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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

A solemn farewell to Boeing's 717

By Peter Pae
Los Angeles Times

LONG BEACH, Calif. As hundreds of people on the tarmac waved goodbye, Boeing Co.'s last 717 airliner took off from Long Beach Airport on Tuesday, marking the end of 90 years of commercial airplane production in Southern California.

The 717 delivered to AirTran Airways was the 15,599th plane built at the sprawling manufacturing complex next to the Long Beach Airport since 1941. "They're calling it a celebration, but it feels more like a funeral," said Alvin Frye, an aircraft inspector hired at the plant in 1965.

Frye, 62, was among the present and former workers who gathered to mark the plant's last aircraft delivery and relive its storied history. While typical aircraft delivery ceremonies are cheerful and filled with balloons, last week's occasion was solemn and eerily quiet, except for a stand where employees were briskly selling at half price shirts embossed with 717 logos.

The Long Beach plant, now owned by Boeing, was opened by Douglas Aircraft Co., and it still has a large "Fly DC Jets" sign out front. For decades it thrived, producing some of the world's most popular airliners, including the DC-3, DC-9 and MD-80.

After the ceremony, some spectators stayed to watch the last plane take off, including Jerry Callaghan, retired designer for the 717. As the aircraft disappeared from view, Callaghan recalled that he stood at the same spot a decade ago when the first 717's flew. On Tuesday he felt like he was seeing his child "go off and leave the nest. This is it. Everything has to come to an end," Callaghan said, as his wife, Joan, hugged him.

Last year Boeing announced plans to shutter the 717 line because of slow sales of the single-aisle plane. Boeing inherited the 717 when it acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, but the plane, originally called MD-95, never caught on with major airlines.

One problem was the 717's cockpit configuration didn't match Boeing's other aircraft. Some former 717 workers lamented Tuesday that the plane never got the marketing support to make it successful. In all, 156 of the 717s were built, far short of the 200 sales Boeing needed for the aircraft to be profitable.

Five years ago, about 1,800 people worked on the 717 assembly line, but only 160 were left to build the last planes. At least one hangar is likely to stay open for 717 repairs and will employ a skeleton crew.

Some 717 workers retired, others, including Frye, were shifted to another Boeing factory in Long Beach that builds the C-17 military transport. But that facility will close in 2008 unless the Air Force orders more planes.

The Long Beach complex was part of Southern California's golden era of aviation as pioneers took advantage of the warm weather and open space to test their new flying machines.

In 1916, the Loughhead brothers formed a firm that grew into Lockheed Aircraft and two decades later built planes for Amelia Earhart. In the '20s, Donald Douglas set up his firm behind a Los Angeles barber shop. A few years later, a small San Diego firm started by Claude Ryan built the plane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Other pioneers included Jack Northrop and Howard Hughes, who built companies that bore their names and flourished.

At its peak during World War II, the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach employed 50,000 workers and produced a plane every two hours.

The plant's prosperity spawned new neighborhoods to house workers.

Among the early residents were couples starting families, such as Billy and Evelyn Dewees, who attended Tuesday's ceremony wearing their old McDonnell Douglas employee badges.

Evelyn started working at the Long Beach plant in 1954 building the C-133 and then the C-124 military cargo planes. Her husband, was hired three years later.

Evelyn's starting pay was $1.24 an hour, plus a bonus of 8 cents an hour for working the swing shift. That beat the going rate of 80 cents an hour for an office job, she recalled.

"They treated us well," she said, noting how the aerospace industry helped spawn the local middle class. "And we got good pensions, better than most."

The Dewees retired in 1989, walking out of the factory holding hands.

The local aerospace manufacturing industry peaked in the late 1980s before the end of Cold War triggered a major retrenchment, followed by industry consolidation and increased competition overseas.

Local aircraft manufacturing employment is now about 40,000, down some three-quarters from its peak, and much of the work has shifted to military research and development.

Europe's Airbus and Boeing are the last makers of large jetliners, and production has shifted out of state, although Southern California is still home to thousands of suppliers who make parts for the two rivals.

The region also is home to the nation's top advanced aerospace R&D firms that design satellites, rockets and robotic airplanes.

At Lockheed Martin Corp.'s famed "Skunkworks" in Palmdale, more than 4,000 engineers design aircraft cloaked in secrecy. And Torrance is still home to the nation's largest helicopter maker, Robinson Helicopter Co.

But for many longtime residents, Tuesday's 717 ceremony marked the end of an era. A large section of the Boeing complex in Long Beach has been bulldozed to make room for the construction of homes and offices.

"We've lived here for 55 years, and to see all of that disappear is very sad," former plant employee Evelyn Dewees said. "It's like losing a child."