C-130 slowdown prompts cuts at Lockheed plant

Lockheed Martin is cutting about 550 jobs at its Marietta plant as it slows production of its primary aircraft line.

The move, announced Wednesday but already underway, is a blow to the sprawling Marietta plant and poses concerns about the future of the company's C-130 Hercules cargo plane. The program's production line in Marietta is the longest continuously operating military aircraft production line in history.

Lockheed spokesman Peter Simmons said the company cut staff because production of the latest version, the C-130J, has plunged by one third from 2011 to 2013. The company will use retirements and attrition to account for some of the job cuts, with the rest accomplished through layoffs.

"We will strive to keep that number as small as possible," Simmons said.

Lockheed has warned about 10,000 of its 120,000 employees worldwide could lose their jobs if $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade go through, and it's threatened to send layoff warnings days before the November election.

The cuts in Marietta, though, have more to do with a recent dip in demand for the C-130J.

Lockheed workers churned out 36 C-130Js in 2011 to meet the U.S. government's demand, but that number dropped to 32 this year and is set to fall to 24 per year starting in 2013. The company said global demand "remains high, but we must match our domestic and international customers' contractual schedules."

Companywide, Lockheed has cut 26,000 jobs in the past three years, even as it received more money from the government.

The company employs about 8,700 people in Georgia, including about 7,440 at its Marietta plant. Since 2010 the number of Marietta employees has dropped by about 600, and the plant last spring ended production of the F-22 fighter.

The first version of the C-130 was introduced in 1956, and the model has enjoyed remarkable staying power.

Aviation experts said that's because it's long been priced at a reasonable point that both superpowers and smaller nations can afford. And the versatile aircraft has also proved adept at a range of mid-range missions, carrying troops, cargo and even radar-jamming technology for spycraft.

"You can outfit it to do myriad tasks, from carrying paratroopers to carrying humanitarian goods," said Micky Blackwell, a former Lockheed executive.

The company would not say if other plants involved in the C-130J program are also cutting staff. The Tribune-Democrat newspaper reported last week that 50 of 400 employees lost jobs at a parts plant in Johnstown, Penn.

Denise Rakestraw, who heads Local Lodge 709, a union that represents thousands of Lockheed's Marietta employees, said more than 250 people have already lost their jobs since the beginning of the year. The jobs pay between $20 to $26 an hour.

"It's painful," said Rakestraw, who once worked on the C-130 line. "There's still long-term confidence in the C-130 line. It's the most tried and true. I think we'll work through this. It's not going to be a real momentary blip, but it's the nature of the industry to have ups and downs."