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When Aerospace was King


At Kearny Mesa, all that’s left of a once-mighty corporate entity are fences, building remains and rearranged dirt piles. Nearby is a small sign that says this land will become a new business and commercial park, to be developed by General Dynamics.

But go back nearly 40 years—or even five—and you see a vastly different picture: a scene in which thousands of people produced some of this country’s most important high-tech products, where much of San Diego’s economic activity was generated, and where people shared a vibrant community of professional achievement and personal experience. It’s also where I worked for roughly the first two decades of the General Dynamics Kearny Mesa era. Here is my scrapbook of the good and bad times at GD.

Circa 1959

In June 1959, I hired on with the Astronautics Division. Everything was new out at Kearny Mesa ——the plant had opened just the year before as a spin-off from GD’s Lindbergh Field––based Convair. With the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile a top national priority, the company was on a hiring binge, and the parking lot displayed license plates from two dozen states.
“Astro” was a heady place to work. And it offered great opportunity for entry-level engineers. You could have been cramming for college finals in April and working on the nation’s highest priority weapon in June——under a supervisor who had yet to hit age 30.

The place was so new there was little greenery around the plant. One day, I noticed a company photographer taking pictures of the buildings for recruitment purposes. He was pushing around a cart that held several miniature palm trees. He shot his photos through the tiny trees so that it would look like the classic Southern California scene of buildings amid palm trees. This was my introduction to truth in advertising.

The year before I was hired, the nation was still reeling from being runner-up in the space race. This was after the Soviets’ launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, and a poor start for the U.S. space entry, Vanguard. But that December brought a Christmas present that would revitalize this country’s pride, courtesy of the Atlas 10-B. Broadcast from orbit, the voice of President Dwight Eisenhower conveyed a worldwide Christmas message——and a clue that the Soviet lead was not going to hold up once U.S. space talent got seriously into action.

The Atlas was built in such a way that most people had a hard time believing it would work. Its design of stainless steel rings without internal bracing resulted in a liquid-to-structure ratio more efficient than an egg. That lack of bracing, however, meant an Atlas always had to be either pressurized or in a stretch rig. One morning I walked behind the main assembly building and found that a lift truck had inadvertently been backed into a stored Atlas. That missile went poof, popping the one next to it, which popped the one next to it. Three huge rockets were laid flat in an instant.

The Astronauts
In the fall of ’59, the seven Mercury astronauts——who would be riding into space aboard our Atlas missiles——came to Kearny Mesa. After doing all their official duties, they readily accepted an offer to go water-skiing with the Astro Ski Club. Two of my roommates served as drivers, and the astronauts had a full day romping around Mission Bay.

At the plant, the same seven were trooped out for us to see and cheer. While some astronauts, like Alan Shepard and John Glenn, were always eager to give speeches, Gus Grissom wasn’t. Getting him to talk was “...like handing him a knife and asking him to cut a main vein,” Tom Wolfe explained in The Right Stuff. But it came with the job, so he stepped forward, looked out over the crowd, gulped and said, “Well ... do good work!” That was the whole speech.
Wolfe noted our reaction to Grissom’s stirring comment: “They started cheering as if they’d just heard the most moving and inspiring message of their lives: ‘Do good work! After all, it’s little Gus’ ass on top of our rocket!’” That simple phrase became the slogan for the Atlas team, with huge banners, posters and tags on Mercury parts, all flagged with the motto do GOOD WORK!

Hubbub in the Hub

Astro in the early ’60s was like a medium-sized city. It teemed with activity——deadlines, reviews, humming production lines and changing organizational charts. Outside work, at almost any social gathering you would run into people who worked there. We were also a high-profile company, with visitors constantly popping in. The one who created the biggest stir was appearing in a musical at nearby Circle Arts Theater: When Juliet Prowse strolled past our lab, the whole workforce came out for a glimpse.

Astro (a name that would disappear after the division remerged with Convair in the mid-’60s) had a wide range of employee clubs. I flitted around San Diego Bay with the Sailing Club, camped with the Adventurers Club and headed off to Mammoth with the Ski Club. Missile Park, with a retired Atlas as its symbol, became the center of many club and employee activities. On vacant dirt appeared tennis courts, picnic areas, ball fields, a multipurpose clubhouse and even a miniature train, put there with many employee sweat-hours.

