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A real ‘Survivor’ of a pilot
Oshkosh today, around the world tomorrow
By James Wynbrandt

Ken Gray is happy to finally be back in Oshkosh after his initial trip to AirVenture in 1992.

It’s mere coincidence that Ken Gray’s journey into aviation sounds like something out of a TV show. A sailboat skipper from Australia with an interest in paragliding, Gray had a chance encounter with a fellow Aussie in Singapore some 20 years ago.

“As soon as aviation came up, he said ‘You’ve got to go to Oshkosh,’” Gray recalled. “I had no idea, no concept whatsoever of what he was talking about. It was pre-Internet, so you couldn’t Google it to look it up.”

But after a little more sailing and paragliding, Gray heeded the advice.

“I made the pilgrimage to Oshkosh,” Gray said. “Gateway to Aviation was the theme that year (1992). It couldn’t have been more apt for a guy coming off the sea looking for something different. I got here close to opening day with a tent and sleeping bag. I spent a week seeing and learning anything I could, going to workshops, going to Theater in the Woods at night, absolutely being indoctrinated in aviation. I got utterly motivated.”

Immediately after the fly-in, Gray began flight training, quickly earning his private, commercial and helicopter ratings. He hit the road, living out of his car, trading labor for flight time, and doing agricultural spraying in a Robinson R22.

“It was kind of an aviation quest. America to me is the home and temple of aviation, and this is the epicenter,” Gray said, back at AirVenture for the first time since his original pilgrimage.

“I always wanted to come back, but the timing never worked out.”

One reason Gray’s schedule and AirVenture’s never meshed is his job. For the last six years Gray has been the sole helicopter pilot for the megahit reality TV show “Survivor,” which is noted for its stunning aerial shots.

“[‘Survivor’ producer] Mark Burnett is a total believer in helicopters,” Gray said. “I cannot believe how lucky I am.”

The program’s busy production calendar has taken Gray to China, Africa, Micronesia, and most recently, Central America.

“Fortuitously, “Survivor” number 21 wrapped last Thursday,” Gray said. “In ten days we’ll start [the production] again.”

And how does AirVenture 2010 compare to the memories of his original visit?

“To me it’s remarkably similar,” he said. “It’s quite often that your memories are rose colored, but I’m finding it’s just as great.”

One of the highlights of this visit was flying in a P-51 Mustang out of Fond du Lac airport through the Commemorative Air Force’s fund-raising flights. Apparently it was an even greater thrill than helicoptering over the beautiful remote locations he covers for Survivor.

“It had dual controls, and he let me do aileron barrel rolls,” Gray said of the Mustang flight. “The pilot filled out my logbook. I’ve got half an hour of P-51 time in my log, so basically I can die a happy man.

“And,” Gray added, reflecting back on his uplifting journey from yacht skipper to PIC (pilot in command), “it’s all because of Oshkosh.”

See a video of "Survivor: Samoa - Behind the Scenes"

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