Touring the Ghosts of Douglas Aircraft Company’s Past

As a Long Beach resident and airline dork, I have a special connection with Douglas airplanes. As World War II ramped up, Donald Douglas Sr made the decision to build a new plant in Long Beach to crank out the airplanes needed by the military. That plant became the mainstay of the Douglas production operation and was the home of nearly every Douglas commercial jet until the last 717 rolled off the line almost exactly six years ago. I had the chance to tour some of these facilities last weekend. [Fair Warning: If you’re not an aircraft dork, this post might not be for you.]

DC-8 Parking

The impetus for the tour was the arrival of a DC-8-62 operated by Air Transport International. Classic Jet Tours put together a trip where the DC-8 would fly a bunch of people down from its base in Sacramento to Long Beach and back. The idea was to visit the spot where the airplane was made and get a tour in Long Beach while there.

Cabin at Rear of DC-8

Unfortunately, due to some weight and balance issues, the aircraft didn’t arrive until an hour late, so we weren’t able to give the in-depth terminal tour that we usually give. That doesn’t mean the group just turned around and left. The 32 people who came (the small passenger cabin is at the back, behind the big cargo area) were able to get a tour of the old Douglas jet plants which have been idle for years. I was excited to ride along.

Douglas LGB Layout

The original buildings were built on the northeast corner of Long Beach Airport. It was here the Douglas cranked out thousands of C-47s, B-17s, and more for the war effort. Those buildings were demolished a few years ago and a mixed use industrial park (called Douglas Park) is now being built in its place. But across Lakewood Blvd, the eastern boundary of Long Beach Airport, Douglas constructed Buildings 80-87 to house the commercial jet production operation for the company. These all still stand today, just completely empty. Here’s a video of the tour:

Building 80 is the most recognizable as it has the brilliant lighted “Fly DC Jets” sign on top. That sign is a landmark and won’t be going anywhere. It was inside Building 80 where the company built its DC-9s, MD-80s, and ultimately the 717 after Boeing took over. The last one was delivered to AirTran on May 23, 2006 and the plant has remained idled since.

Right next door is Building 84, where the DC-8s, DC-10s, and MD-11s rolled off the line. Across the way, Buildings 85, 86, and 87 were all paint shops to get the airplanes ready to go to their owners. When they were ready, the company would shut down Lakewood Blvd in the middle of the night so they could bring the jet on to the airport itself for flight testing. That street hasn’t been shut down in years.

While a book should be written on the demise of Douglas (anyone know if it’s already out there?), the short version is that things went downhill quickly after the merger with McDonnell. Under McDonnell’s management, Douglas wasn’t allowed to innovate. No money was invested into developing new concepts that could have kept Douglas as a major world player. Instead, a trickle of money was given to stretch airplanes that never lived up to their expectations and really never would have been competitive in the long run. It pains me to think what could have been had the funds been there to really develop new jets. That Long Beach plant might still be humming today.

Instead, the buildings are simply empty shells. Boeing owns the buildings and has been trying to sell them. The only two real proposals so far were for a movie sound stage operation (which never got funded) and an electric car plant for Tesla. When Tesla decided to re-open a closed plant in the Bay Area, the near-term fate of the Long Beach facilities seemed sealed.

Hopefully some day another use will be found for these buildings, but it won’t be to build airplanes. The last fixed wing manufacturing plant in California is across the airport where the C-17 is built. Once those orders run out, California’s proud legacy as an aircraft manufacturer will be completely extinguished.

[See more photos of the DC-8’s visit to Long Beach]

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54 Comments on "Touring the Ghosts of Douglas Aircraft Company’s Past"

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Ted
Guest
Very cool tour. Thanks for sharing. Off topic – I would like to be the first to nominate United for a Cranky Jackass award for their actions yesterday following the Houston City Council’s approval to build international gates at Hobby. They are using this as an excuse to cancel plans to fly IAH-AKL, reduce capacity by 10%, and get rid of 1300 people at IAH, all this year. I maybe could understand this if Southwest would be starting service this year, (but even then, I doubt it would really impact any AKL traffic) but the building won’t be ready until… Read more »
Bill from DC
Guest

1,300 workers seems unbelievably excessive for 10% reduction of intl capacity. maybe 130? UA being a sore loser is not a surprise but i can’t believe 1,300 workers are getting the axe over a 10% reduction in intl capacity?!?!?!?!

matt weber
Member
I think Cranky is being kind to MD management about what happened to the commercial side. Harry Stonecipher (the last CEO at McDonald-Douglas) basically ran the commercial side of the business into the ground by being entirely focused on short term profitability. No investment in product development ultimately results in having no products to sell as the technology moves forward. I’ve seen it many times. I am somewhat surprised to see a D8-62 still flying, I believe many of these aircraft were converted to 70 series (replacement of the PW engines with CFM56’s), which vastly improved the operating economics and… Read more »
Ray
Guest

Thanks for your post. I think Stonecipher and predecessors (the exception being Jim Worsham – who saved Douglas from an even earlier demise) were cash constrained by HQ in St. Louis. We couldn’t afford to build new aircraft types if only for the cost of tooling. MD planned to build the MD-12 double-decker, but couldn’t afford it and couldn’t round up 20 customers (minimum number to build). In my opinion, Bob Hood hastened Douglas’s downfall.

FRANK
Guest
I began my career on the DC-8. Flew the 61,62,63 and 50 series aircraft. I flew charters all over the world. The single aisle and the long narrow cabin was always a challenge to work. Think 48 ROWS long. Twelve exits, six on each side. We had 252 passengers with 8 flight attendants. Dinner service took several hours to complete. LOL, on one of the 50 series aircraft, the windows still had little curtains on them. Even back in the early 80’s, they looked old. But, you always felt safe on them. They felt like a workhorse. Strong.
donn alba
Guest

you sound like someone with lots of knowledge about doug. aircraft, i really need to know what happened to my father in 1958, the year he died. he worked as a test pilot engineer there and died under mysterious circumstances. please contact me so we can share info. iv’e been without my father for 55 years now, i need some answers from people who know! please. 951 928 2066 or 551 4891 thank you in advance.

Översättningsbyrå
Guest

Started my carrier as F/O on the DC-9, we flew the 21/41 and later also the 51 before they all where replaced with MD-80’s (81/82(83 and 87)
Great planes, solid workhorses – ended my carrier on the A330/340 now heading a translation agency.

Life took a turn!

donn alba
Guest

you sound like someone with lots of knowledge about doug. aircraft, i really need to know what happened to my father in 1958, the year he died. he worked as a test pilot engineer there and died under mysterious circumstances. please contact me so we can share info. iv’e been without my father for 55 years now, i need some answers from people who know! please. 951 928 2066 or 551 4891 thank you in advance.

David SF eastbay
Member

For being an old plane, by that interior photo the passenger area looks nice. To bad airlines don’t keep up with the interiors of their airplanes.

Jason H
Guest
(Step onto soapbox) It’s the moves like the McDonald management’s lack of investment in innovation that are actually the end result of a larger problem with manufacturing companies. It is especially apparent in aircraft and automobiles. There is a lack of desire to take a real risk and deviate from the established and working of yesterday. No one is willing to take a leap forward for fear of being exposed and losing a lot of money and likely their career. Think of all the aircraft that were at the razor’s edge in terms of design and operation; SR-71, U-2, Concorde,… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
There has been plenty of innovation in aviation. I can see calling the 737 a 707 derivative, but the basic shape works why change it? The 737s being delivered today have completely different wings wholly redesigned cockpits and a completely redesigned interior. The 787? That thing is all about innovation. New body material, much more aerodynamic shape, engine cowlings that reduce drag, and bunches of other things that I don’t know about. Now if you’re complaining that it’s a tube, wings with an engine under each of them, and a tail with a rudder and elevators, I think you’re expecting… Read more »
Jason H
Guest
There is a difference between evolution and innovation. The 737MAX and 787 are an evolution of the 707, which was an evolution of the Comet. The lineage of the 737 is of course easier to see since it has never changed designation, but the 787 can be traced through the 777, 767, and 707 as well. Innovation in certain sub-systems has certainly occurred, but the whole system has not seen real innovation just a continued evolution. Innovation would have been the Boeing Sonic Cruiser or the Boeing SST or a Boeing Space Plane to take us to the moon. The… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Jason, you and I disagree as to the definition of innovation.

The other question is how much the lack of innovation is the airlines versus Boeing’s fault. Boeing puts together a preliminary design sketch, then shops it around to the airlines.. If the airlines don’t bite Boeing doesn’t complete the thing..

Sure this isn’t taking a risk, but the 707 and 747 did the same thing. Creating something that you can’t sell isn’t taking a risk, its being stupid.

Jason H
Guest

To completely change the tone of our thread…

“Creating something that you can?t sell isn?t taking a risk, its being stupid”

Or you are working with the military.

Nick Barnard
Member

“Or you are working with the military.”

+1 LOL!

Nick Barnard
Member

I just wandered across a site by Boeing while I was reading other news (yes, there is other news besides The Cranky Flier) Milestones in Innovation.

