America came of age and the U.S. aircraft industry became a recognized force to contend with when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927. The Spiritwas based on the Ryan M-2 mail carrier modified to increase its range. The Spirit of St. Louiswas also one of the most advanced and aerodynamically streamlined designs of its era. It was designed by Donald Hall of the aircraft manufacturer Ryan Airlines located in San Diego, California. From this point forward, California became one of the premier centers of aerospace design, development and production.
That history may be coming to an end. The only remaining aircraft of significant size — military or commercial — being built in California is the C-17. Without question the C-17 is the world’s premier large transport aircraft. Officially, the Department of Defense does not plan to order any more C-17s. In fact, the Secretary of Defense has warned that he would recommend President Obama veto a defense bill that contained money for additional C-17s. Only foreign sales can keep the production line alive. Boeing has received orders from a number of countries for C-17s including the U.K., India and the U.A.E. Others may be in the offing, particularly if the Airbus A400 transport program is unsuccessful. Even if the A400 reaches production, it is much less of an airplane than the C-17. Unfortunately, in an era of declining defense spending by the West, there is a risk when the sole support for a defense production line is foreign military sales. Of course, the lack of strong support by the administration for overseas sales of U.S. military equipment doesn’t help.
If the C-17 line closes it will be a watershed event for the U.S. aerospace industry and California. It will mark the end of the production of both large aircraft of any type and all military airplanes in the state. It will continue the exodus of high-end manufacturing from the Golden State. Other parts of the aerospace industry sector are also leaving the state for friendlier places. California still maintains a significant position in aerospace R&D but this too can be expected to decline as those involved in defining form follow the hardware functions out of state.
Equally significant, until, or unless, a new strategic bomber is actually built, it will be the “end of the line” for the production of a large military aircraft. Despite the public perception that an airplane is an airplane is an airplane this is not true. There are opportunities to modify commercial platforms to serve military missions — examples include the P-8 Poseidon and the KC-X tanker — which in itself poses significant challenges. But designing and building a purpose built military aircraft is different. This is one area where a shrinking defense industrial base may result in the loss of critical design and development skills.
In addition, the end of C-17 production will mean the closure of one of only three U.S. advanced military aircraft production lines. Yes, the U.S. is still making F-15s, 16s and 18s for the export market. The C-130J is an amazing transport but one based on a venerable basic design. These are all older generation platforms, albeit upgraded as a result of significant enhancements. The F-22 line will soon shut. That leaves only two aircraft lines: the V-22, currently active, and the forthcoming F-35. That is it.
California’s loss will also be the nation’s. In addition, in an era of changing threats and declining defense budgets the closure of the C-17 line does not bode well either for the U.S. aerospace industry or for future national security.
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