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Grumman in Decline
The F-14's demise cripples a major employer and plunges LI defense work into a steep dive


By James Bernstein
Staff Writer

Photo
Grumman Corp. headquarters. Grumman Corp. headquarters. (Newsday Photo/Don Jacobsen)

Pilots leave the last F-14 after the test flight Pilots leave the last F-14 after the test flight (Newsday Photo/J. Michael Dombroski)

On a cloudy day in the nation's capital in April of 1989, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sat behind a dark wooden table in an ornate hearing room in the House of Representatives and made an announcement that would strike at the heart of the Long Island economy.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Cheney revealed that as part of a massive effort to reduce government spending, the Pentagon no longer would buy a host of new weapons. Among those on the hit list was the F-14 Tomcat jet fighter, the sleek swing-wing airplane built by Grumman Corp.

For years, the F-14 line had been Grumman's largest and most important program, employing a quarter of the company's 20,000 workers through the '70s and '80s, and representing some 20 percent of the company's $4 billion in annual sales. It was so crucial, not only to Grumman but to the entire Long Island economy, that the Nassau-Suffolk congressional delegation and other Grumman supporters waged a fierce battle in the next few months to reverse the Pentagon's decision.

They were able to win a slight reprieve: The company would build 18 more F-14s during the next three years. But by 1992, 20 years after it began, the Tomcat program would end. And not too long after that, so would Grumman itself. Only five years after the Pentagon's decision, Grumman -- the company that had been Long Island's largest private employer for 60 years, famous for the warplanes and space vehicles it had built for America -- would itself go the way of the F-14.

In May, 1994, Grumman was acquired by rival Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles, and the merged company became known as Northrop Grumman Corp. And now, the final act is playing out: The Grumman name will disappear entirely if a proposed acquisition of the company by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., goes through. The Justice Department has filed suit to block the deal, and the case is to be heard in federal court in Washington, D.C., in September.

The decline and fall of the region's most prominent business was a landmark in the economic as well as social history of postwar Long Island. It came amid massive consolidation in the nation's aerospace and defense industry, which was responding to vastly reduced Pentagon spending after the Cold War ended. Only six months after that morning in Washington when Cheney said he was ending the F-14 program, the Berlin Wall fell. What was good for the advance of democracy was not necessarily good for jobs on Long Island.

"From that point on, it was downhill" for Grumman, said former Rep. George Hochbrueckner (D-Coram), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who became known for his tireless defense of the Tomcat and Grumman in Washington.

Perhaps Cheney's announcement should not have come as such a shock. The first F-14, after all, was delivered to the Navy in 1972. Hundreds were based aboard aircraft carriers at sea. And all military airplane programs eventually end. Nonetheless, there was shock throughout Grumman's Bethpage headquarters. "Grumman people never believed it would happen," said one former company executive.

Without the F-14, many company insiders thought, there would be no Grumman. True, the company had other businesses: electronics, truck building, space and even other airplane programs. But the F-14 was the company's heart and soul -- "it's known as the F-14 company," a defense expert said at the time -- and its other programs would not be enough to sustain the company's work force.

"I knew it was the beginning of the end," said Scott Schimmel, who worked in production and control in Bethpage. "We were all just asking, when are we going to get laid off?"

Schimmel was among thousands of Grumman workers who lost their jobs just as Long Island's defense industry was rapidly dwindling. Fairchild Republic Co., Grumman's neighbor in Farmingdale, had closed in 1987, after 56 years of building Air Force airplanes. The Island's other big defense contractor, Sperry Corp. in Great Neck, was laying people off. The year before Fairchild shut down, Sperry had merged with Detroit-based Burroughs Corp. to form Unisys Corp.

The defense industry on Long Island had been the engine of the region's economy for decades, and it became super-hot in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan spent more than $1 trillion on a military buildup. The cancellation of the F-14, however, was a strong signal that aircraft manufacturing on Long Island -- an industry that employed as many as 80,000 people in 1986 -- was coming to an end.

In mid-1989 -- within months of the Pentagon's F-14 decision -- the Island officially went into a recession. It was the beginning of a three-year economic slump that would cost the region a staggering 100,000 jobs, a downturn brought about in large part by the decline of the defense industry. As F-14 production began to wind down at Grumman, the company reduced the size of its Long Island work force. Local suppliers also began to feel the pinch. Some laid off workers. Others sought nondefense work. Still others were forced to shut their doors.

Between 1986 and 1997, the defense industry on Long Island lost an astonishing 49,000 jobs, according to state Labor Department figures. Only about 31,000 people are still employed in the industry on the Island.

There were cries for retraining, new directions, ways to lure new companies to Long Island. None of it happened. What brought the economy out of recession, economists and planners agree, was an improved national economy and a burgeoning Long Island software and electronics industry, which gave rise to companies such as Computer Associates International in Islandia and Symbol Technologies in Holtsville.

At Grumman, as F-14 production wound down, company executives tried to come up with ways to survive, but the choices were few. As one of the smaller companies in the aerospace industry, Grumman was out of the business of building new military airplanes. It had not won a contract to build new planes in 20 years. Pentagon spending for new planes was expected to be scarce. For the company founded in 1929 by Leroy Grumman, and which was embedded in the fabric of Long Island life, merger with another company seemed the best choice.

For a few weeks in the spring of '94, a war of nerves was waged for Grumman between Martin Marietta Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Northrop. Martin offered $55 a share for Grumman, which the company had accepted, even announcing the deal to the public. But a few days later, Northrop offered shareholders $62, winning the bidding war when Martin refused to budge from its original offer.

Grumman as anyone on Long Island knew it was gone.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday, Inc.

 
 
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