Former Grumman fighters in Calverton need a facelift

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Bob Lawless of Bellport stopped by Grumman Memorial Park with his 5-year-old twin grandsons, Alex and Ayden Labella of Sayville, on Tuesday. He said the first thing the boys noticed was peeling paint on the F-14 Tomcat’s nose.

A path of engraved bricks at Grumman Memorial Park in Calverton narrates the legacy of Grumman Aerospace Corporation.

“I pride myself for working for a company like Grumman,” one reads.

“Grumman should never be forgotten,” another insists.

But in the five years since Riverhead Town took control of the site, those who helped establish the park say those words are losing their meaning.

Grumman Memorial Park, located on Route 25 near the Route 25A intersection on the former Grumman Aerospace Flight Test Facility property, pays tribute to the advances in aviation and aerospace that took place on Long Island throughout the 20th century. The park opened in 2000 thanks to the volunteer efforts of the nonprofit East End Aircraft group. In 2008, the organization entered into a licensing agreement with the town and relinquished all responsibility for the improvement, maintenance and public access to the park.

Town Board members approved the agreement unanimously.

Since then, East End Aircraft has dissolved and the F-14 and A-6E model fighter jets on display at the park have become chipped and weathered, much to the shock and disgust of those who helped open the tribute 13 years ago.

Last week, former East End Aircraft group volunteer Pat Van de Wetering wrote a letter on behalf of the Greater Calverton Civic Association urging Riverhead Town Board members to take action to protect the historic aircraft.

“As residents of Calverton we are proud to have this memorial park; however, the present condition of the aircraft is an embarrassment,” the letter stated.

“It’s a disgrace,” Greater Calverton Civic Association president Rex Farr said about what’s happened to the memorial’s airplanes, one of which has birds nesting on it.

Allowing the planes to deteriorate, Mr. Farr said, is “insane and a great disrespect to our heritage.”

The East End Aircraft group convinced the U.S. Navy 16 years ago to lend the F-14 for display at the one-acre memorial park. The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is one of the top fighter planes in the nation’s military history — and one of the most famous, thanks in part to Hollywood movies like “Top Gun,” which came out in 1986 and featured the plane.

The plane donated by the Navy for the memorial was one of 700 models made by Grumman at the Calverton facility between 1971 and 1992.

The plane was first flown into Gabreski Airport in January 1998, where it was decommissioned by the Navy, its engines and weapons removed. It was towed to Calverton in October 1998. The F-14 was fixed to its pedestal in July 2000 and the park was opened to the public three months later, in October.

The museum’s A-6E Intruder was added to the park in 2005. That plane was the next-to-last of its kind built by the Grumman Aerospace Corporation. After entering service in 1972, it flew with nine Navy squadrons, including bombing missions over Iraq during the first Gulf War, before being decommissioned and donated to the park.

The park was maintained by volunteers for eight years before the town took over the property. In 2008, Joe Van de Wetering, then the chairman of East End Aircraft, cited a dwindling pool of volunteers as the group’s primary reason for turning the park over to the town.

“Our volunteers are getting older and some of them are disappearing; I don’t mean to Florida,” he previously told the News-Review.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said this week it’s a lack of funding, not lack of effort, that threatens the future of the aircraft.

“It’s not in the town’s budget,” he said, adding that he’s reached out to town engineers and an expert to talk about potential project costs.

In the past, East End Aircraft volunteers generate money for the park through fundraisers. Currently, proceeds from the sale of memorial bricks placed along the park’s Walk of Honor are deposited into a town-operated account that was established by the licensing agreement. The Walk of Honor money is intended to help fund upkeep of the museum, including the aircraft. But at $75 per brick, those proceeds do not cover cost of painting and restoring the planes, according to Pat Van de Wetering, who is paid $10 per brick sold for her efforts.

Currently, the town landscapes the grounds and provides the labor to install the bricks, Ms. Van de Wetering said.

“I know there are money issues; our main concern is the planes,” Ms. Van De Wetering said.

In 2007, when the planes were last painted, Ms. Van De Wetering recalled the process as being “pricey.” However, during the last five years the town has not sought out a quote for the necessary paint jobs, she said.

“What upsets me the most is that [the town] has not even gotten a quote. I have given the town the phone number of the person that previously painted the planes. They haven’t called.” Ms. Van de Wetering said.

But Mr. Walter said he will be coordinating with town engineers and has spoken with Andrew Parson, director of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, to figure out the proper way to restore the planes.

“We are working with the town to find a solution that’s not a burden to the taxpayers,” Mr. Parson said. “Sometimes it’s a simple paint job, but sometimes it’s more complicated. This type of work needs expertise; it can get expensive.”

There is no time frame for completing the maintenance work, Mr. Walter said. But Mr. Parson advised that work on the planes should finished before the winter, when they will become more susceptible to further damage from the elements.

“We have the time from now until the fall to hopefully get this done,” Mr. Parson said.

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