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.]
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.
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.
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.