Following Grandpa's Lead

By Ensign Katrina S. Nietsch, U.S. Navy

His daughter, my mother, thinks of him even more often than she would normally, since he too was an officer in the naval service, graduating from not the Naval Academy but Officer Candidate School. I never knew much about this soft-spoken, humble man, but what I have been able to find out shows how I ended up at the Academy.

One day at home, I was rummaging around looking through old pictures. I came upon my grandfather’s flight log, photos of his first flights, even his wings of gold. These discoveries ignited a newfound interest in his career and life in the Navy. I asked my mom what he’d flown and what missions he’d carried out while serving. I became enthralled with learning as much as I could about him during my four years here.

Retiring from 22 years of dedication to his country and ending his career as a commander, “Grandpa Jerry” transitioned to civilian life in the late 1960s. It was during this time of self-reflection that he battled his first disease: alcoholism. My mom told me how strong a man he was, but not without flaws. I understood that as accomplished and amazing as he had been, he’d met his own personal challenges and steered himself in the right direction. He was human, like me.

Trapped between four walls where perfection was the only acceptable result and mistakes were not tolerated, I began to identify with this man who pulled himself away from a path of self-destruction and arose a new, stronger husband and father. Soon I felt like I had known him all along. When the time came for me to pick what I would be doing for the next nine or more years of my life, there was only one choice: to be a pilot just like Grandpa. The rides in different helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft on cruise, the long talks with alumni at flight school, and dinners with former officers all helped my decision in many ways. But it was my pure desire to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps that steered me to Pensacola, Florida, to begin flight training in September.

Honor and Adventure

As my interest in the aviation community increased, its relevance and importance to me on a personal level have become my focus. For me, the aviation officer’s job is one of the most important and enjoyable in the Navy. In an era when the role of air superiority in the Middle East and Horn of Africa have become so critical, Navy missions are bound to take pilots anywhere in the world. Whether prowling for enemy submarines hundreds of feet above the ocean, tracking adversaries in a strike fighter, or collecting intelligence from an E-2C Hawkeye, naval aviators have the distinguished honor and privilege to operate the most sophisticated aircraft and helicopters in the world.

As combat operations in Afghanistan and air-to-ground missions in Libya have become priorities for the security of the United States, the assignments of military aviators require the utmost dedication. Taking potentially fatal risks, aviators must be able to lead and excel under pressure. This makes them essential assets to the Fleet, as well as providing them with an exciting, adrenaline-charged environment of fast-paced adventure.

Joining a Legacy

Naval aviation began with pioneer Glenn Curtiss, the first man to contract an airplane for the specific purpose of taking off and landing on board ships at sea for the benefit of the military. The first pilot to take off from a ship, anchored off the coast of Virginia in 1910, was Eugene Ely. Before long shipboard operations became an unprecedented asset, and on 28 January 1911, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson, a student at nearby Curtiss School for Aviation, took off in a plane to become the first official naval aviator.

During and after the Cold War, aircraft carriers had the ability to project air power in some of the world’s most dangerous seas. This bypassed the need for conventional airbases, which were almost impossible to acquire in international waters.

Stories of leadership and valor in naval aviation help us reflect on the many fallen heroes who have left such an honorable legacy. I look forward to the day when I will stand proudly to raise my right hand once again, this time reflecting on the upcoming opportunity to leave my legacy in this exciting community.

A hero to call my own, my grandfather never backed down from the duty and honor of serving as a Navy pilot. He served with humility, loyalty, and commitment to the country he loved. I hope soon to emulate his example. After he graduated from college and received his commission, World War II ended, but he flew for the Navy during the Cold War, where his mission was to provide intelligence on Soviet submarine fleets in the Arctic Ocean. By the the time he retired in the late 1960s, he had earned a reputation as a dedicated naval officer.

To this day, our family laughs when we recall how Grandpa used to tell his children about the photos of those “glory days” in the Navy. He never left out the small but important detail of how the Naval Academy graduate had trouble landing on an aircraft carrier, while he, the OCS graduate, landed the aircraft on the ship with ease.

If only he could watch me climb into the cockpit one day, appreciating the sight of his first granddaughter taking to the skies wearing her Naval Academy ring and wings of gold. But I know he will.

Ensign Nietsch is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2011. She will begin flight training in Pensacola this September.

Ensign Nietsch is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2011. She will begin flight training in Pensacola this September.

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Maritime Security Dialogue

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You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

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