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St. Louis aviation honored
Employees cheer as Boeing Co. and its predecessor company, McDonnell Douglas, celebrate 70 years in St. Louis on Thursday. (Stephanie S. Cordle/P-D)

HAZELWOOD — Seventy years ago this summer, James S. McDonnell opened his new company, McDonnell Aircraft Corp., at Lambert Field.

McDonnell wasn't from here but his choice came down to St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. McDonnell chose St. Louis and moved his family here from Baltimore. And the rest, one might say, is aviation history.

Top executives of the Boeing Co. on Thursday marked those first 70 years of Boeing and its predecessors — McDonnell Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas Corp. — in St. Louis. The celebration was attended by hundreds of employees, local political leaders and organized labor.

Boeing's defense arm is the second-largest employer in the St. Louis region with about 16,000 workers.

While celebrants focused mostly on the local history of military aircraft and weapon manufacturing, elected officials made a familiar plea for continued funding of the C-17 Globemaster III transport plane and the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The two Boeing-built aircraft are threatened by a shift in Pentagon spending priorities.

Secretary Robert Gates proposed capping U.S. orders for the C-17 at the 205 already in use or in production and a scaled-down purchase of F/A-18s in next year's budget.

But Congress provided funding for eight more C-17s in this year's emergency war spending bill.

Last week, Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, R-Mo, co-authored a letter seeking funding for a dozen more of the Boeing-built transporters in next year's defense appropriations bill.

"We're fighting hard," said Bond. "I would hope we could get 15 C-17s. With a tight budget, that may be much. I would like to see a multiyear (purchase) for the F/A-18s. We can make it more efficient for Boeing … if we give them a plan for buying over several years. And that makes it cheaper for the taxpayers."

Bond added that there is a "minimum amount of high enthusiasm" for such a deal in the Pentagon.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she has heard military members speak in glowing terms about the capabilities of the F/A-18s and C-17s.

"Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, capability, reliability, you have built a tremendous fighter jet," McCaskill said of the Super Hornet.

George Roman, St. Louis regional executive of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, and John Van Gels, St. Louis senior site executive, said the fate of federal spending on the aircraft will become clear this fall.

"It's a long fight still," Roman said.

Boeing shares rose $4 to $51.82 a share on Thursday amid news that its long-delayed 787 Dreamliner passenger jet should be ready for its first flight by the end of this year.

"While there is no question that the execution of this program has had its challenges, … the 787 … remains on track to be a game changer for our airline customers," Boeing President and CEO Jim McNerney said in a conference call on Thursday.

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