Large, noisy machinery whirred and hummed inside the cavernous aircraft hangar in Calverton where Grumman Aerospace once manufactured F-14 Tomcat fighter jets for the U.S. Navy, setting the stage Friday for the announcement of the “grand reopening” of “Plant Six” by Luminati Aerospace cofounder and CEO Daniel Preston.
Invoking the glory days of innovation in the place where Grumman engineers “pushed the state of the art” to manufacture “one of the greatest fighter jets ever made … deployed to protect democracy and freedom,” Preston told the crowd gathered inside Plant Six Friday, “It can all happen again.”
Standing at a podium on a temporary stage erected in front of a massive fiber layup machine that intermittently came to life behind him, Preston summarized his vision for a rapt audience of government officials, local business owners, Grumman retirees and a gaggle of cameras.
“Luminati’s initial project will be the research, development, testing and manufacture of HALE aircraft — high-altitude, long endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles,” Preston said.
“After the initial project is concluded, Luminati’s business plan is to be a major force in the aerospace industry, focusing on its unique abilities in ultra-thin ply composites,” he said.
“Luminati is in contract negotiations to acquire an additional 2,300 acres of property here. Our business plan requires significant expansion, as well as the need to create a synergistic ecosystem of many other companies to work in tandem at EPCAL. Our proposed use of EPCAL will result in thousands of high-paying jobs and have a positive impact on the local economy,” Preston said.
“I’m very proud that after a hiatus of 25 years, Plant Six is operational again,” he declared.
Luminati advisory board member Dr. Anthony Tether, former director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told the audience that Luminati’s success “will change the world by providing an affordable platform that can connect th 4 billion people of the world that do not have access to the internet.” Internet connectivity was a goal of DARPA, because it was believed “perhaps naively” that “the world over time would become one and have a single purpose rather than the fractionated place it is today,” Tether said.
“It won’t be easy, but Luminati is very well-positioned to reach its goal,” he said.
Tether likened the startup’s presence in Calverton to the early tech companies that opened in the early 1970s in what was to become known as Silicon Valley in the bay area of California. Tether said he worked there himself at a time when other companies followed the first few because “they knew there were smart people there,” he said.
“It can happen here, yes it can,” Tether said. “It starts today with Luminati opening here.”
Other speakers included Luminati advisory board members Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Dennis Romano, a former Grumman executive, Andy Parton, executive director of the Cradle of Aviation Museum and Terry Virts, a former NASA astronaut.
Then, flanked by the program speakers, Preston snipped a red satin ribbon for the cameras.
Following the ceremonies, Preston led a throng of media and others on tours of the equipment in the hangar — equipment he said in a March interview he’d spent more than $19 million to buy, including the direct fiber placement machine, designed and manufactured by MTorres in Spain, which is used in aircraft manufacturing in both commercial and military sectors internationally.
Preston did not say whether work has actually begun — or when it will begin — on aircraft development and manufacturing at Plant Six. A spokesperson could not answer the question on his behalf, and said Friday he would seek an answer to the question. He has not yet responded.
Preston announced last June that Luminati would move its operations to a portion of the 338,000-square-foot building, rather than build a large facility on the former Skydive Long Island site Luminati purchased through a shell corporation for $3.4 million in October 2015. Constructing a larger building there, on the site directly adjacent to EPCAL’s active runway, had been Luminati’s original plan. Instead, Luminati leased a large portion of Plant Six. The company’s offices are located in a building attached to the smaller hangar on the former Skydive site.
In April, following the announcement of its $40 million offer to buy most of the remaining undeveloped land at the Calverton Enterprise Park, Luminati announced it would host “The Cradle of Aviation Air Show” there on June 17. The event would “showcase the latest in electrically powered aircraft and pay homage to aviation’s golden past,” according to a Luminati press release.
“To mark the occasion, Luminati will be unveiling Team Stratos — Luminati’s new team of aerospace scientists and engineers who will be designing and producing the next generation of solar-electric aircraft, bringing aerospace manufacturing back to Long Island,” the release said.
The air show was canceled because Luminati had not applied for a permit to hold the event and it was already too late to apply; Riverhead Town Code requires a special event application to be filed at least 120 days in advance.
Absent: ‘Team Stratos,’ the Luminati ‘Dream Team’ and Seamax
Luminati then scheduled Friday’s ribbon-cutting event to announce the “grand reopening” of Plant Six. Preston did not mention “Team Stratos” on Friday, nor did he introduce any of the scientists and engineers who will work on developing Luminati’s aircraft, as stated in the April press release. There were a number of men in white lab coats in attendance Friday, one of whom appeared to be working on the fiber layup machine during the event.
Also absent at Friday’s event were members of the “dream team” Preston announced when he purchased the Skydive property and said they’d be working there to develop aircraft capable of perpetual flight for a Fortune 250 company. As first reported by RiverheadLOCAL in April, Luminati senior scientist Dr. Anthony Calise and chief operating officer Stefan Maier — introduced by Preston to town officials as key members of the Luminati “dream team” at meetings and a public hearing on a runway lease agreement — have left the company. Calise, who said he “led the entire tech effort, all of the design work and had a team of engineers reporting to me,” said he resigned last fall. Maier said through a spokesperson he’d resigned in late March and had been advised by his attorney against speaking publicly about the reasons for his resignation.
