An Allentown man who left 18 years ago to join the military is back and leaving an impression on those who meet him.

Ray Stetler, 37, lives in a house on land that has been in his family for generations. His grandpa, James Roy Dooley, bought the land the 1940s, near Central High School, where Stetler attended.

After serving one year in the Army and 17 years in the Air Force, he is home, having received a medical retirement for two incidents of serious injuries incurred in the line of duty.

Once describing himself as “good at fixing things”, Stetler has been busy since his return in November, helping family and working on his hobby – one he hopes to turn into a business.

“I didn’t expect this kind of response, but it looks like my hobby is going to be my job,” he shared.

His job in the Air Force was communications – all kinds: land; mobile; radar tracking; voice systems; encrypted voice; cable and antenna. “If it allows somebody to talk to somebody else, I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve been trained for fiber optics for telephones, encrypted communications. I designed a communications system involving drones,” he said.

That’s where his hobby comes in.

Stetler builds Y copters or tricopters – from scratch. Each is a remote-controlled drone and his has a high-definition camera mounted on top. He’s been out around Milton and Pace demonstrating for people what he is able to do with the device.

Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Donna Tucker met with Stetler Wednesdays. She said, “Talking to him…there are so many possible applications that went through my head in 15 minutes. The Blackwater Pyrates are talking about working with him to videotape the Mardi Gras Parade.”

She added, “On the July 4 Riverfest, people estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 people come to watch the fireworks. We are going to have him run up and down the river during different parts of the day and videotape so we can show people how big a deal it is.”

Stetler not only does videos, he builds the flying machines and sells them for considerably less than what they cost on the Internet.

He said he wants to see others get into the hobby – including children. “Too many kids play video games. I’d like to see them get involved in something else and flying model planes is a great way to learn aerodynamics. I want people to see what I see and do what I do. It’s really fun for me.” He said when he goes to parks to fly the tricopter, children run up to him and want to do it too.

“I let them fly a less expensive model with their own controller, but I can buddy mine to theirs so if they get in trouble with it, it won’t crash.”

Stetler says he enjoys learning about and making new things. It came handy in his military career and lead to a major change in the way pilots communicate in combat by giving them access to Voice Over Secure Internet Protocol.

A release issued by the US Air Force in 2008 says while on active duty Stetler received a request to correct a communications issue from a help desk because of his reputation for “fixing things”.

He used five hours, a soldering iron and two meters of cable with a total cost of $1 to create the fix.

The innovation led to pilots tapping into the same resources available in their home units, offering real-time support, meaning direct, fast communication during times when it’s need most.

“Now we don’t need to get on our keyboard to type our request or take our eyes off the screen,” said Capt. Trey Teasley, a Predator pilot with Detachment 1, 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron. “We can just talk to the Combined Air Operations Center to receive clearance authority to engage a target or get other updates instead.”

Stetler’s invention caught the attention of Lt. Gen. Gary North, U.S. Air Forces Central and 9th Air Force commander, who paid a personal visit to the staff sergeant, encouraging him to share his creation.

“I was trying to save people’s lives, replacing a bad system with a better one,” said Stetler. He said he never expected to make a big difference. “It just kind of exploded on me, just like my work with the tricopter has.” 

Stetler medically retired as a tech sergeant and said he’s turning his hobby into a job while he waits for his retirement pay to start.

For more information, contact Stetler at 281-5765.