MERIDIAN — When Lockheed Martin officials announced that their Meridian plant had started making parts for the new F-22 “Raptor” fighter plane, it was a breakthrough in high-tech production.
The announcement took place at the plant on Feb. 24 before an enthusiastic crowd of about 400 local dignitaries and employees.
In his remarks, Lockheed Martin F-22 vice president Bob Rearden used those magic words that any defense contractor loves to say: “On time and under budget,” when describing the Meridian operation.
In a later interview, plant manager Steve Cobb said, “We have a history of that.”
The Meridian workforce, currently numbering 120, has earned those and many other accolades since they cranked up in 1969. It was the first company to locate in what is now the G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery Industrial Park and has turned out a wide variety of products.
The original Meridian product was the tail section of the commercial airline L-1011, then came a string of military orders including the doors for the humongous C-5, then the doors for the C-141 transport. The most recent production has been 70% of the fuselage panels and other parts for the workhorse C-137-J, but the annual number had dropped from 36 to 12 due to dwindling orders. So the F-22 announcement was indeed good news and a further affirmation of Lockheed Martin’s confidence in the Meridian plant.
“Our experience with the Meridian workforce is very, very favorable with a very attractive cost structure,” vice president Rearden said, “and the F-22 vertical stabilizer production is compatible with their skills.”
Six of the new Raptors have already been produced and are undergoing testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Those six are part of a Lockheed contract with the Air Force for 17 F-22’s and, according to Rearden, 23 more are under “advanced procurement” (translation: Lockheed has already placed orders with suppliers for the necessary parts).
The Raptor will replace the current F-15 in 2005 and will be “the air dominance fighter of the 21st century,” according to the company brochure. Long-range plans are to produce 339 of the planes which have a stealth capability in addition to highly sophisticated weaponry to support friendly forces. Under those plans, production will conclude in 2013.
Chuck Easterwood is typical of the Meridian plant employees. He started there after his Meridian High School graduation and has been there 31 years, so he’s run the gamut in all of those products. He said his favorite assembly line work is on the F-22’s vertical stabilizer which has a titanium frame and a composite skin.
“Right now, it’s new and we’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “Because of the high tech aspects, we’re exploring new territory.”
Plant manager Cobb started with Lockheed Martin in 1985 in the Marietta operation. He’s been in his present position for four years and said that about 40% of the original employees are still on the line.
“They are experienced, well trained and productive. The only employee turnover we have is when someone retires,” he said with a smile.
With an average wage of $20 per hour, that’s no surprise. Job applicants need to know that there’s a waiting list of 59 employees who have been laid off due to the C-137-J slowdown. So any new employees will endure a long wait before being paged.
Easterwood and his fellow workers are generally on a 40-hour, four-day per week schedule from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
But he ruefully recalls being laid off due to a production slowdown in 1982, “But that’s the nature of the (defense contracting) business,” he said.
“It’s provided me a good living and we have a good work ethic and take pride in our work,” he said emphatically. “We’ve got to provide quality work because what we’re doing entails someone’s life.”
As for the C-130-J, Cobb said due to the plane’s versatility and reliability, the beat will go on for it.
“There are 2,000 of those in the field and some of them are 40 years old,” he said, “so the updated version that we make is a vast improvement and there’s no alternative to that plane. It can land on almost any surface-there doesn’t even have to be a runway.”
Customers include the full range of defense forces from the Air Force to the Coast Guard and National Guard and reserve units.
Among those in the crowd applauding the F-22 good news was former Congressman Sonny Montgomery, who’s renowned for being a close friend of Lockheed Martin’s (one company official described Montgomery as “being a legend in his own time”). Knowledgeable insiders say Montgomery is responsible for carrying on the influence that the beloved Senator John Stennis had in defense issues. Stennis is given much of the credit for bringing the Lockheed Martin plant to Meridian.
One of those continuing to carry the torch for the Meridian operation is Montgomery’s successor, Congressman Chip Pickering, who was one of the speakers at the announcement. His enthusiasm over the good news was especially understandable given the likelihood of his being in an elimination battle with one of Mississippi’s other congressmen this fall. And Pickering confirmed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s continued interest in the stability of the Meridian plant.
After all, the local operation is dwarfed by the parent Marietta plant with its 9,000 employees. All of Meridian’s production is shipped to Marietta for further assembly, so if the 120 employees in Meridian — and their production — were moved over there, they would hardly be noticed.
So leave it up to plant manager Steve Cobb to sum up why Meridian will continue to be a part of the Lockheed Martin game plan: “It’s a smart business decision to put work here. This is a good work force and they deserve this publicity. I’m proud to be here with them.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.