California aerospace industry is hurting

It was, wrote Guy Norris of Flight International, like going to “a state execution before dawn.”

Norris was down in Long Beach, Calif., last week to watch Boeing Co. workers roll the last 717 out of the factory doors. It was the end of the line for Boeing’s smallest jet, and the end of an era in commercial aviation history.

Norris wrote about it at Flight International’s Web log, and he describes a solemn ceremony, mournful aerospace workers trailing behind the last jet as it was towed by a tug to the city’s airport, like a funeral procession following the pallbearers from the mortuary to the cemetery.

Boeing’s Long Beach commercial factory, which gave birth to generations of Douglas-built “DC jets,” itself was “cavernous, echoing, almost desolate,” Norris wrote. Where once rivet guns blasted a cacophonous tattoo, “there is now empty silence.”

And as Boeing’s 717 line shut down, Southern California’s aerospace industry died with it. After World War II, it was a center of airliner production, where Douglas, Lockheed and Convair built piston-engine marvels that sailed the skies.

That’s all gone, the Associated Press reported. What’s left behind is a collection of widowed parts suppliers and aerospace engineering firms, and a handful of companies building military aircraft – including Boeing, which still builds the C-17 at Long Beach.

California’s commercial jet industry is the victim of some fairly basic market forces, Leeham Co. analyst Scott Hamilton said.

“Everything’s gone away because everything’s gone away,” he said. “It’s just a consolidation of the aviation business.”

As airliners have become more complex to build over the decade, fewer companies have been able to produce them profitably. There’s really only room for two, perhaps three, commercial jet builders in the world, Hamilton said.

So Convair, which used to build highly successful piston-engine airliners in San Diego, died. Lockheed, which successfully transitioned to the jet age but lost its shirt with the L-1011, got out of the airliner business.

Now the last vestige of Douglas is gone too.

As with any time there’s a death in the family, there are quiet whispers about what really caused the dearly departed’s demise. By all accounts, the 717 was a great little jet, designed by McDonnell Douglas to be the MD-95, the ultimate short-range, quick-turnaround people mover.

The airlines that bought it, loved it. AirTran has ridden it to profitability in the Southeast United States.

But the 717 was orphaned by the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger in 1997. Boeing adopted the plane, gave it its new name, but never was able to find a home for it. The 717 had to compete with its older step-sibling, the 737, a jet that had greater range and more flexibility.

Some pundits, noting that Boeing’s C-17 is nearing the end of its production run, are saying that California aerospace is about to disappear altogether. But Hamilton’s not so sure.

Boeing executives have hinted that they’re studying moving 767 production to Long Beach, he said. That kind of move would free up production space in Everett for the 787, and for whatever jet Boeing decides will one day replace the 737.

If that happens, there will be new life in Southern California’s once-glamorous aviation industry.

But for new, the factory’s dark, and the family’s dressed in black.

“Maybe it’s time for one of California’s last significantly viable industries to do something about it,” Norris wrote. “A Hollywood blockbuster about ‘The Long Beach Blues and the Death of Douglas.’”

For more aerospace news and analysis, see Bryan Corliss’ Web log at blogaerospace.

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