Mark A. Spence was coming home to Clarence in January from his tour in the Air Force, looking forward to taking the New York State Police exam and eventually beginning a new career with his wife and their newborn.
Staff Sgt. Spence instead was killed Thursday when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter he was aboard crashed near Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Spence, 24, who died in a hospital, was among six servicemen who were killed in the crash, four members of the Air Force and two Army pilots. Three other airmen were injured.
The Air Force said that the crash occurred about 22 miles south of Aviano and that the copter went down for unexplained reasons during a joint operations training flight.
"I'm tremendously proud of my son and the job he was doing," his father, Mark T. Spence, said Monday.
Spence graduated from Clarence High School in 2001, completed a year's study at the University at Buffalo and then joined the Air Force in 2003.
"He was told he had the top score of anyone in this region," his father said.
His maternal grandfather, Donald Rhoads, who died in January, helped design airplanes and inspired Spence's enlistment, his father said.
"He always loved flying and wanted to serve his country," his father said.
He said Spence continued his college studies while in the service, compiling a perfect 4.0 grade point average, and expected to graduate soon from Park University with a degree in criminal justice.
His wife, the former Elena Ward of the Town of Tonawanda, lived with Spence in Aviano after they were married in November 2005. She is expecting the couple's first child in May.
Spence led a group of eight airmen whose job was calibrating avionic sensors on F-16 fighter jets.
The unit had recently been named the top such facility of the 24 bases that did the calibration, his father said.
He enlisted in the Air Force in April 2003 and rose to staff sergeant in the shortest possible time.
Spence enjoyed photography and computers.
"He was just living life so large over there," his father said. "They were traveling all over the place. This was a shock to the entire family. He did not fly for a living."
Besides his wife and father, he is survived by his mother, Kim Rhoads-Spence, and two brothers, Robert and Michael.