Martin's Legacy

Lockheed marks Middle River past

History: Lockheed's 75-year-old Middle River facility helped it become No. 1.

October 07, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Aviation entrepreneur Glenn L. Martin moved his airplane factory from Cleveland to Baltimore 75 years ago today, laying the foundation for a military industrial giant that supplied the Army Air Forces in World War II, sent rockets into space and grew into one of Maryland's largest employers.

But industry analysts say the most notable thing about Lockheed Martin's latest milestone is that it managed not only to survive, but also ultimately to thrive after a brutal post-Cold War slump that saw one after another familiar name in the defense industry disappear.

Today, the Bethesda-based company is the largest defense contractor in the nation by a significant margin, with 130,000 employees and 2003 sales of $32 billion.

The company employed more than 8,000 people in Maryland at the end of 2003, 3,000 more than in the previous year. And it's still hiring by the busload after a painful restructuring in the late 1990s, having benefited from increased defense spending in the war on terror.

"If you went back to the year the Berlin Wall collapsed, you would find there were about 16 fairly equally matched companies that were first-tier suppliers to the Department of Defense," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense industry analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

"Today, there are five left, and Lockheed is the largest."

Though it employs far fewer in Maryland than it did during World War II, the company continues to boost the state's economy. Its employees are spread among 70 sites.

Of those, 14 have 100 or more employees and six, including the huge Middle River complex that employed 53,000 during its wartime peak, have more than 500.

The company boasts that it purchased more than $1 billion in goods and services from more than 1,000 Maryland suppliers last year.

"There are plenty of places in America that used to have major defense contractors that no longer do," Thompson said. "Maryland is one of the very few places that is still host to a dominant player in the sector."

In recent years, the company has landed some of the most lucrative defense projects in the nation's history, most notably a contract to develop the Pentagon's futuristic Joint Strike Fighter, which could net $200 billion in sales over the lifetime of the project. Those planes will be built on the company's Fort Worth, Texas, assembly line.

Planes are no longer assembled at Middle River, which developed some of the nation's earliest commercial passenger planes and went on to build the B-10 twin-engine bomber and the famed B-26 Marauder.

The war saw employment at the plant soar fivefold in five years, creating a housing shortage in Middle River that forced thousands of shift workers to share beds or sleep outside in makeshift lean-tos and trailers. Middle River is the place where "Rosie the Riveter" achieved fame as women filled vacancies created by men going off to fight.

The boom ended after the war, but the plant continued to employ about 14,000 workers as Martin returned its attention to producing commercial aircraft, some of which were money losers. The last plane built there was a P5M-2 Marlin, a Navy flying boat designed for anti-submarine warfare, which rolled off the assembly line in 1960.

Not long after the 1961 merger of the Glenn L. Martin Co. and American Marietta, the plant switched to producing the rockets and missiles that launched America into space and answered the Soviet threat during the Cold War.

Titan II rocket

Workers in Middle River built the Titan II rocket that carried astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and John Young into space in the 1960s. Rocket production was later shifted to Denver, which was considered a tougher target for Soviet nuclear missiles.

Consolidation in the industry struck again in 1995, when shareholders approved the merger of Martin Marietta with Lockheed Corp., creating the nation's dominant defense contractor.

The combined company launched a campaign to sell what it considered noncore assets, including a Middle River unit that produced thrust reversers, which act as the brakes for commercial jets. The division, which made up 60 percent of the plant's business, was sold to General Electric Co. in 1997.

Today, the Middle River plant plays a supporting role in the far-flung operations of the corporate giant that bears its founder's name.

About 600 employees are spread among more than a dozen programs. The majority work on Lockheed's MK 41 Vertical Launch System, which is the premier missile launching system used by the Navy and 10 other nations.

Ship design

The plant has more recently branched out into ship design, including the development of a unique new hull design for transportation vessels, among other applications.

"Although we're not building the planes that we were many years ago, we're focused primarily on defense work still," said Stephanie Hill, director of engineering at Middle River.

Analysts say the glory years when Lockheed's work force was focused primarily on "bending metal" are largely over.

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