Middle River plant on block Lockheed appears ready to sell historic aviation factory to GE

October 07, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The historic Lockheed Martin aviation plant in Middle River, which company officials have touted as a dramatic comeback story, is suddenly back on the block as the aerospace giant appears poised to sell the factory to General Electric Co.

The plant, which primarily makes jet engine thrust reversers, is part of a transaction that could allow Lockheed Martin to reacquire a chunk of stock now controlled by GE, sources said yesterday.

GE got the stock in 1993, when the old Martin Marietta Corp. bought GE's aerospace division for $3 billion. A third of that amount was in stock that could be repurchased.

The Middle River plant, where 53,000 workers made bombers during World War II and which has employed generations of Essex families, is among several packages now being considered in return for the shares, sources said.

An announcement is expected by the end of the week. Sources said it is still possible that Middle River would not be included in any transaction.

Corporate spokesman Charles Manor yesterday said the company would not comment on speculation about Middle River's future. "We comment on rumors only when they become facts," he said. "When we have something to say, we will tell our employees first."

Several employees, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, said the wait is making them miserable.

"Everybody's just sitting around talking about it; if they want to do any production, they ought to just tell the people," one plant worker said.

A spokesman at GE headquarters in Connecticut also declined to comment, saying, "We don't comment on rumors."

Sources said the potential deal would not include Lockheed Martin's other facility in Middle River -- the Vertical Launch Systems business that builds launchers for Navy missiles.

More than 200 people work at VLS, which reports to a corporate office in New Jersey. One source said VLS workers are concerned because that facility "borrows" many functions from the main plant -- mail, security, the telephone system -- and could wind up moving to New Jersey if standing alone is too expensive.

The main Middle River plant, officially called Lockheed Martin Aerostructures, dates almost to the dawn of military aviation.

Pioneer flier Glenn L. Martin put his headquarters there in 1929, and the company became the Martin Marietta that merged with Lockheed Corp. two years ago to form one of the most powerful aerospace companies in the world.

The merger brought uncertainty to the old factory, which dwindled at one point to fewer than 1,000 workers. Lockheed Martin openly acknowledged efforts to sell the plant. Old-timers regarded the prospect as the death of a heritage stretching back to the legendary B-26 Marauders of World War II and the China Clipper, the first plane to offer commercial flights over the Pacific.

During a 1993 closure scare, the state had to step in with a package of incentives to help the plant stay open.

But the recent boom in the commercial aircraft industry and the arrival of a new plant leader ushered in a turnaround for the factory.

Ray Roquemore, who came out of retirement from a Lockheed plant in Georgia, has renovated the old facility and drummed up new business building airplane parts.

The plant's work force has grown almost 50 percent in less than a year, approaching 1,500 now from about 1,000 last December.

Roquemore could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Over the summer, the president of Lockheed Martin's Aeronautics Sector, James A. "Micky" Blackwell, said there were "no plans whatsoever" to sell the plant at that time. "They're making a lot of money for the corporation now," he said in the June interview.

Even with the new work brought in by Roquemore, the biggest part of the factory's business is building thrust reversers for jet engines made by GE and Pratt and Whitney. The equipment consists of ductwork that redirects thrust forward to slow a plane when it lands.

The plant has been making the reversers for GE for about 25 years.

In 1993, it bought out GE's own thrust reverser operation, leading plant insiders to wonder why the tables would turn so completely now.

"I don't know what their interests are," one source said.

"Everybody is in a state of confusion," said another.

Lockheed Martin Aerostructures

Established: 1929

Location: Middle River

What it produces: Today, the division primarily makes jet engine thrust reversers. In the past, it has had a hand in the consturction of Titan and Vanguard rockets, Skylab and Patriot missiles.

Work force: About 1,500. During World War II, the plant employed 53,000.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.