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A California aviation era ends

Last passenger aircraft rolls out of Boeing's Long Beach factory

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The last Boeing 717 has left the factory.

The slender airliner, trailed by dozens of the workers who built it, was rolled out before dawn last week and towed across a boulevard to Long Beach Airport.

Its delivery to AirTran Airways next month will mark the end of seven decades of commercial airplane production in Southern California.

At another sprawling complex nearby, thousands of workers still produce the Boeing C-17 military cargo plane. However, there are no new orders for the aircraft in the proposed Defense Department budget.

If congressional efforts to restore the program fail, the last of those flying warehouses will be delivered in 2008, and all airplane production would end in California -- once the center of commercial and military airplane construction in the nation.

''More aviation history has been made in Southern California than in any other place in the world," said Bill Schoneberger, author of ''California Wings," a history of aviation in the state.

''But we've evolved. The aeronautics industry has moved from an airplane business into a systems business," he said.

Indeed, as corporate consolidation and defense cuts sent airplane production to Seattle, St. Louis, and other cities, Southern California moved from metal bending to aerospace research and development.

Today's workers build satellites, helicopters, and unmanned surveillance drones while developing rockets and military jets that are made elsewhere.

Southern California aviation history dates to the early 1900s and features pioneers such as Howard Hughes, Jack Northrop, and Donald Douglas, whose Douglas Aircraft built the DC-1 in 1933, one of the first commercial passenger planes.

With weather that accommodated year-round flying, the region drew companies that produced bombers and fighter planes during World War II. Later came jetliners such as the DC-8, DC-9, DC-10, MD-80, MD-90, MD-11, and L-1011 TriStar, and space vehicles that included the Apollo capsule and space shuttle. Boeing Co. acquired the Long Beach plant in August 1997 when it bought McDonnell-Douglas Corp.

As the nation's defense priorities shifted, Northrop Grumman Corp. went from building B-2 stealth bombers and other planes in the region to providing electronic warfare systems, including the Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane, built in San Diego.

Boeing builds satellites in El Segundo. And at a research facility in Palmdale, Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the next-generation warplane.

California's congressional delegation believes the high-wing, four-engine C-17 still has a place in that arsenal.

''We live in a time of uncertainty. No one knows how many C-17s we will need," Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said during a recent tour of the factory in Long Beach, which employs 6,000 people.

The cargo plane has been used by the military since 1991 to airlift heavy equipment and transport troops.

Supporters say its ability to land on short dirt runways has helped take the load off supply trucks that come under heavy fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To replace the C-17, the Defense Department will consider acquiring a proposed new tanker aircraft and modernizing another transport plane, the larger C-5.

Only 180 more C-17s remain on order in California. The planes cost about $154 million each.

Ron Marcotte, Boeing vice president of global mobility systems, said it could take billions of dollars and several years to restart the program if it shuts down.

''It's the suppliers and the learning of this workforce which would go away overnight," he said.

No effort is in the works to save the Boeing 717, a mid-size, twin-jet passenger plane that struggled to find its market.

Boeing has sold 155 of the planes since the first delivery in 1999. Many of the unionized workers on the assembly line have transferred to the C-17 program or been placed in jobs at other aerospace companies.

The last Boeing 717 is now parked on the airport ramp, awaiting the start of flight testing.

The names of the 800 workers who built it have been scrawled on the inside skin of its fuselage and covered by metal paneling.

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