Since he could talk, John Graziano knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
The Elkridge native impressed Air Force cadets as a toddler with his encyclopedic knowledge of F-16s, F-18s and F-22s, said his father, Tom Graziano, who was a visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the 1990s.
“While most kids would read Dr. Seuss, he would read books on military aircraft,” Tom Graziano said Thursday.
Graziano, 28, an Air Force captain with the 87th Flying Training Squadron, was well on his way to achieving that dream when he died about 7:40 p.m. Tuesday in a T-38C Talon jet crash at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. Officials are investigating the crash, which also injured Capt. Mark S. Palyok, another instructor pilot.
The eldest of four, Graziano had attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help for elementary and middle school, graduated from Archbishop Spalding High School in 2008 and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2013, his father said. He played basketball and soccer and ran cross country and track at Spalding, and was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at UMBC.
Graziano moved to the air force base in Del Rio, Texas, for pilot training in January 2014 and became a first assignment instructor pilot the following year. He had put in more than 1,300 hours in the cockpit of a T-38, and was recognized as a top instructor with an award from Air Training Command, his father said.
About a month ago, he received his next assignment: piloting an F-16 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
“That was his dream,” Tom Graziano said, “and he was living it.”
As Spalding was weighing Graziano’s application, his father remembered an admissions official asking what made him most proud about his son.
Tom Graziano’s voice welled with emotion as he recalled his answer: “He’s become the young man we always hoped he would be.”
“He was rock-solid kid and a person of integrity,” he added. “He had a very strong faith and he had unquestionable character.”
Graziano also loved to cook and had a great sense of humor, said Capt. Chris Gerber, his roommate and a fellow flight instructor who started at Laughlin on the same day.
The roommates used to go grocery shopping and buy enough ingredients to make “industrial quantities” of pasta sauce, which they cooked in a giant stew pot that took up most of the stove, Gerber said.
“I had to stop going to the grocery store with him,” he said, “because he would get so hungry and go shopping and it took too long.”
Graziano and Gerber’s shared love of food also landed them at a three-star Michelin restaurant in Cologne, Germany, during a European trip. They didn’t have nice clothes, but a quick Google search told them the restaurant didn’t have a dress code, so they walked in wearing T-shirts and jeans.
“We had this five-hour, 10-course meal,” Gerber said. “Everyone else is old people in tuxedos.”
Gerber remembered his roommate as the “best guy ever,” who was respected among his fellow Air Force pilots.
“Nobody ever had a bad word to say about him,” he said.
Graziano possessed a maturity beyond his years and “the heart and soul of an Air Force officer,” his father said.
“He was born older than most kids,” Tom Graziano said. “He was mature, kind, loving — just a great great human being.”
His death has been “a pain for which there is no anesthetic,” his father said.
“When it happens so suddenly, there is no time to prepare, and it hurts that much more,” his father said. “To die so young — it’s part of God’s plan. I don’t understand that plan, but He called him early.”
A memorial service will take place 9 a.m. Wednesday on the flight line at Laughlin Air Force Base. A funeral Mass is scheduled at 11 a.m. on Dec. 1 at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, with a reception to follow.