A
Guest
Sad that MD is no more, but I don’t really have any fondness for what they produced. The DC-9 has never been a favorite of mine. Always felt cramped with the narrow cross section compared to a 737. Can’t even say if I’ve flown a DC-8…if I have I was too young to notice. The DC-10 was ok, but with the L1011 and bigger 747 it never really was a standout. I’m a fan of more options in the large commercial aircraft market than the Airbus/Boeing duopoly, but Douglas merged with McDonnel because they both were going broke, even in… Read more »
gabeandino
Member

Not to get into a “widebody three-holer” war, but what really hurt the DC-10 was that it’s reputation was tarnished by the string of accidents suffered early on it’s service life. However that aircraft outsold and has far outlasted the L1011 in service time. The Tri-Star was a technological marvel, but that plane ended up being the reason Lockheed got out of the airliner business.

Bill from DC
Guest
I loved the L10 as well but, you are right, it basically flushed Lockheed’s commercial aviation business down the toilet. This is the lesson to those who call for limitless innovation (and spending) in some of the comments above – there is such a thing as OVER-innovation in which the investment in new technology can never be recouped. While companies have a responsibility to push technology forward, they also have a responsibility to shareholders and employees to maintain economic viability. A bankrupt company provides no innovation and no jobs. Lockheed losing $2.5 billion on its TriStar program may have accelerated… Read more »
SirWired
Guest

Call me crazy, but the DC-9 family of aircraft is my favorite type. Mainly, I’m a big fan of the 3-2 seating; only a 20% chance of a center seat on a given flight.

And you can’t argue with the fantastic reliability of the planes either.

donn alba
Guest

any old timers out there that know what douglas aircraft was going through in 1958, i really need to know about what was happening internally. two mysterious deaths took place that i know of, my father being one.please, if anyone knows anything about that time period please contact me. i would be so grateful. 951 951 551 4891

JD
Guest

My life long wonderment with all things plane is based on endless days and summers watching British Caledonian and Laker DC10’s taking off from Gatwick, flying to places many of which I could hardly dream of , that I now travel to regularly. So I loved this report but without going into the reasons it is no surprise to me that Douglas , Bcal and Laker are all long …..despite the positive legacies they all leave

Rick55
Guest
I have a great deal of fondness for Douglas aircraft. In 1971, I was assigned a three month TDY ferrying “classified material”around the country. We were based out of the Red River Arsenal in Texarkana TX. The aircraft assigned was an Army C-47/DC3 whose airframe was three months older than me. At that point in my flying career, I had a little more than 100 total hours in single engine flight time. I was not aviation rated in the service,and had learned to fly at the base flight club at Ft. Hood where I have been assigned after returning from… Read more »
Brian Lusk
Guest
Wow, great video. When I was a kid in the LA area during the 60s, my parents would drive me past the Douglas plant, and I would always try to get a view of the new DC-8s. (I would later have the honor of working the DC-8 prototype, N8000D, when I worked for Delta.) In the town where I lived, El Segundo, we had the old Douglas naval aviation plants where the Skyraider and Skyhawk, plus WWII greats like the Dauntless were built. Even then, the plant had shut down and I wondered what tales those walls could tell. Brian
Jenny
Guest

I love reading your blog!

Peter Mac
Member
At one point in my life, I was a partner in a DC 7 CF, a really sweet bird! Loved it, reliable as hell (for a piston) and could haul a brick load. Pull it back to 175 knots and you had long legs and good payloads. The rest of the Douglass family never tripped my trigger though. Made a trip from ATL to Tokyo, via Anchorage once on a DC 8 (believe it was a 63), a long slog, full passenger manifest, ugh! By the time we were 3 hours out of Anchorage, the potty’s were full and a… Read more »
doug
Member
I had the pleasure of touring the MD plant in Long Beach circa 1993. I was working with a consulting company and we were talking to them about process improvement, logistics, inventory control and such. It was pretty impressive walking around and watching the airplanes in assembly but I was struck by how labor intensive and manual the process was. I remember supervisors and others riding bicycles around the sprawling facility, and driving by a military aircraft having the wings stress-tested in a giant contraption. Anyway, the operation looked to be pretty inefficient and I can’t help but wonder if… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

AFAIK wasn’t the 717 built on a moving assembly line? In any case one of Boeing’s biggest assembly innovations has been the moving 737 assembly line. Sure it’s not the fastest thing, but it definitely is a major change in how airliners are built.

doug
Member

Perhaps but they were still building the MD 80/88 at that time and I don’t recall seeing any semblance of an assembly line.

donn alba
Guest

any old timers out there that know what douglas aircraft was going through in 1958, i really need to know about what was happening internally. two mysterious deaths took place that i know of, my father being one.please, if anyone knows anything about that time period please contact me. i would be so grateful. 951 951 551 4891

Nick Barnard
Member

Wow. That DC-8 has an IFE and it isn’t a flip book!

tharanga
Guest

Is that interior faithful to how it might have looked like in commercial service? seats, bins, overhead panels, TVs, etc?

