As Boeing hands over its 223rd and final C-17 cargo jet to the Air Force, it'll now be up to foreign customers to keep the program alive. Thanks to an order from India for 10 of the cargo jets, the Long Beach assembly line will be kept open at least through the third quarter of 2014. Japan might be convinced to place an order, as well. But the plane lost favor with Air Force brass and the phasing out of Pentagon business could seal the program's fate - and the fate of Boeing assembly workers. From the Register:
It has been difficult to gauge the workforce size of Boeing's C-17 program in Long Beach because the company no longer releases specifics. A union official recently said there are 1,100 full-time aerospace workers, and Boeing said 4,000 worked there a few years ago. Boeing last announced plans to lay off 900 workers in Long Beach by the end of 2012, though officials Thursday wouldn't confirm how many had actually been let go. The Long Beach C-17 program may have once employed as many as 16,000 workers to help in a huge design, engineering and test program effort in the mid-1980s, employees said Thursday. That number steadily fell over the years to 10,000 by the late 1990s. Budget cuts and declining orders have since hurt the program.
The C-17 is the last airplane manufacturing plant in Southern California. But there remains quite a bit of aerospace activity involving missiles, satellites, and electronics - both for major defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop and for smaller contractors and sub-sub contractors that get a piece of the military pie. Let's also not forget Hawthorne-based Space X, Elon Musk's space transportation company that is running cargo up to the International Space Station. All that, however, hardly matches the role that aerospace played back in the 30s and 40s, when plane-making really shaped Socal. As explained by Pete Westwick, director of the Aerospace History Project:
Southern California as we know it would not exist without aerospace. Over the twentieth century millions of people flooded Southern California for aerospace jobs, transforming the region from a collection of sleepy agricultural groves to a sprawling high-tech nexus on the Pacific Rim. Southern Californians learned to live with sonic booms, security clearances, test-rocket firings that flashed and echoed in the foothills, and an economy tied to the vagaries of defense spending. In doing so, they helped provide one of the defining symbols of modern technological culture in the twentieth century. Southern California aerospace helped the U.S. win World War II and the Cold War, from propeller-driven airplanes to strategic missiles, spy satellites, and stealth aircraft. Its commercial aircraft and communications satellites have connected continents and impelled globalization. And the Southern California's central contributions to the civil space program, including the moon landing and the exploration of the solar system, challenged the human imagination.