Wed, May

LA's Good Bones: Reverse Engineering the Decline of LA Aerospace


MAILANDER’S LA - A whole industry group lay dormant, waiting for local politicians to pick up the reins, even while LA's labor market languishes.

Who has even spoken to it? Who can best sell the Obama Administration on LA's top gun aeronautic bones?

In Southern California, local media have been more interested in unmanned Google cars than they have in unmanned aircraft.  Media have been quick to argue the ethos of something that doesn't really exist in production while the market for drones and drone applications is here now, and is surging.

But a recent aviation-sponsored study guessed that a successful exploitation of a single drone test contract could bring 12,000 jobs--good, economically solid, high-paying jobs--to the LA/Ventura region by 2017.

There are a lot of aerospace contracts coming down the pipe.  In the case of the drone project, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is presently considering making California one of six sites for tests of unmanned aircraft.

At a drone conference this past Wednesday, participants spoke of the benefits of bringing drone flight research to Southern California. 

“As we identify landing and recovery (airports within the test site), they may become small hubs of innovation and technology companies will migrate to them as well,” Todd McNamee, director of airports for Ventura County, told the conference. 

Ventura County and Kern County have applied to the FAA to become drone test sites.  Los Angeles County, even with its profound aeronautics legacy and its hopes for developing an airport in the north County, did not apply.

With the retirement of Congresswoman Jane Harman, Los Angeles County no longer has a strong and tireless advocate in Congress for bringing aerospace jobs here.

I'm told by an industry analyst that even with the sequester, there are two large new aircraft acquisition programs coming down the pipe, and LA might get caught flatfooted pursuing them.  One is the T-X (trainer-experimental) program for a new supersonic jet trainer, and the other is the LRS-B (long range strike-bomber) for a new strategic aircraft.

Aviation Week has profiled both programs.  They are happening.

Los Angeles City and County now have a far from insignificant yet also far more modest aerospace presence compared to the heyday of aerospace.  Ironically, so many of the defense airplanes that the Administration will replace were made here, including the B-1/B-2 and T-38, in southland cities from Palmdale to Hawthorne, with hundreds of City of LA based suppliers and subcontractors assisting the effort.

But the residuals alone are compelling enough to put LA in a good position to bring it all back.  Los Angeles Air Force Base, Edwards Air Force Base, Point Magu Naval Air Station, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are still standing and still serving as active testimonials to the potency of LA's great aeronautical bones.  And the first US aerospace start-up since the Cold War--Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies--knew where it should hang its hat: not Texas, or Florida, or anywhere else in the South, but right here in Southern California.

As the decline of the aerospace industry in the 1990's paralleled the time of LA's top troubles (riot, earthquake) through the early Clinton years, LA lost some of its engineering talent to points north and east.  By the time Clinton finally realized what was happening to LA--by the time he realized that earthquake aid alone wasn't cutting it--it was too late to do much.  But LA still has top-flight bones for accommodating another round of big time defense ventures.

Of later date, Mayor Riordan, who presided over LA at the time of its top defense losses, also has dished irresponsible chatter to the Wall Street Journal about LA facing bankruptcy.  This is a condition the city was not close to; but the loose talk decimated the nation's view of LA aerospace, giving opportunistic red state politicians hopeful of garnering aerospace contracts a talking point for ducking LA.

But now isolated think tanks and scattered lobbyists are battling for the defense jobs that the weak political efforts of Clinton and Riordan fumbled away earlier.  More contracts and jobs are going to Southern red states, fewer to California--which outrages longtime industry analysts fed up with political fumblings.

One industry advocate put it to me this way: "Why, in an era where the US strategic emphasis is moving toward the Pacific – and in which the South is becoming the rock-ribbed Republican heartland – why should the Administration reward the GOP in Congress for its intransigence? Especially when the California Congressional delegation has been such a rock-solid ally of the president?

But currying political favor alone is not enough reason for the southland to garner new contracts.  A strong case has to be made to the Obama Administration that LA can meet, compete, and beat all comers when it comes to delivering quality aircraft--and that to pick any other place not only sends pork away from LA, but more importantly spends money less wisely than it can be spent.  

Despite the '90's aerospace catastrophe, LA still has the top talent to deliver on top aerospace projects.  Who can stand up to and reverse the Clinton/Riordan era of LA's aerospace decline?

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.)






Vol 11 Issue 26

Pub: Mar 26, 2013

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