Paul
Guest

The old Douglas history is really fantastic. As an ex eployee (3-23-2012 due to out sourcing of all the electrical depts in California). It’s a shame Boeing set out to destroy the heritage we employees tried to maintain over the years.

Paul
Guest

The Douglas history is fantastic as I was a part of all that until Boeing bought the company. It’s a shame Boeing had to come in and destroy it. A lot of people are dissapointed in the way they’ve treated their employees and how they’ve handled there bussiness.

Nick Barnard
Member

heh, there is a line in Seattle, “McDonald Douglas bought Boeing with their own money.” So basically no one likes the merger…

yo
Guest

Jealous, I still have the DC-8 on my bucket list.

Ah..but I got you on the 707/KC135…. :)

Todd in IAD
Guest

These buildings would be the perfect setting for a Douglas – MCDonnel-Douglas aircraft museum. The Boeing museum up in Seattle is great, but Long Beach would do well with this facility attracting tourists to see a DC-3, DC-4, DC-6, DC-7, DC-8, DC-9, DC-10, MD-11, MD-80, MD-90, all the variants and maybe even a 717.

tharanga
Guest

CF,
Can you give an estimate of the male/female balance among the ‘aircraft dorks’ who went along? Just curious.

TGrant
Guest
In any manufacturing business (if one wishes to stay in business) you manufacture something that sells. Innovaton is always important but if the buyer (airlines) don’t want it, well, it’s not logical to offer it. Those of you who criticize Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed for innovative -or lack thereof- should consider the infuence in design the customer has. Then there is price, trade-offs in operating costs, power-plant pricing and support and operation costs (there are no airframe manufacturers who design, build and service aircraft engines). The airplane ‘package’ is a convoluted one. One customer likes the 707 another one likes the… Read more »
Bill Hilton
Guest

My first real job was as a riveter on A26 Attack Bombers. The most popular plane coming off the assembly line in those days was the C-47…a real workhorse for many years to come! I was 16 and the year was 1943/44. The location: Douglas Aircraft, Long Beach.

John Roy
Guest
I acually came across a folder for a Douglas Aerobatic Aircraft Prototype from 1969 at an estate sale, but I could never find anyone interested in helping me look it over. There were 90 pages of design work and 2 blue prints. I just found this website where there seem to be a few folk interested in Dogulas Aircraft. Just want you to know that there is one Douglas Aircraft left to be seen… The designer was a Byron B. Florence III, and he worked for Douglas from 1967-1971. He died in 1978 never having seen his plane put into… Read more »
James A Walker (nick name JAWS)
Guest
James A Walker (nick name JAWS)

Many good people retired from DAC before Boeing bought it. Im one of them. Some of us are trying to start up a DOUGLAS MUSEUM on Long Beach airport. Todate we have one flyable DC10-10, DC 9-10, and an A4 Skyhawk. If any of you would like to get involved (not your money, just your tech labor) Contact Jim at (562) 429-8962 and daylight time or leave a message. DAC Flight Operations.

Pete
Guest
Corporate politics and greed is what is consistently killing long standing American businesses. Without innovation and risk taking there wouldn’t be an airline business or even powered flight today. The Wright Brothers investment(both financial and personal) was risk taking and it paid off. Corporate politics is the death of us all. The L-10ll was an exceptional plane killed by politics. The Boeing Company now wants to create a supersonic plane capable of traveling to the fringes of the earth’s atmosphere; well bravo! But wasn’t this the same type of plane Boeing was trying to introduce in the early 70s that… Read more »
Jason in MD
Guest

How do I connect with you? My grandfather moved his family to Long Beach during the war and worked on the assembly line. He made a ring with some kind of part on it and I would like to know what the part is. Can anyone help?

mike
Guest

I have a Douglas Aircraft Company United States War Bond. Anyone interested? Call 918-813-6401

minh
Guest

i think B 17 was built by Boeing not Douglas aircraft

Frank
Guest
As a former employee of DAC in the MD-11 program, had sales of the MD-11 worked out as planned, DAC would still be in business. I have flown in Delta’s MD-11, Los Angeles to Orlando route and it is a fine aircraft. The problem that happened with the MD-11 could have been fixed easily, but for some strange reason, high management wanted to end the company. It is so obvious, at least to me it was. The MD-11 was advertised to deliver a 5500 nautical mile range. It fell short some 500 miles. This was due to an excessive forward… Read more »
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