Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle …

In the late 1960s, the US commercial aerospace industry suffered a tremendous downturn. Aerospace companies with large military contracts made soft landings, but companies focused on the airline industry were hard hit. Boeing was devastated – the company did not receive a single order from a US airline for an eighteen-month period beginning in 1969. Jumbo jets production slowed to a dribble. Droves of production workers were laid off, and unemployment in the Seattle area rose to a high of 16 percent.

To add to Boeing’s woes, by early 1971 the government-sponsored Supersonic Transport, or SST, was in serious trouble. Even though President Nixon and the two powerful Washington senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson, were all staunch supporters of the SST, others attacked the airplane as too expensive and environmentally unfriendly.

Word in 1963 that the British and French had entered a partnership to develop a European SST gave a boost to presidential and congressional support for a US version of the plane. Subsequently, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a contract to Boeing at the end of 1966 to build two prototype aircraft that would demonstrate the viability of the SST concept. General Electric also received FAA funding to develop the engines. The total government investment in the SST was expected to top $1 billion, with Boeing spending about $100 million of their own money.

There were many good reasons to build the SST. Boeing thought they could sell 500 of them, which would easily repay the investment to the US government. Tens of thousands of people would be employed building and operating SSTs; 5,000 in Seattle alone were already developing and building the prototypes. Boeing and their subcontractors were developing astonishing new technologies that would benefit the US aerospace industry and country as a whole. Everything about the SST exemplified US aerospace dominance – Boeing even boasted that the airplane was the first ever made entirely from titanium.

But none of that mattered to those who opposed the SST. Environmental groups saw hazards lurking everywhere – noise caused by advanced engines and sonic booms, unknown effects on the weather from flying high in the stratosphere, and even the possibility of increased skin cancers. To fiscal conservatives, the airplane was just too expensive, and many asked why was the US government investing in the aerospace industry in the first place? Let them fund their own research.

In March 1971, the House and Senate both voted to end SST funding. Seattle civic leaders, still reeling from previous Boeing cuts, watched helplessly as the company laid off an additional 5,000 workers, the entire SST team, over the next few weeks. This time the cuts included engineers, normally retained in a downturn due to the expense of hiring and training them. Engineers who had designed Boeing airplanes for decades became construction workers, grocery store clerks, and real estate agents. Mechanics became cab drivers. Many people left Seattle for work elsewhere and families disintegrated. Boeing’s name was mud throughout much of the city.

Trying to lighten the mood, two young real estate workers commissioned a billboard near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport that read, “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle – Turn Out the Lights.” Some saw the humor, but local leaders weren’t amused and after only two weeks, the billboard was dismantled.

By 1974, the aerospace industry had recovered and Boeing and Seattle were again booming. When Arnold reported for his first day of work at the 727 plant in Renton, Washington, his new company was profitable – airplanes rolled off production lines all over the Seattle area and order backlogs totaled billions of dollars.