Touring the Ghosts of Douglas Aircraft Company’s Past

LGB - Long Beach

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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57 comments on “Touring the Ghosts of Douglas Aircraft Company’s Past

  1. 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 2015. This is nothing but being a sore loser, and I don’t like that they’re messing with 1300 people’s lives to do it.

    1. 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?!?!?!?!

  2. 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 performance.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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!

    1. 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.

  5. (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, Canadair Challenger, the Space Shuttle, British De Havilland Comet, etc. Name me a company today that would be willing to take the risk on any of these.

    Every year or so we see a new crop of “futuristic” planes produced by students at the leading engineering colleges around the world, but will they ever see the light of day? No. Boeing is busy investing billions to make yet another version of the 707 airframe, but to confuse people they call it a 737MAX or a 787. In the end it is the same airframe with a few cosmetic tweaks. Even the A380 is no different. Japan’s Mitsubishi announces the MRJ and one would think that something from the Land of the Rising Sun would be futuristic like some of their concept cars, but no. It looks no different than a 707 left in the dryer too long.

    This disease is affecting more than just the aircraft industry. Every company is focused on the next earning cycle. Corporate culture is no longer to take risks, innovate, and focus on the long-term. Now it is all on the next earnings report. You have to prove that the product you are working on will have an immediate impact on the bottom line and innovation can get stuffed.
    (Steps off soapbox)

    Oh man! I would have loved to fly on that DC-8. I do love the story of the 707 flyby of the Douglas facility on the day of the DC-8 maiden flight. I’d have to dig it out of “Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People” to relate it in more detail though.

    1. 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 a bit much. Sure blended wing designs are cool, but I bet they’re not being built for good reasons. Just as why we’ve never driven tricycle wheeled cars. The basic form works, and works quite well.

      1. 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 design needed for any of those required a complete rethink of the aircraft and could have resulted in real innovation.

        And it’s not just innovation versus evolution that bothers me. It is the lack of corporate risk taking. Some might say that Boeing took a risk with the 787, but in reality they didn’t. Their bills were paid with the 737 and 777. The 707 and the 747 on the other hand were exercises in risk taking as their failure would have crippled if not doomed the company to failure. It is that kind of risk taking that is sorely lacking in corporations anymore.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

  6. 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 the 1960’s…and that was long before Airbus was a player. Fact of the matter, DC jets were never “best in class” when it came to the order books…and that’s what counts.

    Doesn’t Lockheed Martin still have operations in California? Doubtful they would ever get into civiliation aviation again, but the L1011 is still my all time favorite aircraft. Better than any DC-10 IMHO.

    1. 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.

      1. 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 some aspects of aviation technology but it resulted in removal of one company from an industry with very few competitors. In the long run, one less competitor is a far greater impediment to technological innovation than what some derisively refer to as “evolutionary” innovation. Revolutionary innovation, like planes to the moon, might sound interesting and fun but are rarely commercially viable.

        Each one of the 249 beautiful L1011’s delivered represented a loss of over $10 million to Lockheed. That must be kept in mind.

    2. 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.

    3. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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 Viet-Nam. the two civilian pilots, both WWII vets with God knows how many hours of time in type and IP rating, assigned to the aircraft quickly learned of my “novice” status and they decided since we were going to be together for three months day in day out. I should learn to fly a real aircraft. I had told them at that point I knew where the compass and the artificial horizon was but really didn’t know what all the rest of the guages were. Thier response, “Dont worry there are two of each, one for each engine.

    My multi-engine ground school was conducted in the cargo area of the plane and by the time my TDY was over I had almost 400 hours of time at the yoke and a lifelong love of taildraggers.

    Unfortunately today multi-engine time is too dear to come-by very often but boy do I miss it.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 couple overflowing! Don’t ever want to repeat something like that. Give me a 747 or a 777, any day! But you are right, the lack of investment crippled them in the end

  11. 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 that had something to do with MD’s demise.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. 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

      1. The original had those open shelves where you could place soft items but no luggage. Most passenger compartments did have small closets up forward for the lucky few who were first to board where you could stow a small case. But, that space went quickly

        1. That’s why I asked – I was surprised to see bulky-looking bins, they look out of place. I expected an open rack up there. but DC-8 was in service into the 80s probably in US/Europe, right? so maybe by the end they had some bins?

          1. My understanding is that the bins were a 1970s redesign of the interior. Hard to say how this particular Eight was delivered to SAS, but in all likelihood it was upgraded a few years later. I remember hearing that Air Canada’s Stretch Eights got this new interior in the ’70s too. Of course, it’s hardly “new” to us in this day and age, but is consistent with the contemporary manner of stowing overhead luggage.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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 DC-8, etc, etc -fine but does either one consider why the seating is closer on one versus the other or why the lavs are less/more convenient on one compared to the other? The purchasing airline decides on the seat-pitch, not Boeing or Douglas. The purchasing airline decides on where they want the lavs and the gallies. If you must compare then compare the same aircraft with a competitive airline: try American versus Singapore; United versus Thai -on the same rout of course. Oh, and as an afterthought… with regard to airframe stamina and maintainability.. is there any argument or confusion as to why there are more ‘old’ Douglas airframes still flying and in demand? How many Boeing 707’s, 737’s or Lockheed ‘Connies’/Electras or BAC 111,s or Comets, or Sud Caravelles’ -and the list continues- are earning their keep? Camon, get real….

  16. 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.

  17. 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 production. Best I can tell, it is an unknown design.

    Best regards,
    John Roy

  18. 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.

  19. 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 got killed by environmental politics? so whats changed in 40-50 years? not much if you ask me, same old destructive politics.

  20. 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?

    1. minh – Back then they needed so many airplanes that they had other manufacturers contract out. So Douglas did indeed build that airplane as well as Boeing.

  21. 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 CG which increased induced drag that made the aircraft burn more fuel due to a greater tail down force generated from the horizontal stab down to 5000 miles. Our customers were not able to operate the aircraft. At the engineered CG, the aircraft produced a large tail down force which made wingtip vortex generation much greater than was initially predicted even with winglets. By moving the CG aft a small percentage within the Mean Aerodynamic Chord (MAC) the excessive tail down force could have been reduced to the point that the eingine power settings would have yielded the extra 500 nautical mile range with an even smaller fuel burn thereby fulfilling the requirement to reach the Pacific Rim.

    This problem could have been remedied by better fuel tank fuel burn utilization or removing a small percentage of the aircraft gross weight forward of the Leading edge MAC. No effort was ever made to correct this problem. It could have led DAC to staying around much longer.

    1. Hello! I was wondering if anyone has any information on these I came across in some family paperwork. They are 3 gold printings of DC9 and also DC-1 through MD-80 informative book. Is this something of value ? Is there an appraiser who specializes in this type of memorabilia? Thank you for helping me out. Hope to hear from someone.?

  22. My step-dad worked at Douglas Long Beach for 28 years. I still remember the night he came home the day Douglas merged with McDonnell. He just said it would never be the same. Went to open house events as a kid. Remember walking through a C-124! Wow!!! it was huge. Dad passed away in 1979. I went to work at the MDC Huntington Beach facility in April 1979 and retired in July 2003. I have a special spot in my heart for Douglas. I’ve seen what mergers do first McDonnell, then Boeing…leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. You should go to the Santa Monica airport and visit the museum there. It is built on the grounds of the first permanent Douglas plant.. Lots of Douglas material there including several Douglas aircraft. Keep Em Flying!

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