Plant celebrates aviation history

Workers, families mark 70th anniversary of Martin's aircraft plant

October 10, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Pat Keller crouched with his hand on his son's shoulder in the classic pose of a father about to reveal the secret of baiting a hook. "That," he said proudly to 6-year-old Pat Jr., "is where we test a new unit's hydraulic power supply."

You had to be there.

Middle River Aircraft Systems celebrated 70 years of technical expertise and aviation history yesterday by throwing its doors open to employees, retirees and their families. More than 3,400 people showed up, many of whom had never seen inside the huge plant Glenn L. Martin opened on Oct. 7, 1929.

You had to be there to understand not only the pride of one generation waxing technical with the next, but to grasp the central role a place known for generations as "Martin's" has played in aviation history and the history of a community.

Joe Kalb was 7 years old when workers began to build the first giant hangar on the low land beside the Middle River. "My father owned a bakery, and he came down here every day with custard pies that he'd sell to the workers for a nickel apiece," said Kalb, 77.

As soon as the younger Kalb finished school, he went to work at the plant.

Two generations later came Dale Ertwine, 34, who went to Glenmar Elementary School (named for the plant founder), grew up in Victory Villa (named for the plant's role in World War II), lives today on Nacelle Road (named for an aircraft engine part) and operates a drop-hammer in the factory.

"That's what the whole community is about," Ertwine said.

His father's aunts worked at Martin's, building B-26 Marauders and other warplanes during World War II. The factory employed 53,000 people in those days, with camouflage netting over the rooftops and parking lots to protect against Nazi spy planes.

Bob Friedel's whole family worked at the plant during the war. Martin even took out a full-page ad in the Sunpapers in the 1940s picturing about a dozen Friedel relatives, he said, signifying how Martin's was "a family tradition." Now Friedel, 52, has worked in maintenance for 21 years and is the last of his clan at the plant.

Yesterday, he was driving retirees around on a golf cart, and at one point calculated that the four men riding with him had a combined experience there of 143 years.

Families had a rare chance to tour the factory, which is usually closed to outsiders because of the classified government work or proprietary commercial work that goes on there. But to mark the 70th anniversary, machines that usually cut intricate parts for Boeing jetliners or Lockheed Martin warplanes instead produced aluminum race cars to give away to kids and key chains for their parents.

George C. Watson III, 42, was handing out key chains and enthusiastically explaining his Mori Seiki milling machine when an elderly man wearing an Ocean City cap leaned over. "You guys do a good job," the man said, then gestured at an intricate aluminum part from an Apache helicopter. "But taking six hours on that part is too much."

Watson just stared back, then went on handing out key chains. The man turned out to be Andy Bauer, 77, who before retiring in 1985 was general foreman of the machine shop.

Bauer went to work at Martin's in 1940, and remembers when Glenn L. Martin kept his yacht tied up out back. Martin, who built some of the world's first airplanes and was a one-time business partner of the Wright brothers, was friendly with his workers, Bauer said.

"He'd say hello when he walked through the shop," he said.

Probably the most famous Martin creation to come from Middle River was the China Clipper, an elegant seaplane that made the first commercial passenger flights over the Pacific Ocean in the 1930s.

The China Clipper was built in the factory's first hangar, which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall and went up in all of 11 weeks in 1929. The legendary airliner rolled across the wood block floors that today gleam under fresh paint.

Martin's factory went through tough times in the years after World War II. His company became Martin Marietta in 1961 and concentrated on work for the space program through the 1970s. Employment dwindled in the 1980s, and when Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed in 1995, the old Middle River factory was down to fewer than 1,000 employees and slated to close.

Current General Manager J. Raymond Roquemore came there from Lockheed and saw potential in the old plant. Today, Middle River Aircraft Systems makes thrust reversers and airplane parts, and has a burgeoning business in aircraft overhaul and repair.

The factory is now a subsidiary of General Electric and employment is holding steady at 1,100. In December the plant will open a branch in Thailand to tap the huge Asian market for engine maintenance. Most of the parts for that work will be built at Middle River.

So a plant that by all rights should be nothing more than a historical marker is thriving again after 70 years -- something only being at yesterday's anniversary celebration could really make clear.

Teens with pierced body parts or Marilyn Manson shirts, babies in strollers, retirees with canes, well-dressed young parents -- all eating barbecue, touring the plant and watching colored smoke mark the unfurling of a building-sized, 250-pound anniversary banner -- testified to the continuing significance of Martin's.

The name of the company has changed many times in the 21 years that Charles Moses has worked there. "But you know what? It's the same people here all these years," he said, holding hands with his fiancee's 8-year-old daughter, Juita Cobb. "We've aged together, gotten close together -- it's like a family."

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