It's the end of an an era for Boeing and its Long Beach, California plant, which watched Thursday as the last C-17 Globemaster III lumbered off the runway on delivery to the Air Force.
The aircraft, the 223rd C-17 built by Boeing for the Air Force, completes the fleet, and leaves the future of the Southern California plant in jeopardy.
“That’s a tough one,” said Dave Marendino, Boeing's senior production manager, as he watched the C-17 tip its wing goodbye at the start of its four-hour journey to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. “This is really happening.”
After overcoming early design issues and delays, the C-17 is now considered one of the military's most dependable planes, carrying the highest readiness rate of any cargo aircraft in the arsenal, said Bob Steel, the deputy manager of the Air Force's C-17 program.
The four-engine, 141-ton aircraft, capable of transporting an 85-ton payload and has been used in peacekeeping and disaster relief around the world for more than two decades, transporting everything from troops to supplies, tanks to presidential limousines.
One carried 90,000 pounds of food to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and utility trucks from the West Coast to help restore electricity after Hurricane Sandy plunged much of the Northeast into darkness.
"They're all over the world," he said. "And they're constantly carrying out missions."
Boeing received the Air Force contract for the enormous airlifter in 1981, and the first C-17, known as T-1, flew a decade later.
Constructing a fleet of more than 200 of the aircraft for the military has provided jobs for 4,000 workers at the 1.1 million-square-foot plant in Southern California, the one of the last such factories in the state, plus thousands of others on the supply chain that spans 44 states.
And while Boeing has actively sought international orders to keep the line moving, the current production for India will only keep the doors open through the third quarter of 2014.
The $200 million aircraft is also part of fleets in Britain, Australia, Canada and Qatar.
“Our reputation will continue to ride along as a passenger as we maintain and modernize the system, just as we have the 222 that came before it,” said Boeing Military Aircraft President Chris Chadwick, striking a hopeful note at Thursday's ceremony. “The greatest days for the C-17 Globemaster III lie ahead because of the amazing people that operate and support it."