An old, broken-down C-119 military cargo plane helped a Columbus youngster’s dreams climb sky high.

David Gray still remembers those childhood days when he eagerly rode his bike from Flintwood subdivision to what was then Bakalar Air Base — now the Columbus Municipal Airport — to climb into the former military aircraft. He could pretend the old warbird carried him toward great adventure.

Eventually, it would escort him into much of his calling as a multifaceted, full-time pilot and an accomplished artist depicting heroic warplanes, often amid dynamic missions. All guided by tremendous heroes, as far as Gray is concerned.

“That generation grew up in the Depression,” Gray said, speaking by phone in between charter flights he piloted to Napa, California, last week. “They learned to make the most of what little they had at the time. And they had a strong sense of duty.”

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Many of the World War II planes, pilots and others fly high in Gray’s free art exhibit through February at the Columbus Area Visitors Center’s Gallery 506, downtown at 506 Fifth St. Mixed in with his 25 mostly patriotic pieces, a near-squadron of military aircraft from the local Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum hover over the free display.

When Gray made the trip to Columbus from his Chicago residence for the recent exhibit opening, he reminisced that his first art award, a $25 honor, came at the local visitors center in 1979, the year he graduated from Columbus North High School.

Since then, his artwork has accelerated into motorsports for such legendary drivers as Mario Andretti, for whom he has completed three commissions.

Andretti has called Gray “a rare and special talent.” Not to mention one capable of capturing emotion in his works.

His signature piece, “Reunion,” which took two weeks to complete, depicts an aging World War II crewman gazing wistfully upon an old B-17 fighter that carried him safely through missions over England. Gray has seen real-life vets, tough men who bravely flew such assignments, stagger slightly backward and grow emotional when they see the acrylic painting.

“I’ve had to look away (from them),” Gray said, allowing them their private and personal recollections. “But this is my way of paying tribute to the veterans.”

He himself has flown military, commercial and private aircraft, as well as historic and contemporary, including military and commercial turboprops, assault and rescue helicopters, corporate jets, commercial airlines and war planes. He’s also a noted aviation archaeologist and amateur historian.

“I think I have a unique perspective (for this art),” he said. “As a pilot, I have a clear understanding of what the planes look like in the air. And I know what looks accurate, based upon the clouds, the way the ground looks behind and underneath the aircraft, and even the position the aircraft are in while flying.”

Details, he reasons, trigger memories. And many memories lift veterans and others to a time when much of America united in a mission of freedom and democracy.

“The actual flying, of course, is the most fun (rather than painting),” Gray said. “But when my interest (in flying) started, I was much too young to fly.”

He began drawing planes as a second-grader. He earned his pilot’s license at age 17. Today, his business flying includes serving as chief pilot for Mike Lanigan, a partner in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

How his works landed in the home of his boyhood can be traced simply. Jan Banister, curator of Gallery 506, mentioned that she had talked for some time with coordinators of the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum about some sort of military aircraft exhibit.

“The air museum is fabulous, and it’s one of our most valued partners,” said Banister, whose father was a World War II vet.

Both of her parents also worked for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation that made military aircraft. So, naturally, she loves Gray’s works.

“One thing you notice is that they’re very detailed,” Banister said. “In some, you can see almost every rivet.”

The heart of Gray’s military paintings is a sharp salute to those who sacrificed so much.

“It’s important,” he said, “that we never forget.”

About the artist

Who: David Gray

Age: 56

Born: Seymour. Grew up in Brownstown, Tayorsville and Columbus.

Resides: in Chicago.

Family: Three grown children.

Art specialty: Military aircraft, motor sports, ships and more.

Current exhibit: At Gallery 506 at the Columbus Area Visitors Center, 506 Fifth St. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

First professional artwork sold: Of an F-16 fighter plane.

Piloting work: Besides charter trips, chief pilot for Mike Lanigan, a partner in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.