Luminati Aerospace founder, CEO and chief technology officer Daniel Preston with the $19.5 million direct fiber placement machinery custom-made for the Calverton company in Spain. Photo: Denise Civiletti
  • Luminati Aerospace and the Town of Riverhead are poised to ink a $40 million deal for the remaining acreage at former Grumman site in Calverton where Luminati will manufacture ultralight commercial and military aircraft.

Luminati founder and CEO Daniel Preston has signed a letter of intent that the town is expected to execute in the coming days. The town will then hold a public hearing on the proposed contract of sale.

Under the terms of the agreement, Luminati will buy all of the town’s remaining acreage at what is now known as the Enterprise Park at Calverton, including the two runways. Luminati will pay the $40 million purchase price in cash for approximately 1,644 acres — 600 of which is buildable land.

The deal will bring up to 2,000 jobs to Riverhead within the next five years, according to Preston.

“We’re going to show the world that Long Island’s still viable in aerospace manufacturing,” Preston said Tuesday afternoon.

He stood inside the cavernous Plant 6 hangar where Northrop Grumman once built fighter jets for the U.S. Navy — which Luminati is currently setting up for aircraft production. The company, which purchased a lot on the runway from Skydive Long Island in 2015, built a prototype half-scale UAV and has been designing and building the machinery it will use to manufacture ultralight aircraft out of the composites Preston has developed and patented.

The humming and whirring of Luminati’s high-tech equipment echoed off the metal walls and high ceiling of the hangar, and the soft-spoken Preston had to raise his voice to be heard over the din.

He gestured at the massive piece of equipment that rotates and dips in the air, suspended from a tall platform that can move back and forth at speeds of up to 40 mph as the head of the direct fiber placement machine moves from side to side.

“For lack a better explanation, this is a jillion-dollar 3D printer of airplanes,” he said.

Preston gazed up at the equipment as it moved through the air, while two engineers at computer terminals calibrated it. The $19.4 million custom-made, 45-ton machine will be ready for production next month, Preston said. It will be capable of producing one plane per day, but production at that level is probably two years away, he said.

“Airplanes are not metal any more,” Preston explained. “Planes are made from textiles—from carbon. The Airbus A380 is 60-percent carbon.”

The massive machine employs technology Preston has patented to create ultralight, ultra-strong composite material. Each piece of carbon fiber “yarn” used to produce the material has 12,000 to 24,000 high-strength filaments in it. The more criss-crossing filaments, the stronger the material.

Hexcel, the largest manufacturer of carbon fiber in the world, which supplies both Airbus and Boeing, invested $10 million in Luminati in exchange for learning Preston’s method, he said. Kaye Veazey, Hexcel vice president of marketing and communication confirmed the investment.

Luminati is partnering with DuPont to assess the benefits of using DuPont’s Kevlar fibers in conjunction with Luminati’s fiber spreading and composite fabric technology to create lightweight body armor. Luminati believes that the same technology can be used for ballistic grade armor for planes.

“There’s a lot of aerospace structures that need to be bulletproof. There are a number of UAVs in the Department of Defense’s arsenal. Predator is the number one. The starting price is at $17 million and they go up from there. Almost all the ones we lose in the field are from small-arms fire. We can make their primary structures lighter than what they’re currently doing and ballistic-rated.”

“We’ve had an independent lab certifying us as one-half the weight of anything the DOD has for armor-piercing munitions and one-third the weight of anything they have for AK-47, magnum, handgun rounds and so forth,” Preston said. “That caught the attention of some industry giants. So this line will probably be running constantly for DOD.” Luminati already has the first three aircraft in contract to “a very large public defense company,” Preston said.

In another area of the humongous hangar is equipment that can produce fabric with circuitry “embroidered” right into it.

A portion of the Plant 6 hangar, where Luminati has set up shop. Photo Denise Civiletti

Preston, an aeronautical engineer, is an inventor who holds numerous patents and a serial entrepreneur. He founded his first aeronautics firm, Atair Aerospace, in 2001. Atair made lightweight, high-tech parachutes for the military. He sold Atair in 2009. A native New Yorker, Preston rode out a non-compete agreement by turning his attention to another startup he founded in Brooklyn, an artisanal chocolate company and distillery. When the non-compete expired, he returned to his true passion, aviation — which in turn led to Luminati and his quest for perpetual, solar- and wind-powered unmanned flight.

