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For SoCal aerospace workers, the end of an era — and a job

Martin Saldana, 51, and hundreds of other Boeing employees have lost their jobs in recent months

Martin Saldana, 51, walked out of the Long Beach Boeing plant for the last time Friday afternoon. Behind him were 29 years of steady work building commercial and military aircraft. Ahead of him: absolute uncertainty.

"I lose a lot of sleep," Saldana had told me earlier in the week, before helping his 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter with their homework. "I've still got to provide for them."

Saldana and hundreds of other Boeing employees have lost their jobs in recent months, as the company phases out the C-17 after making more than 270 of them. The U.S. military has all it needs of the low-bellied military transport planes, and foreign demand has dried up.

If Boeing sticks to its plans, the last C-17 will be finished by late summer, and in a region that was once an aerospace giant, an era will come to an end.

"This is the last large-scale manufacturing line making airplanes in Southern California," said USC professor Peter Westwick, author of "Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California."

"When it closes," said Westwick, "for the first time in 100 years, nobody will be actually making airplanes in Southern California."

Westwick put the closure in context:

Aerospace, he said, was always boom and bust here, following cycles of global conflict, cold wars and economic slumps. But rising land and labor costs, among other factors, moved manufacturing jobs to other states.

Los Angeles still builds satellites, drones and rockets. But those jobs are fewer in number and more white-collar than the massive assembly line operations that bolstered the local economy and lifted tens of thousands of families into the middle class.

So where does that leave the likes of Martin Saldana, an Air Force veteran who lives in Carson, across the street from a Shell tank farm and next door to the house he grew up in?

It leaves him with 13 weeks of severance pay and three months of medical coverage, and one rejection after another of the job applications he tenaciously fires off.

Saldana has always had three passions — baseball, trains and airplanes — and since he's about 30 years too old to begin a baseball career, he's trying desperately to get on with a railroad company.

But he struck out at Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Union Pacific rejected five of the six job applications he filed there, he said. The company doesn't mince words, either.

"Status: Not qualified," said one letter after he tested for a diesel mechanic opening.

"Thank you for taking the time to test with us. We have scored your test and regret to inform you that you have not met the minimum test requirements. Your interest in Union Pacific is appreciated. We wish you success in your future endeavors."

Saldana is hoping the sixth time is the charm. He's trying for a track laborer job that would pay $21 an hour.

"That would be ideal," he said — even though he's been making $39 an hour in his union job at Boeing. That's about $80,000 a year, and Saldana said there were years when he topped $100,000 by working seven days a week and taking all the overtime that was offered.

"Unfortunately, I've been spoiled," he said, but then he edited himself. He worked hard and had a number of highly skilled jobs at McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, he said. "I don't know if I want to call it spoiled. I've been fortunate for the last 29 years, and now I'm going to get a taste of the real economy."

The real economy isn't bad if you're highly educated and technically skilled, or if you work in hospitality or healthcare. But if you're 51, with only a community college degree like Saldana, it can be a living wage desert out there, with no concession to the high cost of Southern California living.

"It's all over," Saldana said of the time when good jobs were there for the taking. His late father, or Pops, as he calls him, worked at a tuna packing plant and raised a family on it. Who could have known that manufacturing and aerospace, backbones of the local economy, would get hit so hard?

Not that Saldana regrets his career choice. He was a teenager when he fell for the TV show "Baaa Baaa Black Sheep," starring Robert Conrad as a swaggering U.S. Marine Corps aviator. Saldana wanted some of that, so he joined the civil air patrol, learned how to fly and enlisted in the Air Force, where he worked as a jet mechanic.

One day in 1986, the year after his discharge, Saldana was driving on Lakewood Avenue and decided to pop into McDonnell Douglas to see if they needed any jet mechanics. No, they told him, but they had a job in the supply shop on a commercial airliner assembly line.

What a deal it was. A union job, good pay and benefits, and a pension. Saldana's will pay him about $2,000 a month before taxes, with no medical, but it won't kick in until he's 55.

So he needs work, and he needs it soon. Maybe he can become a welder, he told me in his kitchen, popping a slab of ribs into the slow cooker. Or maybe he can become a heavy-equipment operator.

But what if the rejections keep piling up?

"I might have to rent out some rooms of the house," he said.

His situation is not helped by the fact that he and his wife are in the midst of a divorce. She has primary custody of the kids, and he's got to keep coming up with support payments.

On Friday, when Saldana joined the handful of employees who punched out for the last time, Randy Sossaman, president of United Aerospace Workers Local 148, was there to shake his hand, as he is for all the departing employees.

Sossaman figures he'll be the last one out the door, and like many of the others, his future is uncertain. His knees are wrecked "from crawling around in airplanes for 30 years," and he wonders if any employer will want a broken-down guy of 52.

Saldana and Sossaman, who are buddies, had good reason to make plans for a drink Friday evening.

"Just give me a second here," Saldana said, choking up. "Twenty-nine years. It's tough. What can I say? It was not only memorable, but unforgettable."

Saldana wasn't the first departing employee to tell me he loved his job and regarded his co-workers as family. When the last C-17 rolls out later this year and does a flyover, soaring like a winged gray whale across the South Bay sky, Saldana plans to be there.

Earlier in the week, I asked him what thoughts he wrestles with at night, when he can't get to sleep.

He answered immediately.

"What's going to happen tomorrow?"

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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