Ellerbe native Ronald Kenny Durham is Richmond Senior High School Class of 1988 graduate and retired United States Army helicopter pilot.
Upon graduating from RSHS, Durham enlisted in the U.S. Army and began his service as a helicopter repairman. He received an associate degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Maryland in 1993 and soon after relocated to Germany as a helicopter repairman for five years. While in Germany, he discovered the path to make his childhood dream of becoming a pilot come true. In learning to repair helicopters, his passion for and love of flying intensified.
His next assignment as staff sergeant landed him in Fort Eustis, Virginia, as a helicopter instructor/ writer. While there, he trained young military students to become helicopter mechanics. After two years as an instructor/writer, Durham submitted his resume to become a helicopter pilot and was quickly selected to enter flight school in Fort Rucker, Alabama, the home of Army Aviation.
His acceptance to flight school marked a turning point in his career and life, as his childhood dream that he had secretly held onto was actually happening. Durham feared sharing his aspiration of becoming a pilot because it seemed so out of reach for a young African American boy in Ellerbe. He felt like his family and friends would think his goal was too outlandish and he, at best, could be a labor worker or maybe even a truck driver. Despite the cynicism and doubt of many of his peers and the fact that most pilots, at that time, were not African American, Durham graduated third in his class of 65 students in 1995.
After graduating, his first assignment as an U.S. Army pilot was in Italy, where he remained for three years, while he continued to hone in on his piloting skills. His next graduation came in 2000 when he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Aeronautics, while stationed at Fort Bragg. Durham’s commitment and dedication to his passion for piloting led to him becoming a skilled pilot of Chinook Army helicopters.
During his 23 years of service in the U.S. Army, he spent a total of 11 years in Europe, completed two tours in Iraq (2003-2004 and 2007-2008) and one in each of the following: Somalia (1992), Italy (1995-1998), Kosovo (1998), and Afghanistan (2005-2006). Durham officially retired in January of 2011 as a chief warrant officer 4.
Durham’s humble, but strong spirit of determination and perseverance to overcome adversity and barriers has not only been the guide for his successful career in the U.S. Army, but also his personal life. In the wake of the tragic murders of three of his family members — his mother, sister, and brother, in 2017 — and the passing of his wife the following year, his story coupled with his will to overcome the grief inspired his therapist, Laurie Teixeira, to write the book “In Search of Meaning: Healing through Conversations, Connections, and Spirituality: Why Not Me?” The heart-wrenching account of Durham working through the deaths of those family members within a few years is a must-read inspirational guide for all, especially those working through the grieving process of losing a loved one.
Join us today in shining some well-deserved light and recognition of a true combat pilot, who has fought countless battles and wars as a soldier, son, husband, uncle, father and friend, but continues to soar just as he did in the Chinook helicopters, representing Richmond County, the Ellerbe community, the U.S. Army, and Black History!
Meghann Lambeth is executive director of the Richmond County Tourism Development Authority.
(Editor’s Note: Visit Richmond County is highlighting prominent local African Americans each day in February in honor of Black History Month. Previous individuals featured include late Richmond County sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr., late state representative Harrison Ingram Quick, dancer and makeup artist Ciarra Kelley, Ellerbe Mayor Brenda Capel, two-time Super Bowl champion Perry Williams, Bishop Arlester Simpson of Ellerbe, Richmond County School Board member Ronald Tillman, and educator Melvin Ingram. See the Visit Richmond County Facebook page for more on these outstanding individuals.)