Prospects are brightening for Boeing Co.'s once-threatened C-17 aircraft factory in Long Beach, where 5,000 workers could find themselves employed for several more years -- if not longer.
The factory is home to the last major airplane production line left in Southern California. For decades, the region was the nation's bastion of aircraft manufacturing, with plants from Burbank to San Diego rolling out planes hourly.
After years of uncertainty, analysts said this week that in all likelihood the Air Force would purchase more of the chubby cargo carriers, extending the life of the sprawling assembly line.
It was slated to close in summer 2010 with the rollout of the last of the massive four- engine transports that the Air Force had ordered so far.
But with President Obama last month singling out the program for funding and with Pentagon planners deciding not to include it among a list to cancel or cut, that would "seem to guarantee that more planes will be bought," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
The rosy outlook came as several hundred mechanics and technicians on Friday stopped working briefly to watch Hungarian generals and other European dignitaries drive ceremonial rivets into a C-17 that was under construction. The plane was one of three that a consortium of 11 European countries had purchased last year. In an unusual setup similar to a time share, the group plans to split the cost and share use of the planes.
Boeing has been pushing foreign sales as a way to help prolong the production line, but the prospect of a large purchase from its biggest customer, the Air Force, has provided a burst of optimism among the rank and file. The Air Force has purchased 184 of the 198 planes made so far. Britain, Australia and Canada have also acquired the planes, which cost about $200 million each.
"Any time you have the president of the United States make an announcement and single you out that you are an essential military equipment that needs to be supported, it does improve morale," said Jean Chamberlin, the C-17's program manager.
Since it began rolling out of the plant next to Long Beach Airport in the early 1990s, the four-engine C-17 Globemaster III has been a workhorse for the U.S. military, transporting troops, supplies and casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as being used in humanitarian supply missions after natural disasters.
But with tight Pentagon budgets, squeezed by the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force stopped ordering C-17s two years ago.
Since then, Congress has made last-minute earmarks to keep the plant rolling.
The program has widespread bipartisan support in Congress because it sustains 650 suppliers in more than 40 states employing 30,000 workers.
Chamberlin said Friday that the company has told so-called long-lead suppliers to keep making parts for the C-17 in anticipation of more orders. It takes about 34 months from the production of the first part to final assembly.
Boeing has also recently begun pushing a new version of the C-17 that the Army could use for tactical missions such as delivering equipment and supplies directly to the battlefield.
"We've always maintained a certain amount of belief that the program would continue on," said Jeff McQueen, a 19-year veteran of the plant and a manager who oversees riveting of major sections of the plane.
But he said Obama's comments about the C-17 program "kind of made us feel good. It gave us a fighting chance."