Demise of Helicopter Program Means Hundreds of Jobs Lost in Owego, N.Y.

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

OWEGO, N.Y. -- When the U.S. military announced in 2005 that it would commission the next generation of presidential helicopters to be built here, this hard-luck area in New York's industrial Southern Tier rejoiced.

Pride and hope filled the narrow streets of historic Owego, a community of about 20,000 nestled along the scenic Susquehanna River, for good manufacturing jobs started disappearing a generation ago. From the old brick jail building that now houses the local government to the waterfront shops, salons and cafes, folks celebrated the promise of about 800 high-paying engineering and other jobs necessary to design and assemble a modern, battle-ready Marine One.

But the next four years unfolded like a classic Washington nightmare, with Owego squeezed between the bureaucratic largess of the past and the demands for efficiency of the present.

Defense giant Lockheed Martin won the $6.8 billion contract to produce 23 helicopters to replace the aging fleet of 19 choppers constructed in 1975. But there were cost overruns and specification changes. The Bush administration wanted nothing short of a high-flying armored limousine with seating for 14, the ability to fly at least 300 miles and security requirements for the post-Sept. 11 age.

The price tag ballooned to $13 billion, angering the politicians and jeopardizing the program. One month into office, President Obama convened a fiscal responsibility summit, in which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told his former rival, "Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One."

Obama, joking that "the helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me," called it "an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we're going to have to fix it."

Thus began the swift demise of the presidential helicopter program -- and with it the economic hopes of Owego. Since the military issued an order June 1 to terminate the program, about 800 workers have stopped building the helicopters and are searching for new jobs in a region struggling in the recession. More than 200 employees at Lockheed's Owego facility have been laid off. The company announced Tuesday that it would soon cut as many as 750 additional jobs over the next month.

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

"Lockheed is the main job source in Owego," Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. "If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too. . . . Owego will be a ghost town. I've lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over."

One woman whose husband works on the helicopter said she worries about uprooting her three children from Owego for him to find a comparable job. The woman, who did not give her name because her husband could face retribution at work, said her 17-year-old son has a voice-mail message on his phone that says, "This is Barack Obama, and I approve this message."

"I said, 'Son, if we lose this helicopter project, will you change your message?' " she recalled. "He said, 'Yep.' "

The Obama administration had promised sweeping reforms to clean up the Defense Department's contracting process, and the over-budget and behind-schedule helicopter program was an obvious target. It was among a handful of weapons programs and other acquisitions that were canceled or scaled down under the Pentagon's proposed 2010 budget.

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