When workers at the Lockheed Martin Corp. plant in Middle River return to work today, it will be with the feeling that they dodged a bullet -- but that the gun may still be aimed at them.

"There was a collective sigh of relief" when the corporation last week announced that Middle River was not among the 38 plants and other facilities to be closed over the next four years, said Robert B. Coutts, vice president and general manager of the eastern Baltimore County complex.

But they also know that the facility's future is hardly a certain one.

Only two years ago, when Martin Marietta absorbed General Electric Co.'s aerospace division, company officials had listed Middle River as a site for closing in a video presentation prepared for workers. That decision was reversed when the state provided the company with $900,000 in training funds and agreed to take over excess office space on the property.

At that time, Mr. Coutts said the plant "must still earn its place within the corporation every month." And while the state's assistance may have saved the plant, it didn't stop the layoffs -- the plant employed 1,400 when the state made its offer; it now has little more than 1,000 workers.

The plant builds a shipboard rocket launcher for the Navy and thrust reversers for commercial jetliners. Mr. Coutts said that those product lines may or may not fit long term in the newly formed Lockheed Martin.

He said at some point the company will likely make some "selective divestitures, and where things will fall nobody knows."

The Middle River plant has had its share of close calls since 1929, when Glenn L. Martin moved his factory here from Cleveland and turned it into the biggest, most innovative aircraft plant in the country. Despite a glorious history, the plant has come close to shutting down on at least four occasions.

Middle River's first serious threat of closing came in the mid-1930s. It involved the production of the China Clipper, the flying boat that paved the way to commercial flights across the oceans but proved to be a financial disaster for the company.

Mr. Martin went against the advice of his top managers and agreed to build the three Clippers for Pan American Airways for $1.5 million. This was well below cost, and the contract nearly bankrupted the company.

The Clipper was no ordinary plane. More than 25,000 people gathered at the San Francisco waterfront to cheer its maiden flight. Baltimoreans would rush from homes out onto the street to get a glimpse of a Clipper when they heard it passing overhead.

The company's finances began to improve in 1936 with a flurry of orders for the B-10, a twin-engine bomber that could fly as fast as a fighter.

"This was the plane that pushed the plant over the top," said Roger Mason, a technical illustrator at the Middle River plant and a director of the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum at the Martin State Airport.

World War II brought the biggest boom in the company's history. Employment would increase more than five-fold in five years, to peak at 53,000.

The saying around Baltimore was "Everybody and his brother or sister worked at Martin's," William B. Harwood, a former vice president of public relations, noted in his book "Raise Heaven and Earth," a history of Martin Marietta.

Middle River was also the place where "Rosie the Riveter" got her start on the factory floor as women filed vacancies created by men going off to war.

"Things were really booming back then," recalls Harry E. Mettee, a 73-year-old former production coordinator who spent nearly 48 years with the plant. "We were building eight combat-ready planes every 24 hours."

Franklin A Gibson, another former plant employee, also remembers the hectic pace. "We were building the B-26," he said. "That's the Marauder. . . . We built more than 36 hundred of them at Middle River.

"We worked around the clock. Oh man, I can tell you those were tough times. I worked for six months, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Employment was growing so rapidly there was no place for workers to live.

Some took refuge in barns or set up lean-tos. Others pitched tents or slept in their cars. The government set up trailer parks.

Three shifts a day

It was the era of "hot bed" roomers. "We were working around the clock, three shifts a day," said Mr. Mettee. "The boarding houses in Essex were packed full. They would rent the same bed three times a day.

"The third shift person would sleep in it, then the second shift workers, and then the first."

With federal assistance, the company built about 5,000 small houses in communities near the plant. One was Aero Acres, where the streets are named after airplane parts: Fuselage Avenue, Propeller Drive, Cockpit Street.

Many of the people living in makeshift quarters worked on the B-26. This was one of the plant's most famous planes, but it, too, threatened the company's financial stability.

The B-26 was nicknamed the "Widow Maker because so many crashed," recalled Nevin Price, a 70-year-old Rockville resident who served as the radio operator and gunner on a B-26 during World War II.

"We lost a lot of planes and their crews," said Mr. Price. "The saying at MacDill Field in Tampa, where the crews trained before going overseas, was 'One a day in Tampa Bay.' That's not quite true, but it seemed that way. We lost a lot of planes."

Mr. Mettee said that Sen. Harry S. Truman wanted to cancel the B-26 during the war because of its accident rate. He might have been successful had it not been for Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, Mr. Mettee said.

"Doolittle came to Middle River to prove that it was a good plane," Mr. Mettee recalled. "He got into the plane and shut off one engine during his takeoff run. He was flying around on one engine. He did a loop and landed with one engine. He proved it was the best plane made."

With the end of the war came the end of the boom days at Middle River. A month after Japan's surrender, employment at Middle River had dropped to slightly more than 14,000.

Once again Mr. Martin turned his attention to the commercial aviation market with the production of the Martin 2-0-2 and 4-0-4 medium-range passenger planes. The results were about the same as with the Clippers.

A crash that Northwest Airlines blamed on metal fatigue resulted in the 2-0-2 being grounded for some time. The Korean conflict doomed the 4-0-4 by making aircraft materials scarce.

"It was the final straw," Mr. Harwood wrote. "When all was said and done, the company had lost it corporate shirt betting on commercial aircraft."

The last plane built at Middle River, a P5M-2, a flying boat destined for anti-submarine warfare service, was rolled out on Dec. 20, 1960. A Navy band played "Anchors Aweigh."

End of an era

It marked the end of an era, but a new one was already under way.

Middle River had already taken its place in the ranks of the pioneers of the missile and space industry.

Elliott H. Miller, who came to Middle River in 1956 as a technical writer working on proposals for government contracts, remembers the transition. "Middle River was into missiles from the very beginning," he said. "We made the Viking rockets that held the altitude record. They provided the first photos of the curve of the Earth."

He remembers the heartache felt by plant employees in the late 1950s when the Vanguard rocket they built to carry America's first satellite into orbit exploded on the launch pad in a ball of fire, dealing the nation's pride and prestige a major blow.

Things were different eight years later, when a Baltimore-built Titan rocket carried astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young into space. "Everyone in the company felt a great deal of pride," recalled Mr. Miller.

Once they were back on Earth, the two astronauts came to Middle River to thank the workers for a good flight.

Middle River's space-age fame was short-lived. The rocket production was shifted to Denver because it was considered a more difficult target for Soviet nuclear weapons. Employment at Middle River dwindled.

"They almost closed the door in 1969," said Mr. Mettee. "There were no prime contracts. We were doing some machining work and thrust reverser work. We had less than 700 people in 1972."

Middle River got a new lease on life in 1980 when corporate headquarters decided to shift the production of the Navy's shipboard rocket there from Orlando, Fla.

"It was boom times again," said Mr. Mason. "From 1981 to 1985 they were hiring like crazy as employment grew to more than 4,000.

"But since 1990 employment has been dropping again. We're down to about 1,000 and people are still worried that it is going to close."

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