Business & Economy

Long Beach Boeing C-17 plant moves to keep assembly line running

Outside Boeing's C-17 plant in Long Beach
Outside Boeing's C-17 plant in Long Beach
Brian Watt/KPCC

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From time to time, the Pentagon threatens to stop buying new C-17s. If it ever happens, it would shut down the assembly line in Long Beach — and bring an end to jetliner manufacturing in Southern California. A lot of people in Long Beach are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Boeing C-17 cargo plane carries tanks, soldiers or disaster relief supplies to just about any place in the world. A smooth concrete runway or a strip of dirt – it doesn’t matter, the C-17 can land on either one.

Boeing’s Long Beach plant is more than a million square feet of modern assembly-line efficiency. About 5,000 people come to work here every day to build the C-17.

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

"This is where we join the two halves of the wing together, and we put in a lot systems," Steube shouts over the assembly plant noise. Steube has worked at the Boeing Long Beach plant for 22 years.

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

Straight out of shop classes at Long Beach Poly High School, Steube entered a Boeing training program for mechanics for $9.69 an hour. He became a team leader two years later. Now, at age 40, Steube earns more than $30 an hour. He married his high school sweetheart, and they have five kids. Three of them have gone to private school, thanks to his gig at Boeing.

"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, take vacations that I’ve never been able to afford before," says Steube. "It’s been an eye opener for me. "

Steube also loves the challenge of the work. 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. When they first take delivery of the C-17, they’ll give us a wave. It’s a side-to-side rocking motion of the wings. 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,'" says Steube, noting that he takes in the take-off whenever he can. "It’s a wonderful thing to see."

Steube and Boeing’s main customer is the U.S. Air Force. Some highly placed government officials – one in particular – say the Air Force has enough C-17s. In February, in a speech about the budget for the next fiscal year, President Obama cited the C-17 as an example of an unnecessary defense program.

"Four years ago, the Defense Department decided to cease production because it had acquired the number requested – 180," the president explained. "Yet every year since, Congress has provided unrequested money for more C-17s that the Pentagon doesn’t want or need. It’s waste, pure and simple."

This year’s Defense budget allots $2.5 billion to build 10 C-17s. The parts come from suppliers in 44 states, ensuring a broad base of support in Congress. Long Beach has the biggest stake in the cargo plane. When the C-17 is on the chopping block, teams of Long Beach defenders head to Washington – people like City Councilman Robert Garcia. He starts with C-17’s importance to national security and to humanitarian missions. Then he talks about jobs.

"In this type of economy, and with the commitment of the president being so focused on jobs, you’re talking about good paying jobs for the region, for the L.A. basin, for the Long Beach area, that are in manufacturing," says Garcia. "If the United States is going to keep some of its manufacturing base, considering what we’ve lost, we’ve gotta start at home. 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.

Boeing C-17 spokesman Jerry Drelling says Canada, the U.K., Australia and Qatar all own C-17s. India has expressed an interest in buying 10. The U.S. government must approve such a deal.

Drelling acknowledges budgets are tight everywhere – and certainly with the U.S. government.

"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 you end the C-17, you give up a lot of technical know-how.

"The workforce here is one of the best in the world. 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," says Drelling.

Boeing team leader William Steube may have to face a fear he harbors despite 22 years of job security.

"I’ve always worried about where I’d be without the job that I have today. I’ve always worried about being unemployed, and not being able to provide for my family," says Steube. "Those are probably my biggest worries that I have out there."

Boeing is already slowing down its production rate from 15 C-17s a year to 10. With no more foreign orders, that’ll keep the Long Beach facility open for two-and-a-half more years.