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Chris Ryan

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s an opportunity for a reunion, a celebration of a major employer on Long Island, and a chance to recognize the role residents played in a landmark achievement from the 1960s all rolled into one exhibition.

Kicking off tonight with a discussion and reception, the Port Jefferson Village Center will present an exhibit titled Grumman on Long Island, A Photographic Tribute featuring photographs and memorabilia from Grumman. The company, which became part of Northrop Grumman in 1994, started in 1929 and was involved in everything from the design of F-14 fighter jets to the lunar excursion module that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon 50 years ago this July.

Sponsored by Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy, the exhibition will run through February. Port Jefferson Village Historian Chris Ryon will kick off the evening and John Hiz, who is the Belle Terre village historian, will serve as the master of ceremonies.

Special guests include former Grumman employees Vinny DeStefano, vice president of manufacturing; Hank Janiesch, vice president (F-14 Program); Rodger Schafer, technical adviser; Joe “Ruggs” Ruggerio, director of electronic warfare; Harold Sheprow, a flight test manager and former mayor of Port Jefferson; Jim Reynolds Sr., an ILS engineer; and Cmdr. Jim Roth, a combat pilot and aviation test pilot who was an instructor for the first Grumman A-6 Intruder squadron.

The exhibition boasts approximately 100 photos, which former Grumman employees provided to celebrate the company’s legacy. “People are coming in every day with boxes,” said Ryon in a recent interview.

In addition to the photos, the exhibition includes a test pilot helmet and several models that are 1/10th the scale of planes, including the X29, an F-14 and the Hawkeye.

“We are anticipating a huge turnout for this exhibit,” said Margot Garant, the mayor of Port Jefferson. “Grumman was an important economic engine for Long Island.” The aerospace company attracted many people to Long Island, Garant said, and she expects that many of them will visit the exhibit to share their experiences with former co-workers. The mayor said Ryon and Hiz have received a “massive response from people” who are proud of their role at the company.

Grumman designed and produced the lunar module that helped Capt. Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert return safely from the troubled Apollo 13 mission. “We have [pictures of] Apollo 13 astronauts speaking to Grumman employees,” Ryon said.

When he was bobbing up and down after returning to Earth, Lovell recognized that Grumman helped save their lives, Hiz said. “That was a defining moment in what it meant to fly a Grumman aircraft, which was reliable, rugged and dependable,” he added.

Grumman alumni also shared their appreciation for the way the company treated them, including the yearly picnic complete with carnival rides and providing turkeys to their families during Christmas and Thanksgiving. “What’s really hit me is the emotional response people have when they talk about Grumman,” said Ryon.

Reynolds, who worked at Grumman for 40 years and retired in 2005, said the exhibit highlights all the vehicles that were tested and the ones that landed on the moon, adding he appreciated how management cared for the people who worked at the company. 

He recalled how he put his youngest son John Thomas Reynolds into the cockpit of an F-14 and told him not to touch anything. Reynolds asked his technicians to run the gear and fold the wings in and out. His son was so excited that his “eyes were tremendous,” Reynolds recalls. “For a young boy, it was really quite an experience.” 

A resident of Selden for 52 years, Reynolds said he recently ran into Vinny DeStefano, a former Grumman manager and the two former co-workers “shook hands for about an hour.”

The exhibit will also feature a test pilot section, which contains stories from Amy Tuttle, the program director at the Greater Port Jefferson-North Brookhaven Arts Council, whose father Bruce was a test pilot. Tuttle had to ditch his plane in 1951 outside of Port Jefferson Harbor (see sidebar).

Through several decades when Grumman employed over 20,000 people on Long Island, the company and the area were inextricably intertwined. “There was probably not a day that went by during the period prior to 1994 that you weren’t faced with” a Grumman connection, said Hiz, whether on WALK radio advertisements or seeing trucks on the Long Island Expressway.

Hiz described Grumman as being at the apex of the nation’s defense for so many years. At its heyday, Grumman built 70 percent of all the aircraft that flew from aircraft carriers, Hiz said. Part of what made Grumman so effective was the way the company designed each vehicle like a Swiss watch. 

“They created these fantastic flying machines with their hands. Most of the machinery, they had to build from day one,” said Hiz, adding that the work ethic of the employees and the ability to promote from within added to its resourcefulness.

Reynolds took “great pride in what I did on the program,” he said. He started as a technician in 1965 and received numerous awards, including a 10-day trip to Hawaii that he took with his wife.

