2 Dr. Handsfields in Germany. At left, Geoff is a PhD in Biomedical Engineering.
Hughes Aircraft, Fullerton, Ground Systems Group.
1957-1994

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BIG CUTS AT AEROSPACE GIANT : Fullerton Bids Farewell to a Friend : History: Former employees recall the postwar 'glory years,' when Hughes was the city and the city was Hughes.

 

September 13, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN and DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

 

It was built on 350 acres in the gently sloping hills of Fullerton. With its broad lawns and stands of towering trees, the sprawling Hughes Aircraft aerospace complex looks more like a college campus than an industrial outpost of the Cold War.

But they built air defense systems there. And anti-submarine systems. And battlefield radar.

During its 37-year history, the Hughes Fullerton operation earned a reputation as the world's preeminent supplier of air defense systems and as one of the leading makers of surface and anti-submarine systems for the Navy.

But the boom times ended long before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The company's announcement Monday that it will in effect shut down its massive facility over the next two years and that most of its 6,800 employees will be either transferred or laid off brings Hughes' long and distinguished time in Fullerton to a close.

The glory years have turned to anxious moments for current workers and a time of reflection for former employees who remember working at Hughes when Orange County aerospace was king.

"It was fantastic," says Ray Turner of La Habra, 65, who retired from Hughes last year after 24 years, adding, "It's a shame it had to end like this."

The eventual closing of the Hughes plant, for nearly four decades the city's largest employer, will end a significant chapter in the history of Fullerton, where the company has played a key role not only in the city's economy but in the community at large.

"Hughes is Fullerton, and Fullerton is Hughes," Mayor A.B. (Buck) Catlin has said more than once.

"Howard saw the need for acquiring land and he saw opportunity," Catlin says, referring to the company's legendary founder, Howard Hughes. "He made a good land deal."

Michael Welds, a personnel manager for Hughes Aircraft from 1954 to his retirement in 1978, says: "They claimed Howard Hughes never put his feet in Fullerton. But he flew over it. And he said, 'Well, it's not a bad spot there.' "

The story of Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton is part of the larger one played out by the aerospace industry as it shaped Orange County in the post-World War II years.

Los Angeles-based Hughes Aircraft decided to move to Fullerton because of its success in the early 1950s with building avionics packages for Air Force fighters--essentially airborne radar, cockpit computers and displays and radar-guided missiles.

Hughes chose Fullerton primarily because it offered open land that would allow the company to test its outdoor radar equipment without interfering with neighbors' TVs and other electronic devices. (All testing is now done indoors.)

Nicholas Begovich, 72, remembers that hot June day in 1957 when he and about 200 other Hughes workers from throughout Southern California opened the doors of the company's newest division: a pair of small stucco buildings next to Fullerton Airport.

"We had the whole world to show our wares," says Begovich.

Within two years, Hughes' Fullerton operations had moved to state-of-the art labs and offices perched at the top of the area known as Sunny Hills, and it was indeed on the world stage. The division soon won a $400-million contract--then the largest in Hughes Aircraft's history--to develop NATO's air defense system for Europe.

The good times for Hughes workers began to sour in the 1970s. With major defense cuts in 1970, the aerospace industry experienced a dramatic downturn and the Hughes' Fullerton plant was hit as hard as anyone--3,000 of its 8,000 employees were laid off.