Late last year, every other Monday, I would meet a small group of watch enthusiasts at a bar in lower Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Half-consumed glasses of scotch would be moved aside and collectors and dealers would splay out their assortment of vintage watches on the high tops right under hanging lamps, spotlighting the watches in the same way that an art piece hanging in a gallery would be lit. And if you’ve ever been to these sorts of gatherings, you know that enthusiasts treat the watches just like art, too – squinting eyes and saying “hmm” while observing the details of the piece.
On one of those tables was a solid 18k gold Bulova Accutron Spaceview, a watch that I’ve always found fascinating not only for it’s wild aesthetic, but because it’s also a watch that’s emblematic of an era when the realization of space travel helped shape the public’s attitude and aspirations toward the widespread adoption of science and technology as the way forward. It was the first time in history that machines could make decisions more accurately and with more consistency than the people who created them. Traditional social values were challenged in the 1960s, and so was traditional watchmaking. The excitement about the prospect of tuning fork movements, like the one in the watch I had in my hands, was real. It was so real, in fact, that the very existence of the Spaceview as a production model was due to the fact that people were so excited about the concept that Bulova made it into one. Initially, it was just a model that appeared in Bulova displays at dealers to demonstrate how a tuning fork-equipped watch looked and performed.
Like art and pop culture, watches can be an interesting lens through which to examine the era they came from. So I picked up the watch from the table, flipped it over, squinted, and said “hmm” after seeing another hallmark of a bygone era: On the caseback, there was an engraving with a few lines of text:
And below that, the famous Grumman “bird” logo. Grumman was a leading aerospace engineering firm headquartered in Bethpage, New York, for most of the 20th century. The company was famous for building iconic WWII fighters, but perhaps even more so for engineering and producing the Apollo Lunar Module that safely delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. It’s the only manned vehicle, ever, to touch down on a surface besides earth’s own. In 1994, Grumman was bought by Northrop to form what is today Northrop Grumman. They’re known these days for producing the B-2 Spirit Bomber, a massive flying wing that’s invisible to radar.
The Grumman logo and “25 Years” pointed to an old tradition of gifting a watch to an employee to commemorate decades of committed service. That tradition has waned, but so has the tradition of sticking with one company for an entire career. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for a company to gift a watch that was typically signed or engraved with the company logo to recognize a career of service. These days, watches with company logos on the dial can be highly collectible. The famous Domino’s Rolex Air-King was gifted for hitting sales targets, but models like this one with a Circle Bar Drilling logo were ordered from Rolex and then given to mark years of service to the organization.
There’s something romantic about the notion of dedicating an entire career to one company, and knowing that the company will take great care of you with a sufficient pension, and maybe even a nice watch, at the end of your tenure. The tradition of gifting something as timeless as a proper watch simply doesn’t happen anymore; the baby boomers were certainly onto something with that tradition. The custom mug of today just isn’t the same. In Mattenheimer’s case, he was given an 18k gold Spaceview for spending 25 years with Grumman. Whoever was in charge of procuring that watch as a gift had fantastic taste; companies of today, take note.
I had all I needed to see if I couldn’t learn a little more about Mr. Mattenheimer and his time at Grumman. All 18 karats of the gold Spaceview pointed to the idea that Mr. Mattenheimer must have done something truly worthy of earning such a gift. I figured one does not simply receive a watch like that for mediocre performance; I had a hunch that Mattenheimer had an interesting story. On the last day of my job immediately before joining HODINKEE, my manager sent out an email wishing me well, and I was given a cupcake from the bakery down the street to enjoy at my desk while I finished typing instructions for the person assuming my role. I can only imagine what A.C. Mattenheimer accomplished to get a gold watch instead of a cupcake.
Luckily, he wasn’t in the accounting or legal department at Grumman. It turns out that Andy Mattenheimer was a Brooklynite and a champion boxer, but more importantly, he was a mechanic who flew with test pilots for Grumman in an era when planes broke down with more frequency than they do today. It’s not that they were unreliable; instead, it’s that the fuel, electrical, and hydraulic systems needed more maintenance and supervision than the systems of today. We’ve engineered out the need for mechanics that fly onboard the plane. Now we have computers that monitor those systems. It’s both befitting and ironic that Mattenheimer was given a Bulova Spaceview. It represented the same sort of technology that would eventually make his job obsolete.
