Born To Fly

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Growing up in Hawaii, Lt. Col. Nick Rutgers discovered, like most children, the deeper meaning of "The Aloha Spirit" -- the gift of interacting in the natural world with boundless possibilities. This aptitude only nurtured his biggest childhood dream to a grander significance.

"I can't remember wanting to do anything else besides being a pilot," said Rutgers, "and if given the chance, to fly fighter jets." 

After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy in May of 2000, the trajectory of his flying career first took him to Okinawa, Japan, and later to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, then eventually landing him here in Portland in 2012 with the 142nd Fighter Wing; all the while flying the F-15 Eagle fighter jet.

Prior to graduating from high school, Rutgers had already obtained his private pilot's license and got his first taste of military life at Camp Pendleton, California, with the Marine Corps "Devil Pups" program. The summer youth camp allows teenagers a chance to gain insight into the military lifestyle while learning citizenship skills in personal responsibilities, self-respect and other valuable life experiences.

"The program definitely got me ready and prepared me for the harsh realities I faced prior to going to the Air Force Academy," he recalled with a laugh. "It clearly was a boarding experience."

Yet Rutgers' path toward becoming a military pilot did not inevitably begin at Camp Pendleton or the Air Force Academy. His family lineage is rich in service and sacrifice. Rutgers' grandfather fought in World War II as a member of the Marine Corps, and his father with the Army in Vietnam and later serving in the Hawaii National Guard. The love of flying and sense of service can be traced even further back, nearly 100 years ago when his great-grandfather, James Norman Hall, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I.

The Lafayette Escadrille was an all-volunteer squadron of American Airmen who fought with France prior to the U.S. entry in World War I. In total, more than 200 Americans were part of the squadron, and 68 members died in battle. On April 20, Rutgers will travel to Paris to take part in the 100th Anniversary ceremony of the Lafayette Escadrille and pay homage to those, like his great-grandfather, who helped build and maintain the nearly 235-year France-American alliance.

The significance of the moment is not lost on Rutgers. During his childhood he was able to hear and read the accounts of James Norman Hall's flying exploits and service with the British military when World War I broke out in 1914. After returning to the United States, Hall published his first book in 1916, "Kitchener's Mob," detailing his experience, and later returning that year to Europe on assignment with Atlantic Monthly Magazine. It was during his writing and coverage of the Lafayette Escadrille where Hall found himself joining the fight once again, volunteering with the American flying squadron.

"I grew up with not only the stories of my great-grandfather's war experience but was able to read an excessive amount of his personal accounts during the First World War," Rutgers said. "The details and richness to his written work in itself made a lasting impression on me early in my life."

Toward the end of World War I, Hall, then a Captain in the Army Air Service, was shot down and became a Prisoner of War (POW) in Germany. While being held as a POW, Hall met fellow American pilot and writer Charles Nordhoff. The two would become life-long friends and writing collaborators, publishing multiple books together to include notable literary works such as "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Botany Bay."

"My Great-grandfather served the final months of the war as a POW and when the Armistice was signed, had to figure out how to get home," Rutgers explained as he recalled accounts of his great grandfather's release from captivity. "He traveled to Switzerland then France, doing so at times on the good will of others, to eventually get home."

At the conclusion of the war, Hall was ultimately awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross and most notably, the French Légion d'Honneur.

Rutgers will represent not only the direct lineage and heritage of the Lafayette Escadrille during the commemoration ceremony in France, but also in the larger ongoing commitment America has to other European partnerships.

Last summer, Rutgers deployed to Romania and Hungary as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, training and flying with NATO partners while embracing the cultural relevance of other European nations. During that deployment, he and other members of the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing found a way to give back to others in the community while collecting items for a local orphanage. They donated and delivered everything from basic clothing items to new shoes for almost every child at the orphanage, which allowed the Oregon Guardsmen to spend a day hosting an American-style barbecue.

"The crux of these types of deployments comes down to nurturing and developing partnerships, and are invaluable to supporting our endeavors overseas and around the world," he said.

Rutgers emphasized how current events in Europe are vital to maintaining these partnerships when it comes to global security. As the current Operations Officer for the 123rd Fighter Squadron with the 142nd Fighter Wing, his job is to maintain the combat capabilities and proficiencies of the unit. He also is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force's Weapons School and has participated in Exercise Red Flag, which allows U.S. and numerous NATO air forces to train together under realistic air combat situations.

Rutgers said it is important for many reasons to be involved with the anniversary of the Lafayette Escadrille, "because it allows us to pause and reflect on all of the service men that were involved and lives that were lost from WW I to current incidents in Europe."

"By participating in events like the upcoming commemoration it helps fosters relationships and allows our nations the opportunity to strengthen our alliances, while engaging in our shared issues such as global terrorism," he said.

When he arrives in Paris for the rededication of the memorial to the Lafayette Escadrille, Rutgers, in a greater sense will be coming full circle, to honor his great-grandfather's legacy, and thus; writing another chapter in his family's unique shared allegiance with America's allies in France.