Preston bristles at the suggestion that Luminati is “just a start-up,” a criticism leveled by town supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith during a press conference about the enterprise park on Monday. Preston said he and the members of his team are the “who’s who of the industry,” all “at the pinnacles” of their careers. He’s attracted top talent from every major aviation company, he said.

“I’ve got four of my aircraft in the Smithsonian,” Preston said. “One is hanging opposite the Wright flyer. Trying to put us down and call us a start-up is just really uninformed.”

Solar cells line both wings of an ultralight half-scale aircraft Luminati demonstrated last June. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Luminati paid $3.4 million to buy the former Skydive Long Island site in 2015. Last year, it entered into a lease with an option to buy the much larger, Plant 6 hangar. Preston said he’s invested $30 million since coming to the Town of Riverhead, including purchasing and leasing property, site improvements, salaries, machinery and equipment. Among other things, he had to level and resurface the entire hangar floor at Plant 6, because the high-tech composite manufacturing equipment has to be perfectly balanced.

The trajectory of his business development made it clear to Preston he’d need more space — and site control — which inspired him to negotiate to buy the town’s remaining acreage.

“In purchasing the entire site, I don’t have to move to the Carolinas. I can set it up here. In five years time, we’ll be in the range of 800 to 2000 employees here,” he said.

“We put forth a proposal the town thinks has the greatest economic impact — a combination of the jobs created, money invested and the money we’re paying to them,” Preston said.

The cash deal will not be contingent on the approval of the town’s subdivision, he said. He doesn’t care whether or not it’s approved.

“The value of this land is using it for what it was intended: aviation manufacturing. With that in mind, the subdivision makes zero sense. If you want to create a couple thousand jobs, it does not make sense.”

The 7,000-foot runway at the former Grumman site. File photo: Peter Blasl

Luminati will need to invest $15 million in runway repairs and maintenance. The runways are “on the cusp” of becoming useless for lack of maintenance over the past two decades, Preston said. All of the runway and taxiway lighting has been stolen over the years, he said. “You can buy it on eBay,” he said. “People have been souveniring here for decades.” New security systems alone will cost about $5 million, he said.

By conveying all of its 2,300 acres to Luminati, not just the 600 acres state environmental regulators agree can be developed, the town will relieve itself of responsibility to maintain the vacant land, Supervisor Sean Walter said. Mowing alone can cost the town $100,000 a year, he said.

Under the terms of the deal with the town, Riverhead will restrict by covenant the ability of Luminati to use the site as a passenger airport,” Walter said.

Luminati is not interested in operating a passenger airport, though customers and others will fly in for meetings.

“Aviation’s changed drastically in the last 20 or 30 years,” Preston said. “We’ve been operating a jet out of here since the beginning. I would say no one’s even noticed, let alone heard it. Turbines today are quiet,” he said. “And this is 3,100 acres.”

“In order to bring in something this large, there’s going to be synergistic companies that want to move in also,” Preston said. “Our intention is to make it an aviation manufacturing base. Anyone that can add to the group is welcome.”

Asked if Luminati would build housing at the site — the new zoning allows up to 300 dwelling units as accessory uses to commercial or industrial uses — Preston said, “Absolutely not. Housing has no place in an aviation manufacturing park.”

Standing outside Plant 6 in a cold drizzle Tuesday afternoon, Preston looked around and lamented that he never got to see the former Grumman manufacturing plant in operation. He says he’s in awe of the history of the site, where Grumman built and tested the A-6 Intruder, E-2 Hawkeye, EA-6B Prowler and F-14 Tomcat aircraft.

“I absolutely respect everything that was done here,” Preston said. “This facility is a dream come true for us — morphing it into something that’s modern and with the times and viable.

“We’re going to bring back the glory days.”

Correction: This article has been amended since originally published to amend a statement regarding the number of patents held by Luminati CEO Daniel Preston and an overstatement by the town of the number of acres proposed to be sold to Luminati.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.