What on Earth happened to the globe?
That's the question being asked in Long Beach, where America's first modern aircraft factory could soon be converted into houses and offices.
Boeing Co. wants permission to tear down the famed Douglas Aircraft Co. production plant and headquarters so a $1-billion commercial and residential village called Douglas Park can be built there.
Planners for Boeing Realty Corp. say the development next to the Long Beach Airport will pay homage to thousands of aircraft workers who toiled at the 261-acre site.
That's why they're hunting for the 16-foot copper globe that for decades stood as a company symbol above the plant's main entrance. They want to make it the development's centerpiece.
The eye-catching globe -- which depicted the Earth's continents with dark metal cutouts -- was encircled by a jauntily tilted band that swept past three soaring airplanes.
The miniature planes initially were models of the Douglas World Cruiser. They were two-seater, open-cockpit biplanes built by Donald Douglas that in 1924 were the first planes to fly around the world.
There was a race at the time between the United States and Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany to be the first to circumnavigate the globe. The American team used planes built in Los Angeles by Douglas.
Seventy refueling and maintenance ground stations were set up in various countries to service Douglas' planes during the 27,000-mile expedition. The five-month trip ended in victory at Santa Monica's Clover Field.
In 1930, a proud Douglas selected the globe with its tiny biplanes as the company's logo. Underneath the globe were the words, "First Around the World." The logo was updated in 1935 with three more modern-looking aircraft replacing the biplanes.
Nonetheless, Donald Douglas ordered craftsmen to build tiny models of the World Cruiser for the 1-ton globe that he placed over the entrance to the Long Beach plant that he built in 1941.
The warplane factory was considered the county's most up-to-date production plant. Designed without windows so it could operate 24 hours a day during World War II blackout conditions, it was the nation's first air-conditioned manufacturing facility.
Special double-door entryways allowed planes and equipment to be moved in and out at night without light escaping from the 1.4-million-square-foot work space.
Bomb shelters for the thousands of workers were part of the plant.
Special camouflage netting suspended over the plant's 11 buildings gave the place the look of a residential neighborhood, complete with houses and landscaped yards and streets, when viewed from above.
Since many young men had been called up to fight, women made up more than half of the assembly crew. Experts later concluded that the role of "Rosie the Riveter," as female workers were sometimes called, forever changed the culture of the American workplace.
At the war's peak, the Long Beach plant turned out a finished airplane every hour, including the workhorse C-47 "Skytrain." It was the versatile military version of the popular DC-3 and was used in each of the war's theaters of operation. Other planes built there included attack bombers and B-17s produced under a wartime license from Boeing.
After the war, a variety of military planes and commercial jetliners were assembled in Long Beach.
In 1967 Douglas Aircraft combined with the McDonnell Aircraft Co., and 30 years later McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing. In 1999, most of the Long Beach plant and headquarters was shut down.
Through it all, stylized versions of the globe and its airplanes -- a rocket was later added to symbolize the Space Age -- were preserved as the merged companies' logos.
But the big globe perched next to Lakewood Boulevard outside the old plant has disappeared.
Boeing officials say it was last seen about 40 years ago, when it was apparently removed as part of a factory refurbishing project. Some old-timers say they remember it being sent to a Douglas plant in Torrance for storage. Others recall it being taken to a salvage yard.
Former aircraft engineering worker Jim Turner, who now is a volunteer archivist for Boeing, said that unless the globe's valuable copper was melted down for manufacturing use, "somebody must know where it went."
Turner, who retired four years ago after 33 years at the plant, remembers riding past with his parents when he was 5 years old. "The globe was just about the only ostentatious thing in the plant. Everything else was pretty utilitarian," he said.
Boeing staff historian Patricia McGinnis says company records do not indicate where the globe went. She has searched the shuttered plant's storerooms and cubbyholes for it, but to no avail.
"I'm trying to collect as much as I can before these buildings are torn down," McGinnis said.
Opponents of the redevelopment project, meantime, say they are prepared to fight the Douglas Park proposal when it comes before Long Beach city planners and council members for review this summer.
The site's proximity to Long Beach Airport and problems with traffic congestion and noise make it unsafe and unhealthy for residential use, project foe Gene Lassers said. A facilities manager for a nonprofit group, Lassers lives near the project area.
Jim Schulte, a Boeing Realty manager, disagrees. He said the project would bring needed housing and jobs to Long Beach. It has been scaled back from a proposed 3,800 residential units to 1,400, Schulte said. And its old name, PacificCenter@Long Beach, has been dropped.
The new proposal is smaller and friendlier, he said. And if the historic copper orb can be put in a place of honor between the project's commercial and residential neighborhoods, it will give a well-deserved nod to generations of Douglas workers, Schulte said.
But where in the world is that globe?