National Geographic : 2003 Dec
WICHITA, KANSAS applying sealant, and driving in rivets far from his command post. He pushes more buttons, and a different size drill instantly reports for duty. Being replaced by machines is one worry among many for Wichita's aviation workers. With the airline business hemorrhaging money since September 11, local aircraft plants have laid off about a quarter of their 45,000 employees. Relations between the company and labor unions have soured over the cutbacks, which some machinists blame on Boeing's out sourcing work to other companies and overseas. One night after work, several Boeing employees seek solace in a watering hole called Charlie's, a storefront bar and grill appointed with pool tables and airplane murals. David Bruce, a heavy-equipment operator, sits at the bar nursing a vodka on the rocks and striking out with the numbers on a lotto monitor. "I love Boeing," he says. "At least I used to. Now you always worry about job security. It's one thing to out source jobs to a local company. But they're sending work over to China for the cheap labor. I think it's un-American." (When asked to comment the next day, a Boeing spokesman responds that some nationalized airlines, like China's, require that the planes they buy be partly built in their own country.) The ups and downs come with the ter ritory in a city so dependent on a single industry. Growing up in Wichita, I witnessed the elation when Boeing won a fat contract, and the dejec tion when it lost one to an out-of-state competitor. Now it's a new, global ball game, with Boeing's chief competition coming from France - Toulouse, to be exact, home of Airbus. Recent scandals, budget and technical problems, and millions of dollars in lost contracts in Boeing's space and defense division have weakened the company and increased local anxiety, though Wichita may remain unscathed by these troubles. But not all the news is bleak. Boeing-Wichita does top secret weapons work for the U.S. military and performs periodic maintenance on Air Force One, antidotes to the mercurial private sector. The company is lengthening the 737-900 in response to Airbus's roomy model A321. Such sophisticated airliners have forebears in the collection of vintage planes displayed at the Kansas Aviation Museum, built in the 1930s as the Wichita Municipal Airport. Before coast-to-coast nonstop jet travel, the airport was a major pit stop between the coasts, offering locals glimpses of celebrities. Fred Astaire once delighted a crowd by dancing in the atrium while his plane refueled. Charles Lindbergh made the terminal a stop on his initial airmail route. Over the museum entrance, a bas-relief sculpture of Lindbergh's Spiritof St. Louis flies above ocean waves. At a condominium not far away, Beulah Barnes gets home every day around 4 p.m. She's 63, but her retirement date is now uncertain. Her son Brian-one of three sons who over the years have worked under the same roof with her-was laid off from his job as a sheet metal worker. "He just found out he's going to be the father of twin girls," says Beulah. "So I'll keep working and help him until he gets back on his feet." 0 A furry stress-buster named Gabby greets Beu lah when she gets home. More than 12,000 of her fellow aircraft workers in Wichita have been laid off since 9/11, a big blow even ina city accustomed to the ups and downs of a volatile Industry. Find more 67210 images along with field notes and resources at nationalgeo graphic.com/ngm/0312. Tell us why we should cover YOUR FAVORITE ZIP CODE at nationalgeographic .com/ngm/zipcode/0312.