When ground was broken for what’s now the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta back in 1942, local leaders and their counterparts in uniform and in Washington had only one thing on their minds: winning the war.
Those local leaders like Marietta Mayor Rip Blair, County Commissioner George McMillan and County Attorney Jimmie V. Carmichael, as well as Bell Aircraft founder Larry Bell and Army Major Lucius D. Clay in Washington (who despite his modest rank was wielding tremendous de facto authority in the War Department as a member of the Airport Approval Board) knew the advent of the Bell Aircraft plant and the B-29 Superfortress bombers it would build would translate to plentiful jobs for local people, but Job 1 was winning the war. And it was a war we were clearly losing at that point, so they can all be forgiven for failing to foresee that the plant they were helping launch would still be here 72 years later – still churning out aircraft and still providing plenty of jobs for local residents.
They likely would have been dumbstruck to learn that a plane that would roll out of the plant 13 years later — the Lockheed C-130 Hercules — would still be in steady production in 2014, some 59 years after its 1955 rollout, or that the “Herk” would go down in history as the longest continuously produced military aircraft in the world.
After all, those leaders had to overcome strenuous opposition in Washington to the very idea of using federal dollars to build an aircraft assembly plant in Georgia. Georgia’s public schools had the pretty much the same reputation in those days that they do nowadays, and some in the War Department predicted there was no way that a bunch of farmers and rednecks would ever be able to build airplanes — especially not the B-29 Superfortress, which was to be the biggest, fastest and most technologically advanced aircraft ever built to that point.
But those farmers and rednecks eventually proved them wrong, after Washington realized that Atlanta was the largest metropolitan area in the country without a big munitions plant — and thus, had a large untapped supply of potential laborers for such a plant.
The plant eventually provided work for nearly 30,000 people by the summer of 1945, assembling 668 copies of the B-29 identical to those that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the world’s bloodiest war. The Marietta plant abruptly closed just weeks after Hiroshima, then was reopened by Lockheed early in the Korean War and has been open ever since.
The decades have seen the plant’s production lines transition from the B-29 bomber to the B-47 Stratojet bomber; then from the B-47 to the mighty C-130; then from the C-130 to the even bigger, jet-powered and locally designed C-141 StarLifter cargo plane; and then from the C-141 to the biggest cargo plane of them all, the gargantuan C-5 Galaxy.
The years have also seen the plant perfect planes like the first modern VIP transport aircraft, the JetStar; and the P-3 Orion maritime surveillance plane. And the past two decades saw much of the plant given over to the development and production of the F-22 Raptor, the world’s most capable fighter jet. With the Obama administration having now pulled the plug on that program, the plant is focusing instead on building the center-wing box and applying advanced stealth coatings for the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.
Employment at the plant is nowhere near what it was during its peak during the WWII and Vietnam years. And barring another major war, and considering the trend toward automation, it’s possible it never will be. But that’s OK. It’s ready to grow again whenever the Pentagon and the plant’s corporate bosses in Fort Worth are.
For now, Marietta can lay claim to being home to an aviation assembly plant that’s not just one of the country’s oldest and most storied, but also one of its most up-to-date and capable.
Seventy-two and counting doesn’t sound bad at all.
More than 2,400 C-130s have been built and about 1,400 are still operating in 70 countries. Lockheed Martin has sold C-130s to governments and commercial firms in 63 nations. Over the years, some original C-130 customers have sold their aircraft to other nations. As a result, C-130s have flown under the flags of 76 different nations.
C-130J Operators: Australia, Canada, Denmark, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, United Kingdom and United States flown by( Air Force active duty, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps (KC-130J) and U.S. Coast Guard).
Lockheed Martin’s Marietta site is building F-35 center wing assemblies. The F-35 final aircraft assembly line is at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, site.
U.S. Air Force • U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps • United Kingdom • Italy • Netherlands • Turkey • Australia • Norway • Denmark • Canada • Japan • Israel • South Korea
P-3 Operators: The total number of P-3s built is 755 (650 built by Lockheed Martin, including one prototype; 105 built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan). There are 435 P-3 aircraft in the worldwide fleet in 17 nations operated by 20 domestic and international governments and agencies:
• Domestic: U.S. Navy; U.S. Customs & Border Protection; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and NASA.
• International: Argentina; Australia; Brazil; Canada (CP-140 Aurora and Arcturus); Chile; Germany; Greece; Japan; Korea; New Zealand; Norway; Pakistan; Portugal; Spain; Taiwan; and Thailand.
Joe Kirby is editorial page editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of two books on the history of Marietta’s aviation plant: “The Bell Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”