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From Long Island, a Lesson in Life Without Aerospace

March 19, 1994|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHPAGE, N.Y. — The dual tracks of the Long Island Railroad cut right through the middle of the Grumman Corp. campus here, running alongside the abandoned runway, empty airplane hangars and shuttered factory buildings of this once-proud aerospace plant.

They don't build aircraft here anymore; the Hellcats and F-14s and lunar landing modules of years past are only a fond memory. And although 8,000 people still work here, the train doesn't stop at the Grumman station anymore. Long Island, and the late 20th Century, have passed this kind of factory by.

Ironically, Grumman Corp. is now at the center of a bidding battle between two other aerospace giants in the first defense-industry takeover fight since the Cold War ended. Martin Marietta and Northrop Corp. both believe that Grumman's expertise in defense electronics, computers and other areas is worth big money--up to $2 billion or more.

But the economic and cultural underpinnings of the "aerospace lifestyle"--the prototypical suburban existence so familiar to Southern Californians--have long been eroding here on Long Island, and will soon be gone for good. Grumman's new owner may not shut the flagship plant altogether, but big layoffs are likely, and much work will probably be moved to cheaper locations.

For many of the people involved, the changes are jolting, "the end of life as we know it," in the words of one Grumman engineer.

Yet, there is another side to this story that has a clear message for Southern California, where massive aerospace and defense layoffs have helped prolong a searing recession. Long Island has largely succeeded in weaning itself from the Pentagon's largess, replacing aerospace manufacturing jobs with service sector jobs in computers, medicine and other fields.

Indeed, there is something logical about disassembling a huge fighter-jet manufacturing facility that sits in the middle of a prosperous, densely populated suburb just 30 miles east of Manhattan. A Grumman transformed into a specialized subsidiary employing thousands of computer engineers would be a far better fit in the evolving local economy.

"Grumman was a large part of the life of Long Island, but the economic mix is changing and has to change," says Matthew Crosson, president of the Long Island Assn., a business and civic organization.

"Our principal selling point is a skilled and highly educated work force, competitive with any region in the country. . . . Historically, aerospace manufacturing has been quite a significant segment of the economy, but it's not so significant anymore."

That, of course, is small comfort to thousands of Grumman workers who are wondering what the future holds. Already, they have weathered cutbacks and transfers that have shrunk the Bethpage work force from a peak of 20,000 in 1987. Last month, the company said it would shutter its airplane assembly facility in nearby Calverton and move the remaining work to Florida.

For hundreds of Grumman sub-contractors, the prospects are equally uncertain. Fairchild-Republic, Long Island's other big aerospace concern, all but collapsed in the late 1980s, leaving Grumman the only game in town.

Thomas P. Smith, president of Aero Specialists Corp., a small parts maker in Deer Park, says his business is down 50% from 10 years ago. He fondly remembers the days of the lunar module, when "cost was no object" in the aerospace business. Now, though, "it's dog eat dog," Smith says, and the company's main customer is Sikorsky Aircraft, a helicopter builder in Connecticut.

At a deli across the road from the Grumman plant, three middle-aged Grumman engineers--easily identifiable in their plaid shirts and knit ties, pens neatly lined up in their pockets--were clear-eyed about their prospects.

None knew if they would have jobs after the takeover; nor did they know what kind of severance or pension benefits Northrop or Martin Marietta might offer.

Yet they shared a sense that their world of middle-class prosperity and patriotism was gone. "We're into aircraft," said a balding man in his 40s who, like his friends, refused to give his name. "We build aircraft. Top Gun--Tom Cruise running around in the sky, that's us. Is the country going to keep that, or is it a thing of the past?"

There is an understandable nostalgia for the good old days, when Grumman was one of a handful of pioneering aviation companies that built an enormous industry and helped win wars hot and cold.

Founded in 1930 by Navy aviator Leroy Grumman, the firm got its start building pontoons for seaplanes, and remained at the forefront of naval aviation for more than five decades.

Among its biggest achievements were the World War II Hellcat fighter, the F-14 carrier-based fighter, the E-2 and A-6 surveillance planes and the C-2 cargo plane. Its finest hour may have been in July, 1969, when the Grumman-built lunar landing module touched down on the moon.

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