County Has Rich History of Attracting Aerospace Firms

Times Staff Writer

On a Sunday afternoon in October, 1963, Michele and Bob Roof climbed into their Chevrolet and drove 45 miles from their home in Santa Monica to Huntington Beach. They were eager to get a glimpse of Douglas Aircraft’s new aerospace plant, where they would begin working the next month.

To Michele Roof, 20 and newly married, the unfamiliar landscape of Orange County seemed a world away from the Santa Monica neighborhood where her family had lived for three generations. Her uncle and grandfather had begun working at Douglas’ Santa Monica airplane factory in 1934. Her father had worked in the plant’s purchasing department during World War II, and her mother had been an office worker there for 20 years. “I was the first one to leave the fold,” says Michele Roof, recalling her grandfather’s protest over the idea of her moving “so far away” from home.

“Huntington Beach was 45 miles away. It was like the middle of nowhere. But it was exciting for me and my husband. We were young, and it was completely new and different. We wanted to see the new plant and find out what the drive would be like. We didn’t want to get lost the first day we started work.”


Driving along unpaved Bolsa Avenue, the Roofs, who now live in Huntington Beach, passed a dairy farm and herds of grazing sheep. There were few houses or apartments, certainly no shopping centers.

Developers Move In

In the years to come, the dairy farm and sheep ranch would disappear as developers acquired the land near the plant to build apartments, homes, office buildings, car dealerships, restaurants and shopping malls. The Huntington Beach facility, which was renamed McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. after the 1967 merger of Douglas Aircraft and McDonnell Aircraft Co., has grown from an initial group of several hundred employees to one of about 8,300.

Similar transformations were taking place throughout Orange County in the early 1960s as a budding aerospace and defense industry became a catalyst for growth. Orange County was the beneficiary of a wave of diversification and expansion throughout the Southern California aerospace industry.

The Southland’s aerospace industry had grown up in the 1930s when such companies as Douglas Aircraft, Lockheed and North American Aviation established operations in and around Los Angeles. Low business taxes, a large labor pool and Southern California’s mild weather--ideal for flight-testing aircraft--were among the factors that attracted the industry to the region.

During World War II, the aerospace industry became big business as manufacturers cranked out bombers and other military aircraft. The war also brought the development of new technologies that changed the nature of the aerospace business and played a major role in the development of the industry in Orange County.

One of those technologies involved unmanned missiles, first developed by the Germans near the end of World War II. After the war, the United States and its wartime allies, with the help of German rocket scientists who relocated here, expanded their research into unmanned aircraft and guided missiles.


Land and Workers

As Southern California’s aerospace industry grew during the 1950s, several major companies with operations near Los Angeles found themselves in need of more land and more workers. Orange County, an area with a rich aviation history, offered plenty of both. The aerospace industry brought tens of thousands of jobs and rapid growth to the county. Over the years, it also has been responsible for layoffs and unemployment resulting from slumps in the nation’s economy and drops in military spending.

In 1960, the county had an estimated 22,000 aerospace workers, and many more were employed in related industries. By 1970, aerospace employment had almost tripled, with 62,000 working in the industry. By early 1989, that figure had climbed to 96,000. The number of employees in the industry has been growing since the 1981-82 economic recession, when there was a small dip in the number of jobs. The aerospace industry now supplies an estimated 8.1% of all non-agricultural jobs in the county, down from 11% in 1972.

The first major aerospace company to come to Orange County was Northrop Aircraft, now Northrop Corp. In June, 1951, Northrop announced plans to locate a plant off Orangethorpe Avenue in Anaheim, citing the area’s growing labor force, favorable tax rates and desirable residential communities as reasons for the move from Hawthorne.

To meet the demands of the war in Korea, the company had to have a usable plant in less than three months. On 33 acres of land where oranges once grew, Northrop erected a facility for its Nortronics Division--now the Electro-Mechanical Division--where optical gun sights would be produced to help the Army’s T-41 tank crews zero in on enemy tanks.

“It was like a new frontier,” recalls Arnie Moore, a veteran Northrop executive who in 1951 transferred to the Anaheim plant from Hawthorne. “And there was no smog.”

Other large aerospace companies soon followed Northrop. At the same time, an increasing number of smaller aerospace concerns, many of them suppliers to the larger companies, sprang up throughout the county.


Bought in Fullerton

In 1957, Hughes Aircraft Co. paid $6 million for a large chunk of property in Fullerton--426 acres of barren field and rolling hills overlooking orange groves. “It (the property) was the best bargain we ever found,” says George Cokas, a recently retired Hughes group vice president who was among the original group of Fullerton employees.

“There was a shepherd herding his flock. I couldn’t believe it,” says Stan Cutter, who has worked in Hughes’ publication and design department since 1960. “Every now and then a wild pheasant would cross the road, and I thought, ‘Gee, what a great place to work. It’s like being in the country.’ Then one day (several years later) you saw the bulldozers and earthmovers coming, and you knew that was the end of the sheepherder.”

The pastoral setting of the new plant prompted Hughes employees in Los Angeles County to jokingly refer to their Fullerton colleagues as “country cousins.”