GD’s tentacles stretched far into the community, through a vast network of subcontractors, spin-offs or related startups (for instance, General Atomics, GDE Systems and Cubic), plus community service efforts. Employee-funded ConTrib provided major financial support and talent to community nonprofit organizations for decades.

“Base activation” was a buzz phrase around Kearny Mesa that peaked around 1962-63. By then, the Atlas ICBM was ready for deployment at Air Force bases around the country. At gatherings in the large cafeteria we were all invited to become part of the team to activate those bases——in such exciting places as New Mexico, Wyoming and upstate New York. Now that was a real hard sell.

Here we were, refugees from Indiana, Iowa and Michigan, from which we’d fled for the warm-weather paradise of San Diego, and we were now expected to volunteer to go back to Plattsburgh, New York? There was an incentive that carried weight, however. Namely, a large chunk of the San Diego workforce was now going to be out of work. Want to keep working for the Atlas program? Head off to delightful, exciting Roswell. (Well, there are those UFOs.)

To the Moon
As the U.S. started putting pressure on the Soviets in the space race, President Kennedy announced the challenge of the decade——to put a man on the moon. Hence, the Apollo program. With our increasing rocket successes at Kearny Mesa, we anticipated being a major player. Came the first competition. We entered; didn’t win. No big deal, we’ll win the next. Negative. Okay, there are still one or two big chunks; they’ll have to pick us for one of those. Wrong again. We were shut out as a prime contractor for that huge Apollo program. Major disappointment.

Employment that had risen so quickly in the late ’50s and early ’60s now quickly headed in the opposite direction——at Astro alone, from more than 40,000 down quickly to 15,000 and declining. Our sister Convair Division had self-destructed with some bad guesses on commercial jet aircraft (models 880 and 990) and partners (Howard Hughes) and laid off thousands of workers. With GD’s severe dropoff, the town went into a recession that would continue for nearly a decade. I drove through University City in 1965 and saw for-sale signs on nearly new houses (“Try $25,000”) and on refrigerators sitting in driveways.

Years later, when Howard Hughes died and wills started appearing from the woodwork and desert, we got a call from the Hughes people. Since GD had had many dealings with him during the jetliner years, was it possible that among all our files Howard’s real will could have been stashed? We looked but didn’t find one. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, does it? Hmm, where did those old file cabinets end up?

Onward and Upward

Initially, Atlas’ role was as a weapon. But it soon picked up another, more enduring one ——as a space booster, combining with various upper stages to deliver satellites into earth orbits or beyond. During the ’60s, Atlas/Agena rockets launched many satellites that kept an eye on what the Soviets were up to, providing a vital part of our security during the Cold War.
Atlas also provided the ride up for satellites and spacecraft that helped transform our world. Communications satellites, for example, meant live broadcasts of events halfway around the world.

Another Kearny Mesa project, the Centaur upper-stage rocket, came under scrutiny. It was the first to use more powerful liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuels. Pushing the edge of fuels technology led to early failures, and the program was nearly canceled. But Centaur, in its first operational mission atop Atlas, had a perfect series (7-for-7) launching the Surveyor spacecraft that checked out the moon for the Apollo astronauts. Later, Centaur headed spacecraft toward Mars, Jupiter and beyond. (Pathfinder may have landed on Mars this year, but previous Viking landers had been delivered there via Centaur 20 years earlier.)

With the manned space programs——Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the moon landings——launch countdowns became engrossing events for the nation. At Kearny Mesa, unpublicized countdowns were a way of life. As launch times approached, the involved troops would gather in Building 26 for direct audio links. As countdown proceeded and each event was noted, the tension would build. Then the final 10 seconds, ignition and liftoff. The room and hallway outside would be hushed as we would softly urge the rocket to keep hitting all those essential event marks. Only after final booster shutdown, with the payload successfully on its way, would sighs of relief, handshakes and cheers sweep the room (high fives hadn’t yet been invented).