Three other technical employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told RiverheadLOCAL they had resigned from the company.
A page on Luminati’s website listing 18 company staff members was removed following publication of the original article.
One Luminati staffer employed as a spokesperson acknowledged in an April interview that Calise and Maier had resigned. In addition, according to the spokesperson, Jeremy Freeman, seven of the other staff members depicted on Luminati’s website were then “on leave.”
Freeman has also since left the company, he said in an interview last month.
No one from Hexcel, which made a $10 million loan to Luminati, according to the Connecticut-based company’s 2016 annual report, was introduced at Friday’s event. In a March interview, Preston said Hexcel made a $10 million investment in Luminati in exchange for learning his method for manufacturing ultra-thin composites. Hexcel in September recorded a $3.4 million mortgage lien against Luminati’s 400 David Court property (the former Skydive site).
Nor was anyone introduced from Dupont, the company that manufactures Kevlar, which entered a research agreement with Luminati. The deal was reported by Newsday in March.
A year ago, at the Luminati event featuring a public demonstration flight of a half-scale prototype solar- and wind- powered aircraft, where Preston announced the upcoming move to Plant Six, he also announced that Luminati had entered into a partnership with Richard Rofé, who had purchased the right to manufacture Seamax in the USA from a South American company. Seamax would begin manufacturing amphibious aircraft at Luminati and would be in full production by Halloween, Preston said.
Former Luminati spokesman Freeman said in April that plans to manufacture the Seamax had been “put on the back burner” to concentrate on the production of the ultralight unmanned solar aircraft.
But a representative of Golden Flyer Construcies Aeronauticas, of San Paulo, Brazil, which owns the Seamax design, told RiverheadLOCAL the company terminated its contract with Rofé in September, after Rofé brought a legal action in Brazil against Golden Flyer over a contract dispute. The Brazilian company, in a notice addressed to Rofe, Seamax America, Luminati Aerospace and Hexcel, demanded Seamax America LLC immediately cease using the Seamax name and brand.
Rofé was not at Friday’s event and could not be reached for comment.
‘Qualified and Eligible’… for what?
As Luminati negotiates a contract to buy between somewhere between 1,800 and 2,300 acres of vacant land from the Town of Riverhead Community development agency, it must also prepare to demonstrate it is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” pursuant to state law.
Supervisor Sean Walter said Friday Luminati the undisclosed Fortune 250 company initially backing Luminati was Facebook, but Luminati and the social media giant had parted ways, as reported by Newsday June 15. He said in an interview he did not know when Luminati’s arrangement with Facebook had ended.
“I had correspondence with Facebook before I was contacted by Preston,” he said. “I had meetings with Facebook representatives. I know they were around during the first year Luminati was here. Then they parted company. I don’t know why or when,” Walter said.
A Luminati spokesman told Newsday the company could not identify its “previous investor” due to a nondisclosure agreement, but according to the paper, said it is “exploring a number of funding sources and a number of investors for the land deal.”
Walter said the town’s main concern for making a determination that Luminati Aerospace is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” for the purchase of land at EPCAL, a designated urban renewal zone, is to ensure it has the financial resources to complete the $40 million sale. The nature of Luminati’s specific business plan is not central to the qualified and eligible determination, Walter said in an interview Friday. The chances of Luminati’s future success in executing that business plan is not what the town needs to determine before agreeing to the sale, according to the supervisor, who has previously characterized the startup aerospace company as “the anchor tenant” for future development.
“He has to show he has the $40 million to buy the property and the ability to subdivide the property,” Walter said. “His concept is to create an aircraft-centric subdivision,” he said.
“Daniel didn’t come here to develop 10 million square feet of industrial land,” Walter said this morning. “When he saw there was a buyer interested in the land, I think he thought he was missing an opportunity. So there are two things going on here, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”
Democratic supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith, who attended the ceremonies Friday, said afterward she does not understand why Preston would be better able to market the vacant land at EPCAL better than Cushman and Wakefield, which has been marketing the site on behalf of the town for the past two years.
“Why Sean is banking on Daniel Preston becoming a real estate specialist is beyond me,” Jens-Smith said. Contrary to to the supervisor’s perspective, she said Luminati’s business plan is central to the determination of whether it is a qualified and eligible sponsor.
“Preston has made a lot of promises, but not much else,” Jens-Smith said.
“Riverhead still hasn’t seen a dime from Luminati as a deposit, but the town, which hasn’t yet determined if the company is qualified and eligible, is spending money on attorneys and staff time. It’s going on three months now without a deposit. How real is this deal?” she asked.
The supervisor, Jens-Smith said, does not seem very determined to find out. “He’s acting like the blushing bride instead of the father demanding the pre-nup.”
Walter said today he “can’t wait” to bring the Luminati proposal to a public hearing, which he said he hopes can be scheduled this summer.