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By Cliff Tarpy
At 5 a.m. Beulah Barnes clocks in at a huge, brightly lit aircraft plant. She adjusts the earphones of a portable radio she carries inside her white coveralls, a shield against the deafening chatter of rivet guns fired by workers assembling fuselages of Boeing 737s that sit side by side like colossal metallic sausages.
Most of the workers, including those atop "rainbow tools"—mini-escalators that arc over the five plane bodies—wear earplugs against the din. Beulah's defense is country music. "When they start shooting," she says, "I just turn up the volume."
The music plays all day, and then some: Recent layoffs at the plant mean that survivors like Beulah typically work a ten-hour day or longer. To remind her of home, Beulah tapes snapshots of relatives and her Yorkshire terrier to her toolbox.
A 29-year Boeing veteran, Beulah is part of an honored tradition that began in World War II with squadrons of female factory workers, celebrated in the popular song "Rosie the Riveter," a mythical figure on posters selling war bonds and boosting morale. Peering through goggles below her platinum hair, Beulah holds a gun different from those used by her riveting colleagues as she runs a bead of black sealant around a windshield. With that, another 737—Boeing's best-selling plane—moves closer to flight.
Aviation dominates zip code 67210, where Boeing's 238 buildings sprawl over 1,200 acres, and it propels Wichita's economy. Boeing-Wichita is part of the world's largest aerospace firm, which produces about half of all commercial airliners worldwide. Workers at Wichita's three other major aircraft manufacturing companies produce more than 60 percent of the world's general aviation aircraft.
Why Wichita sprouted so many wings is part geography, part luck. In the early 1920s the city attracted risk-taking businessmen flush with cash from a flourishing Kansas oil industry and eager to make airplanes. As war loomed in the following decade, "Kansas lobbied very aggressively for defense plants," says Craig Miner, a Wichita State University history professor. "The very day after Pearl Harbor, the state's congressmen and members of an industrial development commission phoned the War Department, saying 'See? The coasts are not safe.'" And at a time when most every Asian face was suspect, Kansas had few Japanese residents.
Boeing-Wichita's aviation employment exploded from fewer than 800 in mid-1940 to a wartime peak of 30,000. With so many men in uniform, women took up the slack on the assembly line. The song "Rosie the Riveter" hailed the woman who "keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage, sitting up there on the fuselage."
Rosie the Riveters helped Boeing-Wichita produce a stalwart of World War II, the B-29 bomber, known as the Superfortress. (Two of the craft made elsewhere, Enola Gay and Bockscar, dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender.) Only one B-29 still flies. Named Fifi, it follows the air-show circuit from its home base in Midland, Texas. Another, nicknamed Doc after the Snow White character painted on its nose, may soon join it. Doc, one of 1,644 B-29s turned out by Wichita, was lucky, surviving a lowly postwar career as a target for bombing practice. An airline executive found Doc mothballed in the California desert and trucked it to Wichita, where restoration is underway. He may make it a flying exhibit with Wichita as its home base—the ardent hope of locals working to restore the plane.
"We wore overalls, and bandannas to keep our hair from getting tangled up in the tools," says Connie Palacioz, who originally worked on Doc in the '40s. "I was 18 when I began here, and I put most of the rivets in Doc's cab section." Now a ginger-haired woman of 78 and a volunteer in the restoration effort, Palacioz stands at a table energetically stripping the grime off small metal parts with steel wool.
Today a new riveter on the scene, a behemoth known as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine, works up to ten times faster than humans. It comes with a kind of cockpit of its own, equipped with video and computer screens and an array of controls that a rangy man named Shawn Smith plays like a video game. Under the machine's stout blue arches lie the rounded panels of a 767 fuselage. As Smith punches buttons, a video screen shows an extreme close-up of tools drilling holes, 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 outsourcing 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 outsource 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 territory 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 dejection 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 Spirit of 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."