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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2011 at 12:40 PM

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Everett workers relieved and excited at Boeing's tanker win

Hundreds of Boeing employees rallied around the half-finished fuselage of a Boeing 767 in the Everett assembly plant Friday morning to celebrate winning the $35 billion Air Force air-refueling tanker contract.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hundreds of Boeing employees rallied around the half-finished fuselage of a Boeing 767 in the Everett assembly plant Friday morning to celebrate winning the $35 billion Air Force air-refueling tanker contract.

Cheers and applause greeted Boeing's top brass and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and the atmosphere was electric as the crowd celebrated a new era for the plane and those who build it.

"This means that I'll retire here," said David Ball, a wing-line mechanic with Boeing for nearly 20 years. "It's knowing that everybody will still be around in 10 years."

Cantwell told the crowd, "There could be no better economic news" for the region.

"Boeing will maintain their superiority in making the best airplanes in the world," she said.

Anne Baumgardner, a manager on the 767, said she's been with Boeing 22 years and had refused to leave the program despite more than a decade of rumors the line would be shut down. Like Ball, she's planning to retire on the program.

"For the last 15 years they've talked about it going away, and a lot of people left the project," Baumgardner said. "I stuck with it through the ups and downs, and I'm glad it's paying off."

Boeing says the contract to build 179 new 767-based tankers will ensure more than 11,000 direct and indirect jobs in Washington state.

Boeing Chairman and CEO Jim McNerney said the win "makes this country greater, makes this company stronger, gives us all the kinds of jobs we deserve and have earned. ... [it] just makes me feel about as good as I can feel."

Since the Air Force decision was announced Thursday, there's been speculation that rival EADS would challenge the award — as Boeing did when it lost in the previous round in the tanker contract's decadelong saga.

But Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, a key player in defense appropriations, said the Air Force and the Pentagon "are very convinced that Airbus will probably not protest."

Murray was applauded when she told the crowd, "There are 10,000 families who now have job security in the future — a future for your children and your grandchildren."

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Pam Geer, a 23-year employee in program, planning and controls at Boeing, said she was at home when the contract award was announced and broke down in tears.

"I called my dad, who had worked at Boeing before me, and we cried together."

Within half an hour after the celebration, the sound of drills again filled the building.

"My smiling muscles have been getting a real workout, and they're sore," said Tom Wroblewski, District 751 president of the Machinists union at Boeing. "Everyone is ready to start building these tankers today. We finally did it."

A win by European Aeronautic Defence & Space would have given the biggest boost to Mobile, Ala., where the parent of Airbus planned to assemble tankers based on the Airbus A330 airliner. People all along the Gulf of Mexico had been counting on the project.

In coastal Mississippi, where many lots are still empty after businesses and homes damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina were bulldozed, the executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation said losing the tanker work left him "terribly disappointed."

"It would have meant a great deal economically, not just to the Mobile (area) but the entire Gulf Coast region," George Freeland said.

Mobile attorney Jim Patterson said that despite the loss, "the rest of the country needs to understand this isn't a cow pasture down here.

"We have a pretty educated work force. Look at the car plants. We're building a naval ship in Mobile. That's pretty sophisticated stuff."

The Associated Press contributed material on reaction along the Gulf Coast.

Nick Visser: nvisser@seattletimes.com or 206-464-3263.

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