A fascination with flight
Mike Ciminera dreamed of designing airplanes as a teen, started doing it in his twenties, and celebrates their history in his 80s
Lots of children are interested in aircraft, though most dream of flying them rather than designing them. A boy in Long Island named Michael Ciminera was one of the few who was obsessed with the engineering details, even as a teenager, and he still sounds surprised that two major aircraft companies took him seriously.
“At 12, I had a fascination with airplanes, and I started designing them, sketching my ideas, and building models. As I got older, I sent the designs to both Grumman in New York and to Douglas Aircraft in California. They actually marked them up in red, and said, ‘This is not right, that’s not right, you should do this, you should do that.’ I didn’t know much, didn’t completely understand aerodynamics. But you know, you go to the library, find the books and just follow your interests.”
Following his interests led to a career in aerospace, a move to California, and more recently a new calling as an author and as president of the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance. First, though, he had to do something almost all students wrestle with – working while getting an education. He had various jobs through high school, including running a clothing and fabric store. Then, at 17, he got his dream job as an apprentice in the manufacturing department at Grumman.
“You came to understand how airplanes were built, got to know the technicians, or the mechanics as they were called then, and how you really put an airplane together. After two years, they would allow you to go into engineering, and then they got you involved in, in my case, working in the wind tunnel. The last year was again in aerodynamics, where I was doing computational work to support a lot of the main engineers. It gave me a nice understanding of the company and how it worked. They really built you from the ground up, so to speak, where you understood the job that the mechanic had to do in the shop to put together the thing that you can see.”
Ciminera alternated between that job and an education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, s premier engineering school on the East Coast, where he had earned a scholarship. After graduating in 1959, Ciminera knew right where he wanted to go: back to Grumman, but not as an apprentice any longer.
“They hired me into the preliminary design department. I was the youngest person ever hired at that time. Because I had sent my designs into the technical staff at Grumman, they knew who I was and they said, well, let’s give him a chance. So I went in there with a lot of people who were very, very experienced designers. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Ciminera worked in the department that grappled with new concepts, defining how to create aircraft that could best fit specifications from the Defense Department and other contractors. Over time he became such a trusted member of the team that he was sent to Washington to brief government officials, sometimes to gently correct them as they asked for impossible combinations of speed, weight, and range. After nine years of these theoretical and political calculations, he got an offer to go to a new level.
“The chief of preliminary design came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you come and work for me, because I’ll show you how to build a real airplane.’ Because I had done all the conceptual tradeoffs on the early design, I got involved in the details of creating the F-14 Tomcat, the aircraft in the movie Top Gun with Tom Cruise. I started in the team that defined the characteristics of the airplane, but then I got involved in the details of how to build it.”
The F-14 went into service in 1974 and was extremely successful. It was Grumman’s last major project before the company was acquired by Northrop Corporation, based in Hawthorne. In 1994, Ciminera and his wife made the move from Long Island and bought a house on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, lured by both the beautiful environment and a very short commute.
“A Northrop Grumman research facility was right up here in Palos Verdes, and there are still a lot of aerospace people, both active and retired, who live on the peninsula. I became one of the retired ones, following 51 years with Grumman and Northrop. After that I lectured and wrote, and also got more involved with the Western Museum of Flight at Zamperini Field. This is the legacy museum of the Northrop Grumman company, with some of the original airplanes that they designed and built that were very advanced. When I first visited, I brought some pictures and memorabilia that I thought they might find interesting. After I retired and wound down some corporate consulting, they asked me to give a lecture on the design evolution of the F-14 Tomcat, which I did. I found that they needed help so I donated some time and gave them some money and eventually was asked to become an advisor. Around 2008, I got involved with helping them develop a patron base, a group of people who are interested in aerospace and would contribute money to the museum.
“Then they asked, ‘Would you like to be on the board?’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and I became a trustee. And then a few years ago, they asked me to become president, which I am now.”
Like every museum, the Western Museum of Flight has been closed by the pandemic.
“We have several large hangars, and we are contemplating taking on more space once things settle down. In the last year we’ve built a whole new display on women in aerospace, and we’re anxious to reopen so people can see it. In the interim, we’ve been making a series of short videos, where we bring in experts from all over. They’re in the museum in front of an aircraft, display, or space vehicle and they talk about their subject. Most last from five to seven minutes. The last one we finished was on the lunar module, one that landed on the moon in 1969. These videos are on our website, and anyone can access them.
“The other initiative driven by the pandemic is virtual learning. We contacted a lot of schools and asked teachers what they think children are ready to understand, depending on their age group. Then we try to create something that they can interact with. We’re not just standing around as a museum of antiquities, but we’re trying to think for the future.”
That link to the future also involves teaching about the South Bay’s past as a major aerospace hub. While most of the small companies that flourished here have merged with larger ones now, the foundation of much of this area’s wealth was based on the post-World War II aerospace boom. Though Ciminera didn’t grow up here, he is passionate about teaching the grandchildren of aerospace pioneers about that legacy.
“When we were open full time, we would welcome children from schools in Los Angeles and in Torrance and give them specially guided tours. We help them understand the fundamentals, and that’s one of the great strengths of the Western Museum of Flight. We have the original drawings of the Spruce Goose, which is now up in Washington. It’s about Grumman, Northrop, Douglas, and all those that got involved in aerospace in Southern California. Teaching and reaching children is all a part of our vision.”
While the museum goes far beyond the legacy of the Northrop Grumman company, Michael Ciminera’s books delve into the details of that company. His first, “The Aircraft Designers, A Grumman Historical Perspective,” focuses on that company during its independence and is an unusual combination of corporate history, engineering history, and the biographies of the people who built the company and the aircraft. It catalogs projects that became wildly successful, others that were failures, and some that never left the mock-up stage.
Interwoven with technical details are stories from the lives of people at the company, and more improbably, the poems and songs they wrote while working there. These include parodies of “Hello Dolly” and “Gunga Din” that are the kinds of things people working with balky machinery pen to blow off steam. They show the rarely seen camaraderie within groups of people under pressure.
These diversions enliven passages that are on the technical side and filled with the details of engineering problems found, wrestled with, and solved. Ciminera admits the book is an unusual hybrid.
“I designed the book to do those three things. It’s a history of a company, it describes the aircraft to a certain level, and then remembers the people. You always have the big name, the chief designer, but they choose the 20 to 30 people around them, and those are the people I wanted to remember.”
Ciminera just finished his second book, which chronicles Northrop-Grumman from its founding to the present. Founder Jack Northrop started his first aerospace enterprise in 1929, and ran three companies before the one that endures to the president day. Ciminera’s history of Northrop and his company took six years to research and write and will be published soon.
“It starts with a picture, believe it or not, of Jack Northrop’s daughter, who is now 100 years old. I interviewed her. I start the book with her, and tell what she told us about her dad. Like me, she grew up with that — all these wonderful people nobody remembers, and that’s why I wrote the books.” PEN
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