Since the beginning of powered flight, California and aviation have had a special bond. Early aircraft manufacturers swarmed to the Golden State to take advantage of all it had to offer: a growing, skilled workforce and great flying weather to start. But last weekend, the very last manned fixed wing aircraft to be manufactured in the state took to the skies in Long Beach. An important era in aviation has come to an end more than 100 years after it began.
Has it really been 100 years? Yes it has, and a glorious hundred years at that. Allan and Malcolm Loughead founded their first aircraft company in 1912 in San Francisco; the same year Glenn L Martin founded his self-named company in Santa Ana. The legendary names that built the US aircraft industry roll right off the tongue. Allan Loughead teamed up with Jack Northrop to form Lockheed Aircraft Company. Jack Northrop eventually founded his own company in Hawthorne in the thirties. Then of course, there was Donald Douglas Sr. His company, Douglas Aircraft Company, was the predecessor to the company that rolled that last aircraft off the line this weekend.
The names go on and on. The Spirit of St Louis, the aircraft that made the first Transatlantic flight with Charles Lindbergh aboard, may have been named for St Louis, but it was built in San Diego. Howard Hughes built his monstrous Hercules (better known as the Spruce Goose) just north of where LAX is today, and it took its only flight just off the coast.
Aerospace became so important to California that at one point at the height of the Cold War, 15 of the top 25 aerospace companies were based in the state. By 1987, a quarter of all aerospace jobs in the US were in California.
Specifically from a commercial aviation perspective, California was incredibly important. Down in San Diego, Convair 240s became the first in a long, successful line of Convair props. The fast-but-fuel-sucking Convair 880 and 990 jets rolled off the line there as well. Further north, Lockheed built its famous airliners. Electras, Constellations, and eventually L1011s rolled off the lines in Burbank and Palmdale. Douglas built every version of its props and all of its jets (save for some that were built in China) at its plants in Santa Monica and Long Beach.
The innovative minds and pioneering spirit that powered the industry were legendary. It was so important to the development of California that it has even been memorialized at Disney’s California Adventure. You’ll find names of and bios for many local heroes when you enter the Soarin’ Over California ride.
The last thirty years, however, have seen a dramatic shrinking of the industry. After the Cold War, defense spending plummeted. Manufacturers started to merge and headquarters disappeared from the state. Lockheed merged with Martin and moved to the latter’s Maryland headquarters. Northrop merged with Grumman and now is headquartered outside DC. Long before, Douglas had merged with McDonnell and had its home base shift to St Louis. But it wasn’t until Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas that the death knell was sounded for production in California.
We’ve all heard the stories before. California is not a business-friendly state. That’s particularly true for manufacturing operations where wages are naturally high (considering the high cost of living) and real estate is expensive. Between 1990 and 2011, two-thirds of the aerospace jobs in California disappeared.
As aircraft manufacturing dried up around the state, Long Beach became the last holdout. When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, the entire Douglas commercial line was terminated in short order except for the MD-95. That became the Boeing 717 and made it all the way to May 23, 2006. On that day, the last two were rolled across Lakewood Blvd on the east side of the airport and delivered to AirTran and Midwest. Commercial aircraft production in the state died that day.
But on the west side of the field, the military C-17 soldiered on. The C-17 is a beast of an airplane. It’s a massive military transport that is essential for the US military. The problem is that the military has all the C-17s it needs. Production peaked at 16 a year in 2009, but that has been ramping down every year since. The aircraft was marketed to foreign countries and orders did roll in — enough to keep the production going for longer than expected — but the end has finally arrived.
The last airplane to be delivered took off from Long Beach around midday on Sunday. I wasn’t back in town from Thanksgiving yet, but here’s a video of the departure from jason s.
It headed to Texas where it will undergo some more work before heading to its owner (Qatar) next year, but this marked the end of the program in California on Sunday. People have been laid off slowly, some have been relocated while others have gone on to other jobs. But now the only people needed are those who will wind down what remains of the factory. (Yes ongoing maintenance will still be done in Long Beach, but that’s at a different facility.)
While this is a moment of reflection, it’s not as bad as it may sound. There are still a great number of aerospace jobs in California that focus on making parts and designing technology for aircraft. And helicopters are still made in the state, as are drones. But that doesn’t reduce the significance of that last C-17 taking to the skies. It truly is the end of an incredible era that built California into what it is today.