FIFTY YEARS AGO tomorrow, the very first B-26 Martin Marauder flew its inaugural flight from the field of the Glenn L. Martin Co. at Middle River.
According to J. K. Havener, author of the book ''The Martin B-26 Marauder'' and a pilot with 50 B-26 combat missions during World War II, ''From the day of its inception, the plane was a controversial aircraft design. Critics charged that it possessed no margin of safety for crew members and was difficult to fly. Heavily armed and ruggedly built, the Marauder, however, was a fearsome adversary, and actual combat losses to Marauder units were fewer than those suffered by heavy-bomber groups.''
In the end, the Marauder turned out to be the best and safest medium bomber of the entire war -- but it very nearly was killed in its early days. Initially, the wings were not long enough, leading some wags to nickname it ''the Baltimore whore'' -- with no visible means of support.
It even got to the point where the manufacturer, affectionately called ''Mr. Martin'' and ''Glenn L.'' by former employees even to this day, 35 years after his death, had a furious row with then-investigating Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri over making the wings longer.
No one then guessed that Senator Truman would become vice president -- much less president -- and that, after the war, this adversarial relationship would begin the decline of the company in the next decade.
The plane had other nicknames, too, such as ''the widow-maker'' that caused ''one [death] a day at Tampa Bay'' because of the number of pilots killed in training trying to fly it in Florida. The reason was two-fold: the pilots were inexperienced and they were attempting to fly this ''hot'' ship as a fighter plane, not the medium bomber it was designed to be. The term ''hot'' refers to its speed at takeoff and landing, much above the norm for its day.
The plane was unique in the Army Air Corps annals in that it did not go through the normal review procedures but went right from the drawing board into production, and then from Middle River (and Omaha, Nebraska, its other assembly point) into actual combat, first in the Pacific where more experienced pilots loved it and fought hard to save it from being discontinued. Then it was on to North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe, where it became one of the most used planes of the war of both the Axis and Allied Powers.
The day of its first flight out of Middle River, however, the pilot wasn't even sure it would fly at all, and told his flight engineer to pack parachutes in case they had to ditch the aircraft -- ''Old Gran' Pappy,'' serial number 40-1361 -- and bail out over what is now Strawberry Point.
The pilot, William Ken Ebel, the company's chief engineer and test pilot, is dead, but his flight engineer, Al Malewski, still lives today in a suburb of Yuma, Arizona, and in a telephone interview recalled that scary early morning flight five decades ago.
''Ken told me to watch the gauges as we took off so he would know how fast we were going when we left the ground, but I was so nervous, I closed my eyes at that final moment, and told him later that my best guess was around 130 mph.''
According to Mr. Havener, ''The original specifications had called for a 19,220-pound empty and 26,625- pound gross weight, a 323-mph top speed, 26,400-foot service ceiling and a range of 1,800 miles. When Martin No. 1226 . . . took off, she actually weighed 21,375 pounds empty and grossed out at 27,720 pounds.
''Top speed attained on the test was 315 mph at 15,000 feet, the service ceiling attained was 25,000 feet, and the range had dropped to 1,000 miles at 265 mph with a 3,000-pound bomb load. Creeping engineering changes and altered specifications by the Army had taken their toll on performance. Unknown to anyone at the time, it would be a harbinger of what was to come.''
Martin had decided to build the bomber as the Nazis overran Poland in 1939, and over the years it was made heavier, better-armed and given more armor plating and gun turrets. Without those modifications, it is highly likely that the German Luftwaffe, Italian Regia Aeronautica and Japanese Imperial Air Force would have shot down many more Marauders than they did.
But the Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber survived -- and so did Ken Ebel and Al Malewski to tell the tale.
*Blaine Taylor, a free-lance writer, is a member of the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum.