Charles Cignatta, 85, photographer of Martin planes performing in flight

October 15, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For years, Charles J. Cignatta's "office" was the cockpit of chase planes high over the Chesapeake Bay, where he filmed the dips and rolls of aircraft going through their paces after emerging from the Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Middle River.

Mr. Cignatta, who spent a nearly five-decade career with the manufacturer of airplanes and spacecraft, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at Franklin Woods Center-Genesis Eldercare. The Essex resident was 85.

Armed with his heavy Speed Graphic or Aeroflex movie camera, Mr. Cignatta photographed Martin Co. projects, from World War II-era bombers and seaplanes to jets and missiles and even the installation of a nuclear power plant at the South Pole.

A talented photographer with a taste for adventure and a good bit of luck, Mr. Cignatta survived a midair collision in the early 1950s, and later being pitched through the open bomb-bay doors of a bomber.

"He was in the right-hand seat of a Navy fighter jet filming the firing of a Bullpup Missile when it failed to separate from the lead jet," said John V. Cignatta, a son who lives in Catonsville.

"The pilot ejected, and their plane crashed into the cartwheeling jet. They lost their canopy in the incident, but somehow managed to land at Martin's. And he went right back the next day photographing planes. It never fazed him," he said.

In 1957, while aboard a two-engine Mitchell Bomber that was moving into position to film a missile launching, Mr. Cignatta was holding a $10,000 high-speed movie camera over an open bomb-bay door when the plane lurched as an engine exploded.

"His parachute opened inside the bomb bay, and he gathered up the chute into a ball. He was about to jump when a member of the crew pulled him back into the plane. He didn't drop the camera, and the crew later was able to get the plane under control and fly it back to Middle River," the son said.

Mr. Cignatta had an adventure of a different sort in 1962, when he traveled to the McMurdo Sound research station in Antarctica, as part of "Operation Deepfreeze," to film Martin engineers installing a nuclear power plant there that had been built in Baltimore.

He retired from Martin-Marietta in 1968, and then became staff photographer at the Westinghouse Naval Systems facility in Annapolis, until he retired a second time in 1977.

He was born in New York City two weeks after his family had emigrated from Italy. He was reared in Meriden, Conn., where he attended public schools and began working in the early 1930s as an office boy at the International Silver Co. there.

While working for the silver company, he learned his craft. He began his career with the Glenn L. Martin Co. in 1940, where his aircraft photos remain on display in the company's museum at the Middle River facility.

In addition to his professional career, Mr. Cignatta photographed weddings, graduations and other club and social events.

He enjoyed growing grapes and making his own wine and gardening. "He was never bored," said his son. "He always found something of interest in life."

He was an active communicant of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Elizabeth Qualey; three other sons, Roger A. Cignatta of King of Prussia, Pa., Dennis A. Cignatta of Bel Air, and James A. Cignatta of Essex; two brothers, Andrew Cignatta of Meriden and Oreste Cignatta of Milan, Italy; a sister, Carolyn Zawarotny of Key Largo, Fla.; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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