End of an Era: Boeing in Final Stages of Leaving Wichita

July 30--Boeing's massive auction last week of thousands of items in three hangar bays was one of the final steps in closing the Wichita site and ending its more than 85-year history here.

The final Air Force jet to receive maintenance at Boeing Wichita, an E-4B, flew out in June. Since then, a small crew has been working to tie up loose ends.

Much of that will be finished by the end of this week, the company said. A small crew will stay on to maintain the sprawling facilities until the Boeing property is sold.

The bulk of Boeing Wichita's work has moved to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Seattle area. Most of its 2,100 Wichita employees are gone. They have moved with Boeing, have been laid off or have retired.

Russ Pickering worked at Boeing Wichita for 12 years.

"When Boeing first said they were going to leave, it made me angry," Pickering said. "But once I thought it over, it made me sad. It provided for my family. ... I saw us build some great things."

Over the years, Boeing has done a lot for the community, he said. It provided a significant payroll and supported many service projects, said Pickering, who is retired.

Boeing's closing in Wichita is the end of an era.

"I don't know what the good Lord's got planned," Pickering said. "But it's about over."

Boeing has been a key employer in Wichita since 1927. At one time, it employed as many as 40,000 people, and for decades, it was the state's largest private employer.

The site was a vital center of military production during World War II, building trainers and the B-29 Superfortress, and helping the city become known as the Air Capital of the World.

From 1927 to 1962, Boeing Wichita produced 15,000 aircraft and delivered more than 4,000 modified airplanes, the company said. Over the years, it built parts of every Boeing commercial jet and maintained and modified military aircraft, including Air Force One.

In 2005, Boeing shuttered the commercial aircraft division, the largest portion of its Wichita operation, which became Spirit AeroSystems. It still retained its military work at the site.

In January 2012, Boeing announced it was closing its Wichita facilities altogether and moving engineering work and program management to Oklahoma City, maintenance work to San Antonio and tanker work to the Puget Sound area in Washington state.

It put its sprawling site at Oliver and 47th South up for sale. Aviation sources say a sale may be getting close.

The decision to close was made as military programs at the plant matured, came to a close or were winding down with few prospects for new work.

"We were looking at our business and where we saw defense budgets moving ... and concluded that the scale of the operation in comparison to the work statement was inconsistent," said Scott Strode, vice president and general manager of maintenance, modifications and upgrades for Boeing's Global Services and Support division. "It drove affordability issues for the future, and we had to take the actions to remain competitive."

With Boeing's long history in Wichita and because it affected so many lives, "it is a decision we didn't take lightly," Strode said.

'Really sad'

Joe Mitchem, a maintenance mechanic, worked for Boeing Wichita for 36 years before he said he was laid off a month ago.

Of the seven members in his family, six have worked for Boeing Wichita, including himself, his mother, father, a sister and two brothers.

"It's pretty unbelievable, and it's really sad," Mitchem said of the closing.

"I saw a lot of airplanes come through here," Mitchem said last week inside a hangar that once held airplanes but was the site of the auction of Boeing equipment.

Preparing the site for closure has been difficult, he said. He helped shipped some of the equipment to other sites.

"It was emotionally tough kicking it all out the door," Mitchem said.

With the auction, "everything is gone," Mitchem said.

"It's the end of an era," he said. "Somebody will probably move back in here, but you don't know who or what."

Community impact

With the closing, Boeing loaded 15 to 20 semitrailers with office supplies, chairs, tables, pencils, refrigerators and microwaves to give to charity groups, said one employee. It gave two loads of office supplies to Topeka schools that serve low-income students, he said.

Boeing has had a long history in Wichita and "probably can claim some involvement in every ... initiative or philanthropic effort in this community for most of the last century," said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce. "They've had a huge impact on our community."

Boeing has been engaged with the chamber in areas such as economic development, Young Professionals of Wichita and in a variety of sponsorships, Plummer said.

Despite its closing, Boeing will still have a presence and an impact on Wichita, he said, through its large base of area suppliers.

"Based on that, I hope that Boeing will always maintain a community relationship," he said. "We've certainly seen that thus far at the chamber."

There's no question that Boeing played a significant role in the nonprofit community, said Pat Hanrahan, president of the United Way of the Plains. He said Boeing supported a host of nonprofit and service efforts.

"Boeing used to give us, for example, four full-time (loaned executives) for the entire length of the campaign," Hanrahan said. "They were going out and helping us make calls. It's hard to make a value to that, other than it's significant."

In 2004, before the commercial aircraft division was spun off into Spirit AeroSystems, combined employee and corporate giving to United Way totaled $3.65 million.

During United Way's annual campaigns, "I can remember campaigning on all three shifts" at Boeing, he said. "I was out there at 2 a.m., because they were just as busy (then) as they were at 8 a.m."

Boeing had a corporate culture that encouraged employees to serve on committees and boards of local nonprofits, he said. They coached youth sports teams and volunteered their time in many ways.

Spirit AeroSystems also is a good corporate citizen, he said, but it's a relatively new and growing company.

"Boeing was a very mature company, and it took years to build many of the programs they had in place," he said.

United Way won't feel a direct impact from the Boeing closure when comparing last year's campaign to this one, Hanrahan said.

"But compared to the last 10 or 20 years, it's significant," he said.

Losing about 2,000 jobs, the number of employees Boeing had when the closure was announced, is not a small thing for the community, Plummer said.

"Certainly, it should only reinforce our desire to try to create jobs in the area," he said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

Copyright 2014 - The Wichita Eagle

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