Boeing to deliver final C-17 cargo jet to Air Force
A C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 437th Airlift Wing sits on the flightline after a rain storm on May 7, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The C-17 is capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main operating bases or directly to forward bases in the deployment area.
Los Angeles Times
Aerospace giant Boeing Co. plans to deliver its 223rd and final C-17 cargo jet to the U.S. Air Force on Thursday, ending a 25-year relationship that has been an economic mainstay in Long Beach.
On Thursday, Boeing and Air Force officials will mark the occasion with a ceremony at the C-17 plant, which is next to Long Beach Airport.
The 1.1-million-square-foot plant, with an estimated 4,000 workers, is one of the last major conventional aircraft factories in Southern California, and federal funding has been the lifeblood.
For the last several years, Boeing has been pushing foreign sales as a way to help prolong work there. But because most foreign orders are relatively small — about five planes — they haven't sustained it for more than a few months. Now, with few foreign orders to fill, the assembly line is set to close in late 2014.
"Boeing has a long legacy of building military aircraft in Long Beach," said Nan Bouchard, Boeing vice president and C-17 program manager. "And our employees — many who have been here since the early days when we were in the design phase — take pride in building the C-17."
The C-17 Globemaster III is a massive, four-engine jet that can haul 60-ton tanks, troops and medical gear across continents and land on short runways.
Design work on the stubby-looking plane began at the Long Beach facility in the 1980s. The first C-17 to fly — known as T-1 — took off in 1991.
One of the mechanics on that aircraft was Jeff McQueen, who helped build the planes' panels, floors and wings. Now McQueen, 57, is a senior production manager.
"I grew up working on this program," he said. "Some of my closest relationships came through this plant."
The C-17 program also enabled him to put his two daughters through college, he said.
"When we hand over that last plane to the Air Force, it will be somewhat of a sad day," McQueen said. "But we had such a good run."
The Long Beach plant was built by Douglas Aircraft Co., and the plant still has a large "Fly DC Jets" sign in front. It thrived for decades, employing thousands and producing some of the world's most popular airliners, including the DC-3, DC-8 and MD-80. Boeing inherited the plant when it acquired McDonnell Douglas Corp. in 1997.
The C-17 was touted as a plane that was necessary during the Cold War, as the United States faced potential military threats that required massive cargo lifts.
Problems cropped up early on, ranging from minor cosmetic glitches to several that involved the plane's complex computer software system. Cost overruns, technical difficulties and repeated delays caused the C-17 to become one of the most controversial defense procurement programs of the 1990s.
But as production got going, the problems were solved and the plane became a workhorse for the military. Today, it has the highest readiness rate of any cargo plane in the U.S. arsenal, said Bob Steele, C-17 deputy program manager for the Air Force.
"They're all over the world," he said. "And they're constantly carrying out missions."
The plane has been key in hauling supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan and on humanitarian missions around the globe. In June, a C-17 carried about 90,000 pounds of food to Haiti. Last year, during Hurricane Sandy, the jets brought utility trucks from the West Coast to the East so they could help restore electricity.
"The plane's mission has evolved a lot further than its initial design," Steele said.
The Air Force stopped ordering C-17s in 2006. Since then, Congress added last-minute appropriations for more planes to keep the plant rolling. Again and again, lawmakers came to the program's rescue, partly because it supports roughly 30,000 supplier jobs in 44 states.
In 2010, lawmakers set aside funding for 10 new planes. That year, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress he would recommend that the president veto legislation that contains money to pay for any additional C-17s.
There have been no new orders from the U.S. since then. Last year, the Air Force granted to Boeing a contract for $500 million calling for transition to "post production."
"We've known this was coming for a while," Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said. "I'd love for the Air Force to buy more C-17s, but they have made their decision. The future is going to be in foreign sales."
As Air Force orders have dwindled, Boeing has cut jobs at the plant. The Chicago company said it slowed production rates to 10 aircraft a year from 15 to extend the assembly line's life several months.
The slower production rates would buy time for the company to sell more planes to foreign buyers, Boeing said.
Foreign customers say they like the four-engine aircraft because it can carry bulky battle gear and use substandard runways. It can take off and land quickly despite its massive size.
Britain, Australia, Canada and Qatar now have C-17s in their fleets. Seven C-17s will be delivered to complete the order of 10 C-17s from India, and two will go to an unnamed international customer.
At more than $200 million each, the C-17 faces stiff competition from smaller and less-expensive transports such as Lockheed Martin Corp.'s C-130J and an upcoming A400M that is being developed by Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co.
Tom Captain, principal and vice chairman of financial advisory firm Deloitte's aerospace and defense practice, said there is worldwide demand for cargo jets.
"Because there's a demand for both civil and humanitarian aid, there's still a market for strategic lift," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more orders for cargo planes."
The ceremony Thursday is expected to take place at 8 a.m. Among the attendees are Boeing employees, Air Force commanders and Long Beach city officials.