Cruising Ahead
In the ’70s the Kearny Mesa gang got into the competition to build a totally new military weapon called the cruise missile——to deliver bombs across hundreds of miles by flying close to ground or sea. Not only that, it was to be launched from submerged submarines or perhaps from ships, land or even airplanes. And oh yes, hit a specific building 1,000 or 2,000 miles away. A very tricky set of challenges.

The contest came down to two entries, Convair’s and LTV. Despite a ragged test series, Convair won the contract in 1976. For a while it wasn’t clear just what was won. For a variety of reasons, the cruise missile picked up the label “the weapon nobody wanted.” All the armed services were suspicious of how it might affect their respective turfs. Then it was labeled as either destabilizing the precarious balance between the United States and Soviets or just as a bargaining chip for negotiations with the Soviets. But it kept getting better, stayed in production and headed our employment back upward.

(Advance forward about 15 years, and what’s the first weapon to arrive in Baghdad at the start of the Gulf War? Convair’s Tomahawk cruise missile. With a tiny jet engine, a very accurate guidance system and a big bomb delivered on target.)

The Working World

All employees at the GD plant wore badges. Different colors denoted a person’s job ranking. Red badges were for supervisors, candy stripes were for professionals, and yellow was for hourly workers. It created a sort of caste system. Once, a fellow engineer——a candy striper——went to Los Angeles for a meeting, accompanied by four red badges. “This guy kept directing all his comments to me,” he said, “assuming I was the highest status person with four underlings. When he found out it was the other way around, he wouldn’t even look at me the rest of the meeting.”

Apparently we had a problem getting people to show up on time. Since GD Kearny Mesa was a high-security facility, all employees had to enter through guarded gates. So a new policy was implemented: gate checks. The idea was to nail the laggards by requiring them to sign in if they arrived after 8 a.m. But we quickly realized that the gate checks stopped at 9:30.

A couple of days went by, and I was running late. Since I certainly didn’t want to have my name on any official slacker roster, I opted to take a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant down the street. The place was jammed: Two dozen of my colleagues were there having breakfast, reading the morning paper and schmoozing. At 9:30, we all got up and went to work. A fine policy—took a lot of that early-morning work stress away.

During the early 1970s, as we failed to land any big new programs and layoffs kept occurring, workplace morale suffered badly. The idea of a union for professional employees—usually called the engineers’ union, though other groups were included—took hold. The union, affiliated with the big United Auto Workers, held a series of meetings and put out a newsletter that touted the merits of becoming unionized. The company counterattacked with a series of memos about why joining the union would be a bad move. A majority voted union. Negotiations started and continued interminably. But eventually the membership got dissatisfied and voted the union back out.

A task force was formed to investigate why the professionals were so agitated. One recommendation was to set up an ombudsman. I was appointed to that position and started hearing employees’ various gripes. One that surfaced around 1975 was that people wanted something done about smokers. We queried the various factions and cautiously announced a smoking policy, one of the first for any company. Its main feature outlawed smoking for the first hour of meetings. Immediately several people called to say (a) thanks and (b) meetings were now much shorter, since smokers wanted to get through them and go light up.

Another responsibility I had was the Monday morning newsletter, the Blue Sheet. Once we stirred up the rumor mills by inadvertently leaving off the current employment figure. Calls instantly started coming in: “Why did you leave that off? What are you trying to hide? Was there a big layoff? Are we being acquired by another company?” The latter was a particularly common rumor.

I left Kearny Mesa and GD in 1980. New products, new people and new company names would keep surfacing, though, right up until GD San Diego’s fate was sealed a few years back. Now the buildings, the products and the people have disappeared, though many now call Tucson and Denver home (that’s where Tomahawks and Atlases are still being built today—by other companies).

Down at Lindbergh Field, the old Convair aircraft buildings are also gone. Years ago, I wandered up to the old flight operations office. It had been long abandoned. But still on the walls were parts of old flight manifests, noting which planes would be flown on those final days. It was a ghost office, yet I could almost sense the people working there as they directed B-24s, 880s and F-106s into the air.

More recently, I’ve seen former colleagues standing outside the Kearny Mesa fences, silently watching the dismantling —perhaps still sensing launch countdowns, humming assembly lines and people working and playing together. The memories are bittersweet. But it was a good run.

Tom Leech edits San Diego Online's Outdoors Forum
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