Neil Armstrong's strong connection to LI

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Neil Armstrong had a strong connection to Long Island, an area that traces its aviation history to the time of the Wright brothers.

It was, after all, a Bethpage-built lunar module from which the astronaut emerged to take his giant leap on the moon more than four decades ago.

Long Islanders on Saturday mourned the loss of a man -- remembered as humble and unassuming -- who linked the area to one of mankind's greatest feats.

"If you put aside his space adventures on the moon, he was just a super fellow," said James Smith, 71, of Manhasset, former chief executive at Deer Park-based AIL Systems Inc., a defense electronics firm that later merged with EDO Corp.

Armstrong served as chairman of AIL's board for more than decade and made regular trips to Long Island.

"We had a lot of good times together," said Smith, who called Armstrong "the most honest and ethical man I ever met."

Long Island's aviation roots trace back more than a century, to the 1910s, when the Hempstead plains became a launching point for early flight pioneers, said Andrew Parton, executive director of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

But it was the Apollo program that became "Long Island's proudest moment in aerospace," Parton said.

Grumman Aerospace Corp., founded in Baldwin, built the lunar modules for the space program, and the astronauts did a considerable amount of their training in Bethpage, he said.

Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who participated in the Apollo 11 moon landing, returned to Bethpage after the historic mission to thank the workers -- with thousands turning out to greet them on Sept. 17, 1969.

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"I didn't come here to make speeches but to congratulate you for your excellence and to thank you for giving us one grand aircraft," Armstrong told the crowd.

Smith said his friend was humble and rarely talked about the trip to the moon. But Smith did ask Armstrong once if he was ever nervous.

"He said, 'No, we'd done a lot of training. I had 400,000 of the smartest people in the country trying to make me a success,' " Smith recalled.

Smith said Armstrong never wanted to be remembered just for walking on the moon.

"He had a life of accomplishments -- and those aren't accidents," Smith said.

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