The Miracle of Flight

Aviation has always been a part of Jon Gruber.

It's easy to see the connection. From building balsa planes with his father to commercial airline pilot to building a full-size plane at his local hangar, Jonathan Gruber has always loved flying. Even better he turned his dreams of flying into his career and his hobby.

Words Sean McDevitt |  Photos Rory Schweighart

Jonathan Gruber Story

The dream of flying runs strong with specific individuals. When given a choice between ground-based endeavors or wandering with the clouds, the sky always wins for these certain few. For Jonathan Gruber, he turned his dream intoreality.

Aviation is his world.

The miracle of flight has come full circle: from building balsa planes as a kid with his father to today building a full-scale racing plane at his hangar.


Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Gruber remembers always looking up at the sky and seeing airplanes. When he was 12 years old, he spent time building model airplanes. He'd spend hours pulling pieces from the skeleton tabs to build his scale replicas.

Around the same time, he got his first balsa wood radio control Cessna trainer.

"I spent probably the better part of a year or two building it with my Dad," said Gruber. "Getting the motor and doing the building and doing the coding and all the servo wiring, and just learning that stuff. I learned trial by fire because my Dad was not in aviation but mechanically inclined. We fumbled through it together as a team and got it flying and just really enjoyed it."

It was that first taste of flight that dug in deep with Gruber.

Jonathan Gruber Story

"There's no doubt that my first RC airplane sunk its teeth into me from that moment. Then, I was involved in Boy Scouts and the Civil Air Patrol. I fully immersed myself in flying. Seeing that RC airplane fly and me controlling it, I knew this was what I wanted to do."

Throughout high school, he started seriously looking at an aviation career. After attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and completing a degree in Aeronautical Science, the next step was getting hours in a plane through tours and flight instruction. Today, his full-time job is as a pilot with American Airlines based in Chicago at O'Hare International Airport.


Gruber flies Boeing 737s for American Airlines as a First Officer. His day can be anything from one simple flight from Chicago to New York. Or it could be as complicated as a flight from Chicago to Cancun, crossing over expansive stretches of water and dealing with customs in other countries and different regulations. Unsurprisingly, he can easily spend upwards of nine hours in an airplane a day. Of course, that's the fun part.

“I learned trial by fire because my Dad was not in aviation but mechanically inclined. We fumbled through it together as a team and got it flying and just really enjoyed it.”

Gruber said, "The flying, for us as airline pilots, is why we do it. We enjoy being up in the sky, manipulating the flight controls, taking off, landing. All those things, that's why we got into the industry. That's why we love the job. When we're in the sky, that's where our passion comes out, and that's why we're there."

Jonathan Gruber Story

Aviation runs in the family. Gruber's wife, Jennifer, is an Air Traffic Controller in the Chicagoland area.

"We're very fortunate to be able to sit at the dinner table and talk about our work and really have a tightknit understanding of what each other are talking about," said Gruber. "And so that's an amazing experience to be able to sit down on a daily basis and say, 'Hey, well, this happened with this controller.' Or she could say, 'Oh, well, this pilot said this today.' And there are these scenarios that we can talk through, and then we can be nerds about it and look up the rules and the federal aviation regulations."


As aviation is on his mind 24/7, Gruber has a collection of radio control planes. It's not only a hobby but real life.

"I enjoy the aspect of RC aviation that replicates real life," Gruber said. "It makes me really happy to see an airplane designed from a full scale. When I look at aviation, I look at full scale, and then I think it's so cool to see Horizon Hobby produce a Cirrus model or a Van's model. I say, 'I can fly a Cirrus. I can fly a Van's RV 7.' And it brings a smile to my face to see an RC model of that same thing that I fly."

“It makes me really happy to see an airplane designed from a full scale.”

Flying radio control planes is something Gruber loves doing but doesn't always get the opportunity to do. However, he does remember a time when he and his wife were at the flying field together.

"She'd come and hang out with us when we were flying," said Gruber. "I was used to seeing airplanes flying close together or flying in formation. As an air traffic controller, it did not make her the most comfortable."

Jonathan Gruber Story

When drone filming and photography were in their infancy, Gruber started Elite Air Productions. The venture began when he was approached by a TV commercial director in Chicago looking for a way to get unique shots from up high on a budget. From that idea, he took the leap and started to market his services.

Gruber said, "I took the big risk. I bought a bunch of equipment, taught myself how to fly the camera drones, and then as new regulations for drones began, I was able to do it safely and 100% legally."

Gruber's vast aviation background and knowledge of the federal aviation regulations ensure he is always flying safely and legally. Sometimes this means waiting up to 90 days for a waiver to fly near busy airports. His experience with both radio control and full-scale airplanes has allowed him to sell his expertise and alleviate any concerns his clients have.

“Every day I show up to this airplane to do some building, just like if you're building an RC, the only difference is the pieces and parts are bigger and more expensive.”

Gruber believes the commercial applications for drone flying are significantly safer than full-scale flying. "Drones can do certain projects much, much safer than a full-scale helicopter. A good example would be filming a movie on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. If it were to crash, one drone could possibly injure one person and dent a car. A crash of a full-scale helicopter would be significantly worse. I've taken pride in this company that I've created, that I have all this knowledge of all the different sides of aviation, and I can stand there and tell a client that we are doing this properly and in the safest method available."

Jonathan Gruber Story

He's been lucky enough to be involved with what Gruber calls "Hollywood productions." Being only a small part of the production, it was fun to concentrate on filming the scenes and then take in the behind-the-scenes action from directors and talent all the way to the catering table.

"What started with one friend, who was a director, with his project and then word of mouth exploded," Gruber said. "Now I have a client list for commercial roof inspections, large-scale projects with high-rise building construction in the city of Chicago, and more. We've filmed at Soldier Field for the Chicago Bears and several times for nonprofit marathons."


In March 2020, Gruber took the plunge and started building a full-scale, two-seat Lancer Legacy race airplane. He hopes to fly around the country in it and take advantage of its high performance and enter in some races.

For the last few years, he's been continuing to build with the hopes of completing the project and flying the plane later in the year.

"Today, I'm wiring all my electrical connections for my engine monitoring which could be called telemetry. One cool thing is that you can interchangeably use terminology between RC and full-scale. It's been an amazing learning process. Every day I show up to this airplane to do some building, just like if you're building an RC, the only difference is the pieces and parts are bigger and more expensive."

If you would like to join Gruber's build process, follow him @Lancair_Legacy to see every step of his build.