One of the lessons learned in the Persian Gulf war was the importance of airlift -- the ability to pack a cargo plane with military gear and respond to a crisis anywhere in the world on very short notice.
The plane the Air Force is counting on to perform such missions in the future is the C-17, and its development is moving ahead even as the Defense Department is slashing other programs. That bodes well for McDonnell Douglas Corp., the plane's prime contractor, and the Martin Marietta Corp. complex in Middle River, which produces a big part for the plane.
Workers at Martin's Aero & Naval Systems build two-story-high tail sections -- made of super-strong but extremely light graphite composites -- for the plane under an $11 million subcontract from McDonnell Douglas. The first of 10 cone-shaped units ordered was shipped last week.
If things go as planned, the Air Force will buy 120 of the cargo planes in the next decade for $36 billion. A full order would mean an additional $37 million for the Martin plant. President Bush has requested $2.9 billion in the fiscal 1993 defense budget for the C-17.
The C-17 tail cones are built in the C-building at Martin's sprawling Middle River complex, the same building where an earlier generation of workers, including the parents of some current employees, built Martin's Baltimore medium bombers for the French and British air forces during World War II.
Five years ago, workers in C-building were making tail sections for the B-1B bomber.
The Air Force is buying the C-17 as a replacement for its C-141 cargo plane, which dates back to the Vietnam War.