CANFIELD — Ryan Gray strongly believes if he could overcome numerous challenges to achieve his dream of becoming a pilot, then anyone can.
“I was raised by a single mom with involved, loving grandparents, Dell and Gloria Gray, and supportive aunts and uncles,” Gray said.
He discovered at a young age his love for flying and planes.
“My first plane ride in 1988, I was 10 or 11. The cabin was filled with cigarette smoke and people had their window visors up and looked out.The moment the airplane left the ground, I didn’t want to do anything else ever,” Gray said.
Gray attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Niles until eighth grade. His love of flying was displayed then.
“I won the sixth-grade learning fair for my presentation on C-130 Hercules. I coordinated a class field trip to visit Youngstown Air Reserve Station to see the C-130,” he said.
He graduated from Niles McKinley High School in 1995.
His mom, Diane, became a flight attendant out of Youngstown Warren Regional Airport for Crown Airways and later U.S. Air.
“I took any opportunity to fly,” Gray said.
He joined the Civil Air Patrol at YARS during eighth and ninth grades, where he was told he never could reach his goal of becoming a pilot because his eyesight was not good enough.
“In high school I took advantage of being home alone. I call them my ‘train wreck years.’ I lost interest in school. I bar-hopped with a fake ID on school nights. I was sentenced to 45 days in a juvenile detention center. I graduated with a 1.6 GPA,” Gray said.
After high school, he decided to change his path and he joined the Marine Corps.
“I knew my dream of becoming a pilot would not happen if I did not straighten up,” he said.
He became an aircraft mechanic.
“This gave me the opportunity to work on and learn about airplanes. I trained to be a C-130 hydraulics and airframe mechanic,” he said.
He attended Craven Community College while in the Marines in North Carolina to get ahead in his credits for college.
During his time as a hydraulics and airframe mechanic in the Marine Corps, he won a Naval Achievement Award in the tool discovery category. He found a tool in the DC-9 during an inspection that could have bound up the flight controls and caused it to crash. He was featured in MECH magazine because of this medal.
After five years in the Marines, he was honorably discharged to follow his dream of becoming a pilot.
“I was told my eyesight still wasn’t good enough to be a military pilot,” Gray said.
He returned home, worked as a bartender and at Winner Aviation as a charter aviation manager and with help from the Montgomery GI Bill, completed his degree in aviation science at Kent State University’s main campus in 2004.
“I graduated with a 3.6 GPA,” he said proudly.
KSU had a bridge program to transition and give experience to pilots via Continental Express.
“After 9/11, the program ceased. There was very little opportunity to become a professional pilot. Since I had been in the USMC, I considered military reserves,” Gray said.
He applied to numerous bases as a pilot candidate.
“YARS was the first to interview me. I was number one of 52 candidates to fly the C-130,” he said.
Initially, his eyesight issue was missed. When it was discovered, he was sent to Brooks Medical Center for better testing. His dream of being a military pilot depended on these examinations.
“It was discovered there that I had bad eyesight, but it was a huge moment when I found out that my eyesight was waiver-able and I got a second chance to be a pilot,” Gray said.
He began his career at YARS in 2004. In 2009, he worked a full-time government employee/technician position. Then, in 2017, he started as a pilot for Delta Airlines, while remaining a military reserve pilot.
“I flew humanitarian aid to Haiti for earthquake relief and Pacific Angel ( to the southeast Asian country of East Timor). I flew to the Middle East for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve,” he said.
Gray’s challenges were not over.
“I lost my position at Youngstown due to downsizing and I transferred to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. Because of base realignment and closure, Pope closed. I then transferred to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia,” he said.
In 2016, a position opened and he returned to YARS. He continued to fly the C-130 planes that he dreamed of piloting as an elementary student.
After 24 years of military service, he will retire in March as a major while continuing to fly for Delta Airlines. While his first love remains being 30,000 feet above the ground, Gray diversified his career path by opening Drain Fly, a drain cleaning business, last month, in addition to Lymac, which flips houses and has rental properties.
“If I hit the Mega Millions, I’d still come to work and fly airplanes. It’s an absolute love of flying.”