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Riverhead memorial would honor late Grumman test pilots

Fifty years after a crash killed two test pilots at the former Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. test site, a push is underway to create a memorial for the men in Calverton.

“The whole project has to be right,” said Riverhead resident Aldo Catsaros, who began leading the memorial project after he heard from his friend Timothy Lent about the accident in 2014. “It’s to honor and respect these heroes. They weren’t just two guys who got killed in a bad accident. They were military veterans and their story needs to be told.”

Catsaros said he has been coordinating with the pilots’ families about obtaining a 6,000-pound boulder — which Catsaros recently selected — and placing it at the Calverton memorial site with a plaque to commemorate the pilots. The boulder is expected to be moved to the site by August. A ceremony unveiling the finished memorial, honoring Ralph Donnell and Charles Wangeman, could take place by next April.

Wayne Donnell, 71, a former Greenport resident, said his father was “a man who loved to fly.”

Ralph Donnell was a fighter pilot during World War II who survived being shot down and taken prisoner by the German army. He later became a test pilot at the former Grumman test site in Calverton.

He and Wangeman were killed in April 1967 when the F-111B aircraft they were testing on a runway crashed shortly after takeoff due to engine malfunction.

“He worked a lot because it wasn’t work,” Wayne Donnell said. “Work and play were the same thing to him.”

Riverhead Town Council members John Dunleavy and Jodi Giglio said they support creating a memorial.

“It’s a great idea,” Giglio said. “Grumman played such a big part in the history of Riverhead and this would be a testament to the memory of these pilots and veterans who served our country.”

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