Local boy makes good … on dream to fly

Back in the early 1990s, a little Chinese food shop along Indialantic’s Fifth Avenue did a lot of delivery business. Beachsiders were fond of Egg Foo Looey’s and many still recall its silly name with a smile.

One employee in particular, Colleen Graeff, was memorable for the little boy who would accompany her on deliveries. He was described as a good boy and a sweetheart.

That was decades ago and that little boy grew into a tall young man who recently flew into town to see his family.

Flew into town is downplaying it a bit, though. As the No. 2 pilot in the world-renowned U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Capt. William Graeff was thrilled to bring the precision flying team to his hometown for last weekend’s Fifth Annual Melbourne Air and Space Show at Orlando Melbourne International Airport. The team, known formally as the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, kicked off its 38-show season in Melbourne to the adoration of thousands. The show also featured the B-2 stealth bomber, which appeared to float in from the east to perform three flyovers on Saturday only before once again disappearing into the blue. Spectators were treated both days to static displays, vintage planes and a fire-breathing semi tractor called Shockwave Jet Truck.

The Thunderbirds team – Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, Commander/Leader and No. 1 pilot; Graeff, No. 2 Left Wing Pilot; Maj. Nathaniel Hofmann, No. 3 Right Wing Pilot; Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, No. 4 Slot Pilot; Maj. Whit Collins, No. 5 Lead Solo Pilot; and Capt. Matt Kimmel, No. 6 Opposing Solo Pilot – arrived with dozens of other members of the 130-person squadron last Thursday to prep for the show. This is the first season for Graeff, Del Bagno and Kimmel, which means this was their first show ever as Thunderbirds.

Graeff, known as Will, spoke of his mother, memories and the bittersweet circumstances that propelled him to where he is today. He was born in 1985 at Holmes Regional Medical Center and spent his very early years tagging along with his mother, playing with his cousins and visiting his grandparents. Colleen, his mother, was fighting alcoholism and decided her son’s best chance at a good life was to live with her sister, Kathy Murphy, on the Gulf Coast.

“Growing up, I visited often because my mother and my grandparents live here. My mom used to work at Egg Foo Looey’s. I remember going to work with her. We would drive up and down the beach as she would deliver the Chinese food,” Graeff said.

As a Brevardian, did he enjoy ocean sports or was he always looking upward?

“I tried surfing once. The surfboard hit me on the head and I gave it up at that point. But I’ve always loved to fly. … When I got to college was when the passion started to develop.”

Graeff is a Gator as well as a Thunderbird. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2008, earning his commission in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Colleen Graeff is a mother-in-law and grandmother now and she cherishes her role. Daughter-in-law Christine is mother to Liam, 2½, and Declan, who was born in December. They live in Las Vegas, where the team is based.

“I got sober in 1990 and I could have gotten him back but my sister could offer him more, so I let him stay with her. It just made sense,” Colleen Graeff said Saturday in the Thunderbirds Family and Friends tent along the flight line.

“We’ve got 21 people here. It’s a good rooting team for No. 2, that’s for sure. I saw him a lot yesterday. I know how it feels to be with a superstar because I made him take me out to eat even though I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to go into a restaurant with a Thunderbird in his outfit!”

Said Will Graeff: “We’ve always had a great relationship. I know she made difficult decisions when she was younger but they were all for the best. The reason I am here today is because of her and those decisions that she made.”

Article by Cynthia Van Gaasbeck

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