“Don’t underestimate how important Grumman was to these guys who worked there and women that worked there,” Tuttle added. “They were incredibly devoted to the company. It was a corporation which was pretty unusual even then.”

The Port Jefferson Village Center, 101A East Main St., Port Jefferson will present Grumman on Long Island, A Photographic Tribute on its second- and third-floor galleries through Feb. 28. An opening reception will be held tonight, Jan. 10, from 6 to 9 p.m. with entertainment by Jazzopedia, a Grumman video tribute and light fare. For more information, call 631-802-2160. 

Sidebar:

Test pilot Bruce Tuttle brought ‘The Right Stuff’ to Long Island

By Daniel Dunaief

Bruce Tuttle

“The Right Stuff,” a phrase made famous by the late Tom Wolfe book about fighter pilots and astronauts, also thrived on Long Island.

On Dec. 10, 1951, Navy test pilot Bruce Tuttle took an F9S to varying altitudes, where he was asked to turn off the engine and then turn it back on. At 5,000 feet, everything worked as it should. Doubling that to 10,000 caused no problems. It wasn’t until 30,000 feet that the plane refused to reignite, causing a flame out.

Needing to ditch the plane, Tuttle directed it toward the Long Island Sound, ejecting into the thin air at over 5.5 miles in the sky.

Tuttle reached the frigid water, where he waited for eight minutes for help to arrive. When it did, the initial report indicated that he looked slightly better than expected. Tuttle told the Navy the only physical consequence of his fall was a scratch to his nose but he had fractured several vertebrae. Rather than take himself out of the running for future flights, Tuttle dealt with the pain and slept on a board for a year.

“All of these pilots looked at that as not only their calling, but they felt very strongly that this was important as Americans,” said Amy Tuttle, Bruce Tuttle’s youngest child and the program director at the Greater Port Jefferson-North Brookhaven Arts Council. “They were all patriotic guys.”

The plane Bruce Tuttle flew is still at the bottom of the Long Island Sound. 

The new Grumman exhibit at the Port Jefferson Village Center features several details from the test pilot’s work at the company and on behalf of the country, including a sonar image of the plane, which over the years has moved with the current under the Sound and is about two miles out from Old Field Point and the mouth of Port Jefferson Harbor. “If you take the Port Jefferson/ Bridgeport Ferry, you’re going right past the spot where dad’s plane crashed,” said Amy, whose father died in 2014.

Like other test pilots, Bruce Tuttle received a request to gauge his interest in joining the space program. He turned down the opportunity to be an astronaut because he didn’t want to be “in anything he couldn’t control,” explained Amy.

A Saks-34th Street advertisement from Oct. 11, 1953, reads, ‘Now you can own a jacket just like Bruce Tuttle’s … Chief Test Pilot for Grumman Aircraft Corp.’ Image courtesy of Amy Tuttle

Her father did, however, contribute to the space effort. When a crippled Apollo 13 was hobbling back from its ill-fated mission to the moon, he worked feverishly with other executives at NASA, Grumman and elsewhere to help guide the astronauts home.

“He’d come home from Bethpage to Stony Brook at 11 p.m., get up at 4 a.m. and go back out to Bethpage,” Amy said. “I remember asking him, ‘Dad, are you going to be able to get them back?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re working on it.’” She appreciated how her father couldn’t, and wouldn’t, guarantee a positive outcome.

Her father “worked on the lunar excursion module. They were using everybody’s knowledge that had ever worked on it to try to find a solution,” she said.

Amy thinks Apollo 13 was especially nerve wracking for test pilots like her father, who had been in combat, because it was “so important for them to get these guys on this mission back in one piece. The mindset was: no guy left behind.”

Bruce Tuttle’s interest in flying started on May 20, 1927, when his mother took him to a hillside in Port Jefferson to see Charles Lindbergh’s plane as it attempted to cross the Atlantic. Tuttle saw Lindbergh fly along the North Shore, head back as he reached Port Jefferson because of fog, and then head east again when he reached a clearing in Setauket.

“That made a big impression on him,” Amy said of her father, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross medal and who worked for Grumman from 1946 until the mid-1980s.

While Tuttle isn’t sure whether her father inspired anyone to fly jets, she said he was in an advertisement for a flight jacket from Saks-34th, which cost $15.95 in 1953.

Amy said her father was skeptical of the overuse of the word “hero.”

“He would say, ‘I’m not a hero,’ and I’m thinking to myself, you crashed a jet so that it wouldn’t land on anybody else and kill them. That’s pretty heroic.”

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