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Collateral damage feared at Boeing

Culture takes hit in copter attacks

It was a crime so disturbing that the aircraft electrician who discovered it on a combat helicopter-assembly line at the Boeing Co. plant in Ridley Township last week almost threw up.

A bundle of about 75 electrical wires controlling the instruments on a Boeing Chinook CH-47F - "the life and breath of the aircraft," in one union leader's words - had been slashed.

Half the wires in the three-inch-thick cluster had been severed. Someone, it seemed, had hacked away at a $30 million aircraft that has been a workhorse for the military since the Vietnam War and a lifeline to the local labor force that produces it for the world's armed forces.

"I almost vomited," the assembly-line electrician later told Boeing union executive Joe Phillips, who recounted the conversation. "When I saw that, it made me sick to my stomach," the inspecting electrician told Phillips.

The attack on this and one other Chinook, which authorities are investigating as a federal crime, has not only shined a light of suspicion on Boeing's employees and security practices. It also has impugned the patriotic pride and integrity and threatened the economic security of members of a workforce acutely aware that they are the last of a dying breed.

"For somebody to do this, it was like they took a personal stab at all of us," said Ed Panco, a Ridley Township commissioner who works as a quality inspector at Boeing.

"You're attacking our livelihoods," said Panco, who was not among the group that discovered the problem on the Chinook line that shut down production for several days. "We all depend on Boeing to survive."

A team of 10 Defense Department criminal investigators is working with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia to find the person or people who severed the wires in the one helicopter and placed a critical rotor-blade component where it did not belong in another nearly completed Chinook.

Work was halted on the line at the Boeing Rotorcraft Division for two days, starting Tuesday, when Boeing summoned Defense Department contracting officials and criminal investigators to its facility just south of Philadelphia International Airport in Delaware County.

On Thursday, Patrick L. Meehan, the region's top federal prosecutor, toured the Chinook assembly line and said he had assigned a prosecutor to the probe.

The Defense Criminal Investigative Service, which is involved because the tandem-rotor helicopters are part of an Army contract to upgrade its Chinook fleet, issued a $5,000 reward Thursday after Boeing resumed production on the assembly line.

Boeing plastered its 350-acre complex with the DCIS reward flyer, displaying it on plasma video screens and employee computers and posting it on cafeteria walls.

From the first, employees on the Chinook line were stunned.

Their fortunes are tied to the whims of war and government defense spending. They are accustomed to rumors of imminent layoffs. A blemish like this only heightens anxiety that unemployment could be a pen stroke away - even though the company says it has enough orders for 10 years.

"They're always talking about shutting down," said Chris Klagholz, 32, a Prospect Park native who works at SoundWaves, a nearby store that sells sound systems. "You hear it every year - every couple of years."

At union elections Tuesday night, members expressed anger and dismay that anyone would vandalize a helicopter they had so diligently assembled for fighting men and women.

The shutdown of the assembly line also meant that everyone lost about a day's pay.

"They want whoever did this caught," said John DeFrancisco, outgoing president of Local 1069 of the United Auto Workers, which represents 1,640 production and maintenance employees.

"They don't need a reward to turn a person over like that," DeFrancisco said, delicately rephrasing what he said members had expressed in less publishable terms.

Phillips, seated nearby, overheard and picked up a can of air freshener. "There's a lot of Febreze on that," he joked.

The company believes that the damage to the two helicopters was an isolated incident and that none of the F models it has delivered has had problems. The CH-47F has not yet been deployed overseas.

No motive has been suggested, and workers remain baffled. Officials, union leaders, and residents of the river communities near the sprawling Boeing complex have been quick to point out that the problems were detected before the helicopters left the assembly line.

This was proof, they said, that Boeing safeguards were solid.

But the unanswered questions have stoked insecurities among Boeing workers, whose numbers have dwindled from more than 14,000 at the height of the Vietnam War to 5,200 today.

They are survivors in an industrial corridor along the Delaware River that has seen one major manufacturer after another close its doors.

Flight inspector Eric Wimberly, 60, who works with Boeing's V-22 Osprey helicopters, joined the company in 1968: "At that time, finding a job that paid a livable wage was not really a problem, because they used to joke that you could just quit and go down the street and get a new job that same day."

One by one, powerhouses such as Scott Paper Co. and Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. shut down. Baldwin Locomotive Works was another standby that disappeared.

Boeing still offers $55,000-a-year average pay with a portfolio of benefits that includes tuition reimbursement. The company reminds its workers that it spends $100,000 a year on each one, union vice president Michael Tolassi said.

"Now you see why the guys in the line are nervous," Tolassi said, "about someone screwing their aircraft up."