lief and med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion mis­sions.

With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pen­tagon has flown the C-17 more than it planned.

The Air Force bought 223 of the planes, the last de­liv­ered in 2013.

In re­cent years, Boe­ing has sold sev­eral dozen more to for­eign mil­i­taries, but not enough to con­tinue pro­duc­tion. The com­pany an­nounced in Septem­ber 2013 that it would close the line.

In a re­port last fall, Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace an­a­lyst with Teal Group, wrote that the Air Force could find in a few years that it needs more C-17s but it has no pro­duc­tion line.

“When the Air Force be­gan C-17 pro­cure­ment,” Aboulafia ex­plained in an email, “it hadn’t in­tended to fight two wars on the other side of the planet.”

Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, said no C-17 is ex­pected to be re­tired un­til the 2040s.

He said the Air Force was work­ing with Boe­ing to iden­tify equip­ment and tools in the plant that are needed to sus­tain and re­pair the f leet over the next decades. A 2012 con­tract al­lows the gov­ern­ment to pay up to $500 mil­lion to Boe­ing for the equip­ment, parts and data needed to keep the air haulers fly­ing.

Boe­ing hired an auc­tion firm to col­lect bids on two dozen of the plant’s ma­chines and tools. In­cluded is the ele­phan­tine equip­ment mak­ing up the fuse­lage as­sem­bly line, which built the planes at a clip of up to 16 a year, ac­cord­ing to the auc­tion cat­a­log.

An­other for-sale item: a Gem­cor Driv­matic fas­ten­ing ma­chine that drills and in­stalls riv­ets with a force of 50,000 pounds and then shaves the top so the rivet is f lush with the wing’s skin. The robot in­stalls riv­ets at a rate of six to nine a minute.

Also on the block is an au­to­mated wing spar as­sem­bly tool that uses elec­tro­mag­netic en­ergy to in­stall fas­ten­ers. In ad­di­tion, two industrial vac­uum sys­tems, two Siemens con­trol cen­ters and var­i­ous spare parts are for sale.

The auc­tion firm, Her­itage Global Part­ners of San Diego, said it had re­ceived in­ter­est from around the world.

David Barkoff, the firm’s sales direc­tor, called the auc­tion “a phe­nom­e­nal op­por­tu­nity” for aerospace, mar­itime, au­to­mo­tive and other man­u­fac­tur­ers to buy tools that are in “great con­di­tion.”

The auc­tion by sealed bid­ding closes June 23.

On a tour of the closed sec­tions of the plant in late May, much of the ma­chin­ery was roped off with yel­low “Cau­tion” tape.

Signs posted near some ma­chines read, “Pro­duc­tion Com­plete. Do not en­ter.” A faint smell of grease and metal lin­gered in the air.

Boe­ing was South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s largest pri­vate em­ployer at one time. But the aerospace gi­ant has cut its Cal­i­for­nia work­force ev­ery year since 2001, ac­cord­ing to its records.

At the be­gin­ning of the year, Boe­ing had 17,566 em­ploy­ees in the Golden State — half of the 35,000 em­ployed here 10 years ago.

The com­pany has been mov­ing op­er­a­tions to states with lower taxes and la­bor costs, in­clud­ing South Carolina, Alabama and Ok­la­homa.

So far this year, Boe­ing has re­ported the ex­pected lay­offs of 739 Cal­i­for­nia work­ers to the state.

Those lay­offs in­cluded 397 in Long Beach and an ad­di­tional 189 in El Se­gundo, where Boe­ing builds satel­lites. The com­pany re­ported 153 lay­offs in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, where its pro­grams in­clude a Phantom Works re­search team that fo­cuses on se­cret “black bud­get” projects for the Pen­tagon.

In a state­ment, Boe­ing said that of­ten work­ers re­ceiv­ing those lay­off no­tices are re­as­signed or take vol­un­tary re­tire­ment. The lay­offs, the com­pany said, were nec­es­sary to man­age costs and in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity. It blamed caps on Pen­tagon spend­ing re­quired by au­to­matic bud­get cuts known as se­ques­tra­tion.

Boe­ing an­nounced last year that it was mov­ing 1,000 en­gi­neer­ing po­si­tions in its com­mer­cial air­craft di­vi­sion to Seal Beach and Long Beach, which has helped off­set some of the Cal­i­for­nia re­duc­tions. The com­pany said it was “com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing as much of our skilled Cal­i­for­nia work­force as pos­si­ble.”

Randy Sos­saman, pres­i­dent of United Auto Work­ers Lo­cal 148, said there are now fewer than 400 union mem­bers work­ing at the C-17 plant.

Over the last year, Boe­ing has been is­su­ing lay­off no­tices about ev­ery two weeks, Sos­saman said. Each time, he said, 25 to 70 peo­ple have been let go.

Many of the work­ers have re­tired. Boe­ing says some have found po­si­tions else­where in the com­pany, although Sos­saman said the firm is not cur­rently of­fer­ing such trans­fers.

Boe­ing’s C-17 pro­gram manager, Nan Bouchard, said pro­duc­tion on the last C-17 should be com­plete be­fore year’s end.

Ex­ec­u­tives don’t know what they will do with the fac­tory, Bouchard said. There are no plans to build an­other plane or any­thing else there.

Boe­ing, she said, may put the site up for sale.

‘Boe­ing is not go­ing away in Cal­i­for­nia, but that doesn’t change the sad fact that this plant is closing down.’

— Tif­fany Pitts,

a Boe­ing spokes­woman

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

THE PLANT’S CLO­SURE is a painful loss for Long Beach’s econ­omy and the end of an era in which South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s aerospace in­dus­try, and its high-pay­ing jobs, helped build a strong mid­dle class.

Boe­ing

AN AIR FORCE C-17 Globe­mas­ter III is shown in fi­nal as­sem­bly at Boe­ing’s Long Beach plant.

FPG/Getty Images

THREE B-17 BOMBERS built in Long Beach dur­ing World War II are parked to­gether in 1944.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

BOE­ING HIRED

an auc­tion firm to col­lect bids on two dozen of the Long Beach plant’s ma­chines and tools.

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