When the C-17, the Air Force's newest cargo plane, revs up its big engines and makes its maiden flight next summer, some Baltimore County aerospace production workers may be participating in the commemorative celebration.
Production supervisors at Martin Marietta's Corp.'s Aero & Naval Systems plant at Middle River are clearing floor space in C-building, where workers will be producing tail-cone sections and some wing parts for the wide-bodied military cargo carrier.
C-building is the same sprawling structure where an earlier generation of Martin workers, including the mothers and fathers of some current employees, built the Martin "Baltimore" medium bombers -- designated by the U.S. Army Air Forces as the A-30 -- for the French and British air forces during World War II.
It is also the same building where just a year and a half ago workers ended a long production run of tail sections for the B-1B.
Martin's Middle River complex has been going through a metamorphosis in recent years from a nuts-and-bolts production plant to engineering research center with the brain power to compete with companies such as Westinghouse, General Dynamics and Loral for sophisticated Navy prime contracts.
However, Martin executives are still pursuing the structural work that the Baltimore County plant has been known for since the company was founded here in 1929, said Buzz Bartlett, a Martin spokesman.
"This is good work," Mr. Bartlett said. "It can be very profitable. We'reinto a major push to secure more aerostructure work," he added, noting that the company also recently landed two large contracts to build fan reversers for commercial jetliners.
That does not mean, however, that there is any cutting back on the engineering base that Martin has been assembling at Middle River in recent years.
"Times are changing," said Mr. Bartlett, "and we are changing with the times. We're continuing our naval-systems thrust while putting new attention on our aerostructure work."
The primary contractor for the C-17 is Douglas Aircraft Co., a subsidiary of McDonnell Douglas Corp.
Douglas is assembling the aircraft at Long Beach, Calif. It is designed to augment the Air Force fleet of C-130, C-141 and C-5 cargo planes.
"It's smaller than the C-5," Douglas spokesman Richard Hill said of the C-17, which was created to fill airlift requirements of the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps.
The Pentagon originally expected to order up to 210 of the four-engine jets, but Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recently cut that to 120 at a cost of about $29.9 billion.
One major advantage that theC-17 will have over existing planes and one that could prove beneficial in the current Middle East arms buildup is that it is designed to use considerably shorter runways than the military's current fleet of cargo planes.
Mr. Hill noted that there are about 850 airfields in the world with 5,000-foot runways where the C-5 and C-141 can land. By being able to land and take off from runways only 3,000 feet long and 90 feet wide, McDonnell Douglas says, the C-17 will be able to use an additional 9,000 smaller airfields.
Mr. Bartlett said the C-17 subcontract would "help maintain the base" of the Middle River complex's "production work force." The work is scheduled to begin early next year. Martin now has about 2,500 workers at its facilities off Eastern Avenue.
Albert Kamhi, another Martin spokesman, said that 25 or 30 workers will be involved in the initial production of C-17 tail-cone sections, produced from lightweight graphite composite. Those advanced materials provide greater strength than the metals used for earlier aircraft fuselages while also saving weight.
Building parts for the C-17 is only one of several contracts that Martin's Middle River plant has won recently.
In late July, the plant won a $300 million pact to design and build the reversers -- units that act like brakes by redirecting the flow of jet engine exhaust to help stop jetliners after landing -- for Pratt & Whitney Corp.
Pratt & Whitney has ordered 200 reversers, but the contract allows for orders of 300 more units that could bring the total value to about $675 million. The production run could last 10 to 15 years.
A few weeks after landing the Pratt & Whitney contract, Martin was selected by General Electric Co. to build fan reversers for its jet engines, which are used on such planes as the Boeing 747 and 767, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and the Airbus Industrie A300 and A310 jetliners.