WASHINGTON (AP) Orders to factories for big-ticket manufactured goods soared in December by the largest amount in five months, welcome news for an economy buffeted by talk of recession.

The 5.2 percent increase in orders was a surprise finish for the manufacturing sector at year's end a segment of the economy considered to have had a poor year.

The increase in orders, as reported Tuesday by the Commerce Department, was far larger than had been expected. The strength came from a big increase in demand for commercial aircraft, but even excluding the transportation sector, orders posted a solid 2.6 percent gain.

The December orders increase was more than double what had been expected. Analysts were looking for a much weaker performance, given that a key gauge of manufacturing activity had fallen to the weakest reading since April 2003. The Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index dipped to 47.7 for December. Any reading below 50 is considered recession territory for manufacturing.

The unexpectedly big jump in December closed out a lackluster year for manufacturers. Orders for the total year managed to rise by just 0.97 percent following much bigger increases of 6.31 percent in 2006 and 9.45 percent in 2005. It was the poorest showing since orders actually fell by 3.17 percent in 2002, a year when the country was still struggling to emerge from the 2001 recession.

The strength in December was led by an 11.3 percent rise in demand for transportation products. That reflected an 11.3 percent jump in orders for commercial aircraft which offset a 2.3 percent fall in demand for autos and auto parts as automakers continue to struggle with weak demand as gasoline prices have surged.

The increase in demand for commercial aircraft had been expected, given that Boeing reported receiving orders for 277 aircraft in December, up from 177 in November. The widespread strength outside of transportation was a surprise although economists cautioned that it may not last given the weakening overall economy.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, predicted that the orders reports in coming months will likely "turn rapidly south" as the slowdown depresses manufacturing activity.

A key category of business investment, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, rose by 4.4 percent in December, the first increase in this closely watched category since September, and the biggest increase since last March.

The unexpectedly big jump in December closed out a lackluster year for manufacturers. Orders for the total year managed to rise by just 0.97 percent following much bigger increases of 6.31 percent in 2006 and 9.45 percent in 2005. It was the poorest showing since orders actually fell by 3.17 percent in 2002, a year when the country was still struggling to emerge from the 2001 recession.

The strength in December was led by an 11.3 percent rise in demand for transportation products. That reflected an 11.3 percent jump in orders for commercial aircraft which offset a 2.3 percent fall in demand for autos and auto parts as automakers continued to struggle with weak demand amid soaring gasoline prices.

A key category of business investment, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, rose by 4.4 percent in December, the first increase in this closely watched category since September, and the biggest increase since last March.

The report of the strong showing in December came at a time of growing concern that the country could be slipping into a recession as the economy has had to sustain a variety of blows from a steep slump in housing to soaring energy costs and a severe credit squeeze. The problems have, at the same time, roiled global financial markets.

The Federal Reserve was beginning a two-day meeting Tuesday, and the expectation is that the central bank will cut rates by perhaps a half percentage point as further insurance against a recession. Last week, the Fed slashed a key rate by three-quarters of a point, the biggest reduction in more than two decades and its first rate change between meetings since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The government will issue its first look Wednesday at the overall economy's performance for the final three months of 2007. Many economists believe that will show the gross domestic product (GDP) was rising at an anemic 1.2 percent annual rate in the October-December quarter, a significant slowdown from the 4.9 percent growth rate of the July-September period.

The report on durable goods showed that the strength was not just confined to the aircraft sector. Strong gains were also reported in demand for fabricated metal products, machinery, computers and communications equipment.