Hughes initially moved 400 people from its Culver City laboratory to Fullerton to work on a new technology known as frequency-scanning radar, a 3-D system that was used aboard Navy missile carriers to zero in on enemy aircraft. At the time, the Hughes radar system was hailed as one of the biggest advances in electronic detection since the development of radar itself in World War II.

Employment at the Hughes plant reached 3,300 in 1957 and peaked at 16,000 in 1983. By spring of 1989, the number of workers had dropped to 13,700.

The growing importance of missiles to the aerospace business was reflected in Ford Motor Co.’s 1958 decision to locate its Aeroneutronics defense and space subsidiary in Orange County. Ford moved several hundred engineers and other employees from its crowded facility in Glendale to a 200-acre site in Newport Beach. At the time, the Aeroneutronics group was working on the Shillelagh guided missile, the main armament for the Army’s Gen. Sheridan armored reconnaissance assault vehicle.


Move to Anaheim

In 1960, North American Rockwell, having outgrown its sprawling facility in Downey, moved its Autonetics Division to a new 230-acre facility in Anaheim. The initial work force of 250 people, housed in one building, grew to 4,700 in six buildings by the spring of 1963. The grounds were designed to resemble a college campus, with gardens, trees and lots of open space, which company officials thought would help them recruit Ph.D. researchers to the facility.

Over the years, the Autonetics Division has been involved in such work as guidance systems for the Minuteman nuclear missile and submarines, and navigation and control equipment for aircraft. Autonetics employees also have worked on NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle programs and on the Air Force’s B-1B bomber.

While missiles provided one way for aircraft manufacturers to diversify their businesses, another market emerged after the Soviet Union inaugurated the Space Age with the Oct. 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik I, the first satellite to orbit the earth. Stunned at the Soviet lead in space rockets, the United States quickly launched an effort to catch up. By the early 1960s, the space race was in full swing, and Orange County went along for the ride.

Overcrowding at North American Rockwell’s Downey plant led to the company’s 1962 decision to move its new Space Division to quarters on Navy-owned property in Seal Beach. The facility’s first contract was to build a portion of the Saturn 1 rocket.

On Nov. 14, 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Huntington Beach to dedicate Douglas Aircraft’s huge Space Systems Center, a $42-million facility built on 245 acres off Bolsa Avenue.

A crucial event for the Douglas plant came in 1965, when President Johnson announced that the company had been selected as prime contractor for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The MOL was designed as a two-man space laboratory that could remain in orbit for up to 30 days. The purpose of the multibillion-dollar program, Johnson said, was to obtain “new knowledge about what man is able to do in space” and to “relate that ability to the defense of America.”


But the “spy-in-the-sky” spacecraft was never launched. In June, 1969, the Air Force scrapped the MOL program. The cancellation forced McDonnell Douglas to lay off or transfer more than 3,000 Huntington Beach workers.

Even Worse News

The disappointment caused by the MOL cancellation would be followed in the early 1970s by even worse news for the aerospace industry. A dramatic industry slowdown hit the county hard in 1970. By December, 1970, the county’s unemployment rate had jumped to a 12-year high of 7.7%, with nearly 10,700 aerospace jobs having vanished during the year.

A striking example of the aerospace industry downturn was the saga of Rockwell’s ill-fated building--generally called the Ziggurat because of its terrace design--in Laguna Niguel. In 1967, Rockwell officials announced with great fanfare plans to build “the world’s largest electronics plant under one roof” near the intersection of Aliso Creek and La Paz roads.

At the building’s ground breaking in December, 1968, then-County Supervisor Alton Allen hailed the development as the start of a new era for the south county: “The south part of Orange County will never be the same after today. It can’t be. The growth is bound to come now.”

The supervisor was right about the growth that would come to the south county--but it didn’t happen because of the Rockwell building.

The $23-million facility was not yet finished when Rockwell fell victim to a sharp downturn in the defense industry. After reaching a peak of about 32,000 employees in 1968, employment at the Autonetics Division, which was heavily dependent on defense work, plummeted to 17,000 by mid-1970 and to 6,300 by 1978.


Rockwell’s showcase building in Laguna Niguel was put up for sale in 1971. After a three-year search for a buyer, Rockwell finally arranged a swap with the federal government’s General Services Administration. The GSA took over the Laguna Niguel building in 1974, and Rockwell received title to several government-owned properties it already was occupying in Southern California.

One bright spot for the county’s aerospace industry in the early 1970s was McDonnell Douglas Astronautics’ contract to build a major portion of Skylab, an orbiting scientific workshop that carried three astronauts into space for several weeks in 1973. The program meant hundreds of new jobs at the Huntington Beach facility.

Through the years, the county’s aerospace industry has continued to feel the ups and downs of the national economy and Pentagon budgets. Although the county’s aerospace firms remain heavily dependent on military contracts, some have sought to decrease that dependency by seeking more commercial business.

AEROSPACE FIRMS IN COUNTY Aerospace companies with operations in Orange County, ranked by number of county employees.

Company Location Employees Hughes Aircraft Fullerton 13,700 Rockwell International Anaheim, 11,000 McDonnell Douglas Huntington Beach 8,281 Parker Bertea Aerospace Irvine 3,400 Ford Aerospace Newport Beach 3,200 Northrop Anaheim 1,600

Source: Companies and Orange County Chamber of Commerce