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Boeing's massive C-17 cargo plane is manufactured in Long Beach, California. The sprawling plant there provides jobs for 5,000 workers, and it's one of the last vestiges of a once-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.

But Brian Watt of member station KPCC reports that a lot of folks in Long Beach are working very hard to make sure that doesn't happen.

BRIAN WATT: Boeing's Long Beach plant is more than a million square feet of modern assembly line efficiency.

(Soundbite of striking metal)

William Steube drives in a fastener on a pylon. He leads a team of six that work on an elevated section of the line.

Mr. WILLIAM STEUBE (Employee, Boeing): This is where we join the two halves of the wing together, and we put in a lot of systems.

WATT: How long have you been working here?

Mr. STEUBE: I've been here for 22 years, and I want to continue for another 10 at least. I've got kids to put through college still.

WATT: Straight out of Long Beach Poly 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.

Mr. STEUBE: It has allowed me to buy and provide for my family in a way that I never thought possible. I've been able to buy new vehicles, basically take vacations that I would never have been able to afford before. It's been an eye opener for me.

WATT: 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.

Mr. STEUBE: Oh, that wave when they first leave the tarmac, when they first take delivery of a C-17, they'll give us a wave. It's a side-to-side rocking motion of the wings. It's basically saying thank you and goodbye and we appreciate what you've done and provided for us as a customer. It's a wonderful thing to see.

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

Councilman ROBERT GARCIA (Long Beach, California): If the United States is going to keep some of its manufacturing base, considering what we've lost, we've got to start at home, and the C-17 is an important part of that.

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

(Soundbite of sirens)

WATT: On a golf cart tour of the Long Beach facility, C-17 spokesman Jerry Drelling says Boeing has produced the planes for Canada, the U.K., Australia and Qatar. It's on contract to deliver six to the United Arab Emirates. India might buy 10.

Mr. JERRY DRELLING (Spokesman, Boeing): Right now, as you know, budgets are tight everywhere and certainly with the U.S. government, 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.

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

Mr. DRELLING: The workforce here is one of the best in the world. It's advanced. You close a line down like this, you, you know, run the risk of losing a lot of those skill-sets for a long, long time.

WATT: 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 two-and-a-half more years worth of C-17s to build.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Watt.

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