Ghost Town: The end of the Douglas assembly line at Long Beach

It’s dark at 4.45am as I drive  through the side gate of the former Douglas Aircraft final assembly complex at Long Beach, California.

This would be the graveyard shift had I been working here, but now – in late April 2006 – that phrase carries with it all the hackneyed double meaning of a cheap horror movie.

I am here to witness a bit of history, and a sad moment at that. This morning, like a state execution before dawn, we are gathering to witness the roll out of the very last Boeing 717. The little T-tail jet is already sitting on the cold ramp outside Building 80 when I arrive.

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Its shiny domed fuselage reflecting the lurid blue and red neon of the iconic “Fly DC Jets” sign on the roof top overhead, this aircraft is truly the last of the line. Out of this building, and the adjacent Building 84, have rolled out since 1958 a staggering 556 DC-8s, 976 DC-9s and C-9s, 446 DC-10/KC-10s, 1,191 MD-80s, 115 MD-90s, 200 MD-11s and another 155 717s.

Workers young and not so young, on shift and off, emerge like ghosts from the pre-dawn blackness into the lurid pool of light thrown by portable spotlights over the jet. Gradually they cluster around the nose, group photographs being snapped amid a low murmur of conversation. Then it is time. A tow truck rumbles into life, and its lights come on as the driver moves it gingerly through the crowd. “Whoa…isn’t that the cleanest looking tow truck you’ve ever seen?” exclaims someone. The tow bar is hooked on and a voice barks uncomfortably through a bullhorn “everyone back behind the plane!”

In an almost trance-like state everyone obeys and the last of the line slowly begins its journey. The crowd of around 200 shuffles behind as the 717 is manoeuvred to the edge of the public road – Lakewood Blvd – which bisects this historic site. The road must be closed for a few minutes while the operation takes place, as it has done almost ceremoniously pre-dawn virtually without a break week in, week out for the past 48 years.

California Highway Patrol officers on motorbikes briefly set up a whirl of “whoop-whoop” sirens and brilliant lights to stop the traffic. The first hint of daylight is meanwhile creeping into the eastern sky as the 717 is trundled across the street. Someone says “where’s the noise?” But no-one is in the mood for cheering. Following that distinctive T-tail, everyone feels they are in a funeral cortege rather than a celebratory parade.

Not surprising, really  given the inevitable end of an era, and with it the  disappearance of so many jobs. Suddenly it is over. We watch the 717s tail vanish behind a blast fence as it is towed to the delivery ramp in readiness for testing and handover. No doubt the planned double delivery ceremony of the final two aircraft in May will be more about the celebration of the Douglas legacy, but right now the mood is one of grim resignation.

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But it is inside the cavernous, echoing, almost desolate interior of the once bustling Building 80 that the reality truly hits home. Here, where I once inspected rows of MD-80s, 90s and even 717s amidst the deafening tattoo of rivet guns, there is now empty silence. The long trench in the concrete along one wall of the building, dug to house the moving production line equipment, lies in mute testimony to the many brave innovations that were tried as the Long Beach line fought for its life.

Now, sadly for so many in Southern California, the fight is essentially over. Across the runway, for the time being at least, Boeing continues to build the mighty C-17. But for how long? As it stands, we shall be repeating the C-17 equivalent of the 717′s dawn salute in just two short years. That will truly be the end of not just major aircraft assembly at Long Beach, but throughout the whole of California – a thought once unthinkable in the cradle of the aerospace business.  Maybe its time for one of California’s last significantly viable industries to do something about it – a Hollywood blockbuster about “The Long Beach Blues and the death of Douglas.”

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