Look Up in the Sky! They Tested Fighter Jets in Calverton, Now They Will Test Drones

Drones take flight!
Drones take flight! Photo: seregalsv/iStock/Thinkstock

Today, here in America, the only time you are likely to see fighter jets come thundering low overhead is at the Super Bowl right after they play “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a breathtaking thing, having that happen, and afterwards it always results in a great roar of delight from the hundred thousand or so people in the stands.

I mention this because when I was a teenager here in the Hamptons, back in the 1950s, this experience took place with some frequency. You’d hear this sound far off, stop whatever you were doing and look up. In the next few moments, a flash of silver fighter jet would scream by, the dust would rise from the street and sidewalks, and the aircraft would be off and gone. I suppose today there is a law against that sort of thing. Back then, there was not, and it was an unexpected thrill that occurred every few days.

The reason we had that back in the 1950s was because the skies were filled with Grumman fighter jets undergoing testing from a huge top-secret facility in Calverton, just to the east of Riverhead. The whole place, about 6,000 acres—half the size of Montauk—was surrounded with chain-link fence and barbed wire, and to get through you had to pass a manned entry gate. A sign over it read NAVAL WEAPONS STATION, and another sign read GRUMMAN. Although what was going on was supposed to be secret, the planes landing and taking off—some with guided missiles under their wings—was a sort of giveaway. They’d fly over the twin forks then out over the ocean, then back to the mainland and up toward Riverhead. It only took a few minutes.

In any case, we were a rural area then, and we were supposed to just mind our own business and take what they gave us. As for me, I quickly learned by reading reports in newspapers to identify exactly what was flying overhead. The aircraft with the sweptback wings doing loops or barrel rolls was the subsonic Grumman F9F Cougar, which soon thereafter served on American Navy aircraft carriers around the world. They built more than a thousand of them. All went through tests here.

Later, when I was in my 20s, the successor to the Cougar went into testing here. These were F-14 Tomcats (the planes that Tom Cruise made famous in the movie Top Gun), twin-tailed fire-breathing defenders of America, roaring along overhead at nearly twice the speed of sound as they went through their paces. They were the best fighter jets in the world, bar none, for the next 15 years.

At one point, the Grumman facilities on Long Island totaled 6 million square feet in buildings at four separate locations, one of which was Calverton. But after about 1970, all the noise stopped. Grumman was testing elsewhere. Peace and quiet descended on this place. Twenty years later, Grumman, after losing its Navy jet fighter contract to others, merged with Northrop and moved entirely off Long Island. This was about 1994. Up in Calverton, the chain-link came down. The Town bought the land for $1, I recall. The buildings were abandoned but left standing. There were also the runways, not one but two. And Grumman also sold its merry-go-round, the one that had been in use at employee picnics on the property. It also went for $1, and is today the centerpiece of downtown Greenport.

Riverhead, now with this incredible facility, commenced to try to develop it as an industrial park, without much success.

But then, in 2008, a company that did mostly residential work in Scotland and had ties to another that had reportedly worked on projects with Donald Trump, agreed to buy 755 acres of the Grumman property for $163 million (this was later changed to $108 million). The plan was to build something on that site about the size of Disney World.

There would be a “Main Street” and a series of theme parks facing out from the shore of a large artificial lake. One would be a waterpark, another a ski and toboggan slope, another a horseback-riding ranch and track, an auto racetrack, several hotels, conference centers and other attractions. There would also be several golf courses, tennis training facilities and ferry boats and jet skis crisscrossing the artificial lake, bringing visitors up to one cove or another, each one leading to a dock or landing at the particular theme park there. The centerpiece for the project was a giant artificial mountain, about 600 feet in height, which, as has been done in Dubai, would have in its innards a useable year-round slalom skiing mountain. And just adjacent there would be a little Swiss ski village.

You probably think I am making this up. But I’m not. Ask around.

In 2010, however, as the country sank into recession, and this company was late on a $3.9 million payment (which they did eventually make), the town board voted to end the deal.

The most recent tenant on the property, in a building and hangar alongside the runway was Skydive Long Island. They’d take you up in their plane and for a fee you’d gently jump out of it with a parachute to float back down. They were real, a company with a national reputation, and Riverhead was glad to have them.

This fall, however, Skydive Long Island closed. Ray Maynard, the owner of that operation, offered a great tip of the parachute and thank you to everyone. He says he’s had a great run, but is retiring for health reasons. He also says he has sold his 16.3 acres and airplane hangar to this new entity, Luminati Aerospace, LLC.

It has been reported that they will build drones. And it’s been reported they may need as many as 2,000 workers from the area as they move ahead, and that they are being backed by a large company, reportedly a giant international high-tech company whose name cannot be revealed at this time—but which is a firm whose name will, I imagine, be very recognizable to everyone when the right time comes. Apple? Google? Amazon? It’s anybody’s guess.

Governor Cuomo has been involved in this. Not long ago, he signed a Calverton Enterprise Park reuse and revitalization district that helped pave the way for this. The Supervisor of Riverhead Town, Sean Walter, referring to Luminati, says, “we’ve got a lot of exciting things coming.”

Meanwhile, there is now an FAA application, filed in the second week of July, for Luminati Aerospace to receive an N-number registration for a small Sarl gyrocopter.

And that leads us to an event that happened in Sag Harbor a few weeks ago. Around 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, The Sag Harbor Express reported, people walking down Main Street in Sag Harbor watched as a small drone helicopter about five feet in diameter came sliding down sideways from the sky to crash into the side of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, shatter, and then fall to the sidewalk and burst into flames. A local passerby ran into the store and came out with a fire extinguisher and put it out, and when it flared up, he put it out again. The Variety Store suffered the loss of several chunks of stucco from its façade.

Soon thereafter, the owner of the drone, a man who was in the business of making videos of local properties from the air appeared, observed the remains of his drone and camera there on the sidewalk and helped clean it up. He said, according to The Sag Harbor Express, that he was done with the flying drone business.

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