I don’t know if Mattenheimer is alive today, but when I looked into his story, something stood out. One of his most daring adventures was outlined in Anthony J. Vallone’s book Air Vagabonds: Oceans, Airmen, and a Quest for Adventure. In it, Mattenheimer is a central character in an operation that saw a team of aviators ferry Grumman Albatross airframes to the Indonesian Air Force – in Indonesia, naturally – from Grumman’s factory in Stuart, Florida, in 1976.
The Grumman HU-16 Albatross was a controversial airplane in the 1970s. It was originally built as a search and rescue platform for the U.S. armed forces in the ’50s. It was amphibious, able to land and lake off on both land and water. Pilots loved the plane because it featured a real lavatory, a luxury at the time. The design featured a large cargo capacity and high-wing configuration boasting two massive radial engines. It was a perfectly fine aircraft design, but the dawning of the jet age had ended its useful life, at least in this part of the world, rather early. So instead of scrapping the planes, Grumman would overhaul them and sell them to developing nations for use in their armed forces.
Indonesia had put in an order, and Andy Mattenheimer was assigned to the crew that would ferry two Albatross airframes from the United States to Southeast Asia for delivery to the Indonesian Air Force. Indonesia, led by the contentious ruler Suharto at the time, was mostly unknown to everyday Westerners like Mattenheimer and the crew of three pilots. And, as they would find out, it was nothing like anything they were accustomed to at home.
Two airframes would leave the U.S.; one would make it to Surabaya, the plane’s final delivery point.
The duo started the journey in Florida, stopped in Texas, then San Francisco, and eventually charted a course to Hawaii. The Albatross was cumbersome and slow, with a cruising speed of just 124 mph, but it had fantastic range. At almost 2,800 miles, it had almost twice the range of other aircraft in its class. The trip got off to a rough start when a pilot accidentally jettisoned a drop tank full of 300 gallons worth of fuel from the right wing near their first stop in Texas. The drop tank fixed to the left wing was still present, and it was causing the airplane to pull to the left. The pilot had to hold the control wheel to the right to keep the plane flying level. The trouble was, they couldn’t land with such a drastic weight imbalance in the wings, it would be too risky. They decided to fly back to Florida, where the journey began, to get a new drop tank, and on the way, they’d burn enough fuel from the tanks in the left wing to balance the plane out before landing.
Later in the journey, a similar problem cropped up. The crew was en route to Morotai when they noticed a discrepancy in the rate that fuel was being burned from the left and right tanks. They were operating in a very remote part of Indonesia off of suspect charts nearly two years old, and according to the dead reckoning of the navigator on board, they knew they had to be getting close to their destination. There wasn’t much time to find a solution to this problem. Nearing the airfield, the weight difference between the wings was almost 1,000 pounds, enough to make the plane hard to fly straight and impossible to land. The crew suspected it might be some bad aviation gas that they had picked up in Guam, but it didn’t matter. Mattenheimer knew the only way to fix this was to switch tanks, but doing that ran the risk of an engine quitting on them. Mattenheimer called the shot and the crew began the process of switching tanks.
The engineer was operating the mixture and prop levers, and Mattenheimer was responsible for operating the feathering button in case the engine sputtered out. Switching tanks took about ten minutes total, and until the process was completed, the entire crew was preparing for the worst.
After it became clear that it had gone off without a hitch, the crew chuckled and started looking for the airstrip in the jungle to land it. At first, it appeared that the jungle had reclaimed what they thought was an airstrip, and they were about to have a serious problem, but it turns out the airstrip was below a cloud and visual could not be established before dropping down beneath the cover.
Mattenheimer determined that there was, indeed, an internal failure in one of the engines; oil all over the cowling told him all he needed to know. After a thorough inspection on the ground, Mattenheimer closed up the cowling and said, “Well, this airplane’s not going anywhere for a while.” So it was left on Morotai, at a small Indonesian Air Force strip, waiting for repairs. After the other half of the pair of Albatross airframes landed, it was determined that the crew from the first one would continue their journey aboard the second one to Surabaya. Technically, they had reached Indonesia, just not their final destination.
Over the rest of 1976, Mattenheimer would help ferry two more Albatross airframes to Indonesia, totaling three trips. On the way back from ferrying the planes, he explored Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taiwan, Bali, and even once Tashkent in the Uzbek republic, then part of the USSR.
One thing is for sure: When Mattenheimer was gifted that 18k Gold Bulova Spaceview, it wasn’t just given to him – he earned it the hard way.