From his childhood days launching model planes at the Bethpage State Park Polo Grounds to his distinguished Air Force career, Capt. Mark P. Graziano lived his life aiming for the skies until he died during a training mission over the Mojave Desert.
Graziano, 30, a Wantagh native, was piloting a T-38A supersonic jet Thursday with senior navigator Maj. Lee V. Jones when the aircraft went down near California City, Calif., about nine miles north of Edwards Air Force Base, according to his family and the base.
Jones ejected from the jet and was in stable condition at a Bakersfield hospital, a statement from the base said.
Graziano’s family in Wantagh took some measure of comfort in that he died pursuing his passion.ADVERTISING
“This is what he wanted to do,” his father, Gary Graziano, 59, a wireless-network repairman, said Saturday.
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A board of officers is investigating the accident, the Air Force said. Jones and Graziano were assigned to the base’s Test Pilot School. Graziano was training to be a test pilot, and Jones was training to become a test navigator.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who nominated Graziano as a high schooler for the Naval Academy, although he did not attend, said he was saddened by the death.
“Coming just before Memorial Day weekend, it’s a vivid reminder how much we owe the men and women of the military who are putting their lives on the line, whether it’s in Iraq or Afghanistan or over a desert in the United States,” he said.
As a student at Wantagh High School, Graziano was an academic standout. In his senior year, he designed an electric car so well that it became the prototype for a kit sold in hobby stores, said his mother, Helen Graziano, 56, a legal secretary. He also volunteered at the Cradle of Aviation Museum.
His academic record and gift for engineering and mechanics earned him a nomination from then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 2000.
Graziano also earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering last year from the University of Idaho – a degree he pursued through online classes while he was serving in the Air Force.
He flew KC-135 refueler planes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and also flew U-2 spy planes in overseas missions before starting test pilot school in January.
He remained modest about his many achievements and accolades, his mother said.
“Mark was a very low-key guy, and he didn’t want to brag about his accomplishments,” she said.
The electric car was but one of Graziano’s many projects. He was constantly tinkering in his garage workshop building furniture, metalworks and gizmos out of the assortment of “junk” his family said he hoarded.
His father fondly recalled notable projects, including “the bed that never squeaks” – a solidly built oak bed frame with cable winches designed in a classic Mission style.
There was the foundry Graziano made out of a water heater cut in half – used to forge aluminum ingots in a cast-iron biscuit mold.
“He built a kegerator,” Gary Graziano said, showing a picture of a refrigerator with beer taps emerging from the door.
“He made his own beer,” Helen Graziano added.
“He made his own beer-making equipment,” Gary Graziano replied.
But he was a flyboy first and foremost. Graziano had always loved airplanes as a child, and when he became a pilot, he loved soaring through the skies even more.
“He would get so nervous about getting a desk job someday when all he wanted to do was fly,” said Graziano’s girlfriend, Katie Zlotek, 30, a pediatric nurse from New Hampshire who moved to San Diego last year to be closer to him.
“He was just fascinated with being up high, going fast, the mechanics of it all,” said his younger brother Nicholas, 23.
To Gary Monti, Cradle’s director of museum operations, there was never a doubt from the time he met Graziano as a teenager that aviation was “exactly what he wanted to do.”
Graziano worked with veteran pilots to restore aircraft – from modern jets to planes made out of fabric and wood, he said. “The old guys who do this are really delighted when they see a young guy like this who was looking forward to a career in aviation and is so dedicated,” Monti said.
Graziano’s mother quoted World War II aviator John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s famous poem, “High Flight.”
“He wanted to slip ‘the surly bonds of earth,’ ” Helen Graziano said, and added later, “he lived a life in 30 years.”
Funeral arrangements were pending, but the family plans to hold a wake at Chapey’s Funeral Home in Bethpage and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.