From the cockpit to the concert hall: Grissom airman flies high as both pilot, violin virtuoso

Capt. Rob Reilly, 434th Air Refueling KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, conducts a violin performance during a demonstration at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, Jan. 29, 2021. In addition to being a tanker pilot, Reilly sits as a first chair violinist with the Indinapolis Philharmonic Orchestra.


By CARSON GERBER | Kokomo Tribune | Published: April 16, 2021

GRISSOM AIR RESERVE BASE, Ind. On most days, you can find Capt. Rob Reilly preparing and practicing for his next air refueling mission flying the KC-135R Stratotanker.

But on other days, you can find the 31-year-old Illinois native  preparing and practicing for something completely different: playing violin in the Indianapolis Philharmonic.

For about a year-and-a-half now, Reilly has led a kind of double life that takes him from the pilot's seat flying planes all around the world, to the first violin section of the orchestra, where he performs classical music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Reilly said it's two separate worlds, but he fits right in both, even though it makes him a novelty in each.

"It's definitely outside the usual from the people that join up with the philharmonic," he said. "People ask me about it, and I think they're surprised when they hear me play."

It's the same story at the base with his military buddies.

"Every once in a while, I'll get razzed about playing classical music," Reilly said. "It's not the typical machismo, military thing to do ... But it's so much more interesting to me. Listening to classical music is like admiring a fine piece of artwork, while listening to pop music is like watching a McDonald's commercial."

But it's a double life that Reilly has lived for years now.

He said he first wanted to learn violin when he was around 6 year old and stationed in Germany with his dad, who was an active-duty airman. They couldn't find a teacher, so he started taking piano lessons instead.

When they returned to the U.S. and were stationed at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Reilly finally found a violin instructor. From there on out, it was pure love for the instrument.

"It was just something I was really into," Reilly said. "I liked listening to music on the radio and things like that. It just seemed like a really interesting thing to get into. I was just a little kid, so I probably just thought the performers looked cool."

Reilly honed his craft all throughout middle and high school, and eventually landed some scholarships to Illinois State University to study music performance and education.

"I was getting really into music, so it just seemed like that was what I was going to do with my life — go out and become a musician," he said.

But that changed after his sophomore year at college. He and some friends in the Army Reserves decided to take a day trip to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Once they arrived, something unexpected happened to Reilly.

He realized he missed the military life in which he'd grown up.

"It just awakened a lot of memories of living on Air Force bases when I was a kid, so on the car ride home I started researching the Air Force Reserves," he said. "About a month later, I was talking to recruiters and enlisting."

Reilly became a typical reservist at Grissom, where he served as a fuels system technician while still attending college.

After he graduated, Reilly was hired on as an orchestra teacher at a public school. He loved the job, but said it was way more stressful than he ever anticipated.

"Every class I had was like me versus 90 kids," he said. "I loved it. It was a great thing, but it was stressful. I'll tell you right now that being a public school teacher was a lot more stressful than flying combat missions over Syria."

A few years into teaching, Reilly learned his district was reshuffling positions and his job might be cut. At the same time, Grissom was looking to train more pilots. So Reilly made the decision to drop the classroom for the cockpit.

Sure enough, his school ended up letting him go. And sure enough, Reilly got the piloting gig.

"My principal called me into his office to let me know I'm not going to be coming back next year," he said. "And I was like, 'Hey, actually, I was going to tell you I wasn't coming back next year.' So it all really worked out."

After that, Reilly put his violin aside to focus on becoming a military pilot. That's the role he's served now for the last three years.

But once he made it through training, Reilly was ready to get back into the business of making music. That's when he joined up with the Indianapolis Philharmonic, a group of volunteer musicians who have been putting on concerts since 1941.

Now, Reilly said, he likes the way it all panned out. He likes flying planes for a living, and he likes playing violin more as a hobby.

"I do find it more enjoyable," he said. "It's something I get to do instead of something I need to do or have to do. I've been really happy to put it as my hobby instead of my living."

The cockpit and the concert hall may be worlds apart, but in the end, Reilly said, they've actually come to fit together well for him in a surprising way.

"There's no direct correlation, but it's the same need for precision and practice and critiquing yourself at the end of the day and learning from your mistakes," he said. "It's all a big part of being a pilot and a musician."

©2021 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.)
Visit the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.) at www.kokomotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.