Workers Fear End Of Boeing's C-17 Cargo Plane

Dover Air Force Base's first Boeing C-17 cargo plane, made in Long Beach, Calif., arrived in 2007. i i

hide captionDover Air Force Base's first Boeing C-17 cargo plane, made in Long Beach, Calif., arrived at the base in 2007. Today, the production of the C-17 is in peril, but Boeing is fighting to keep it alive.

U.S. Air Force/AP
Dover Air Force Base's first Boeing C-17 cargo plane, made in Long Beach, Calif., arrived in 2007.

Dover Air Force Base's first Boeing C-17 cargo plane, made in Long Beach, Calif., arrived at the base in 2007. Today, the production of the C-17 is in peril, but Boeing is fighting to keep it alive.

U.S. Air Force/AP

Boeing's sprawling plant in Long Beach, Calif., that makes the C-17 cargo plane provides jobs for 5,000 workers. It's one of the last vestiges of what once was a thriving aerospace industry in Southern California.

But the plane's future is in doubt. President Obama has cited it as a prime example of wasteful defense spending and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he wants the program to end.

A lot of folks in Long Beach are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen.

'I've Got Kids To Put Through College'

William Steube drives in a fastener on a pylon in a plant that covers more than 1 million square feet. He leads a team of six that work on an elevated section of the assembly line, putting wings together and implementing systems. He says he's worked there for 22 years.

"I want to continue here for another 10 at least," he says. "I've got kids to put through college still."

Straight out of Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Steube started as a Boeing mechanic. He became a team leader two years later. Now, at age 40, Steube earns more than $30 an hour.

"It has allowed me to buy and provide for my family in a way that I never thought possible," he says. "I've been able to buy new vehicles, take vacations that I've never been able to afford before. It's been an eye opener."

About once a month, a new C-17 takes off from the Long Beach plant. The pilot does a little tilt of the wings to the workers watching below.

"Oh, that wave when they first leave the tarmac — it's basically a way of saying, 'Thank you and goodbye,' and, 'We appreciate what you've done and provided for us as a customer,'" Steube says. "It's a wonderful thing to see."

Boeing Tries To Export C-17

The C-17 has been a wonderful thing for the workers in Long Beach, and for suppliers in some 44 states who make its parts. And when the program is threatened — as it has been off and on in recent years — key defenders bring their arguments in favor of the C-17 to Washington, D.C.

Long Beach City Councilman Robert Garcia is one of those defenders.

"If the United States is going to keep some of its manufacturing base, considering what we've lost, we've gotta start at home," Garcia says. "And the C-17 is a part of that."

Now, Boeing is moving aggressively to export the C-17 to keep the assembly line going.

On a golf cart tour of the Long Beach facility, C-17 spokesman Jerry Drelling says Boeing has produced the planes for Canada, the United Kingdon, Australia and Qatar. It's on contract to deliver six of them to the United Arab Emirates. India might buy 10. The U.S. embassy in New Delhi announced Monday that Congress was notified last week of the possible sale.

"Right now, as you know, budgets are tight everywhere — and certainly with the U.S. government," Drelling says. "But we believe that if we can extend this line further with international orders — that gives the U.S. Air Force and Congress more time to get a real handle on what the nation's airlift requirements are."

Drelling says if the C-17 program ends, the U.S. gives up a lot of technical know-how.

"The workforce here is one of the best in the world," he says. "It's advanced. You close a line like this, you run the risk of losing a lot of those skills sets for a long, long time."

Boeing is already slowing down its production rate from 15 C-17s a year to 10. If more orders don't come in from foreign countries — and the U.S. stops buying, the Long Beach facility knows it has only 2-and-a-half more years worth of C-17s to build.

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