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Taking to the skies

Always being interested in engineering and flying, Jesse Ziegler found the perfect education for both -- the U.S. Air Force.

A 2003 Detroit Lakes High School graduate, Ziegler graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in May this spring. He holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and is on his way to pilot school in Texas in less than a week.

"I had a hope and so far, it's worked," he said. "I wanted to fly. The academy was the best way to do that."

Although he wanted to fly planes, with imperfect eyesight, he had to face the possibility of not being able to pilot. That was until his junior year of the academy when the Air Force paid to have his vision corrected through surgery.

While in the academy, Ziegler went through the "jump" program in which he parachuted from a plane five times. He'd free fall for 10 seconds -- a "most intense" feeling -- before opening the chute. He also received 25 hours of flight time there.

"It was the most fun and hardest part of the academy," he said of the flying.

Although he spent four years in the academy and only got to participate in three and a half months of flying time, Ziegler said it's to get students excited about flying, but also to see if they can handle flying a plane in some situations that may occur.

Ziegler got that excitement, and will continue his training for 13 months of "the meat of" the pilot program in Wichita Falls, Texas, in the Euro Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training Program. Only 40 people a year go through the program. He said, "I can fly next to a German guy, with an Italian guy behind me." Hence the "Euro" part of the training.

His desire to fly started as a kid, seeing the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels perform.

"That's really exciting, in my opinion," he said. "It's like driving, only in 3-dimentional."

Once at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Ziegler would learn that as much as he thought he knew about the academy, he really didn't know. The year Ziegler arrived, the entire leadership at the academy changed after a sex scandal swept through the academy and the national media.

"2007 was considered the class of change," he said of his graduating class.

One thing that had changed and was enforced was older students teaching those younger -- "a leadership laboratory." Last year, Ziegler served as squadron

commander for the incoming class at basic training. While there are about 1,300 incoming freshman each year, classes dwindle. Ziegler's only had 976 graduates.

Although the school was going through changes, Ziegler said he feels they were positive and now basic training tactics are more "purposeful," and he could see incoming freshmen turn from high schoolers to young adults.

While becoming that young adult himself, Ziegler admits there were days -- quite a few actually -- that he wasn't sure he was going to make it through training. He said it was day to day, thinking he'd wait to see what the next day would bring before making any decisions. Up until their junior year, students are allowed to leave the academy.

"I never felt committed until half way through my senior year," he said with a laugh.

He credits his roommate with getting him -- getting each other, really -- through the last few years. While at the academy, Ziegler had to live in a dorm, which is required. Although it's not exactly the best living arrangement, he said it's nice to be surrounded by the guys who know exactly what each other are going through.

"The support is awesome," he said. "It's a great place to be from, not at."

There are ups and downs at the academy, like any other college, he said. Although some things don't fly at the academy, like the freshman 15 -- the 15 pounds some gain when going off to college.

"Freshmen 15 doesn't work because you won't pass."

He graduated in May with 155-160 credit hours and the title of second lieutenant.

From day one, students are taught to work for the end result, having to state on any given day how many days are left until graduation -- starting with 4,000-plus on the first day. Ziegler said he can remember the day he had 1,380 left and it seemed like a lifetime. When they reach 100 days, there is a celebration. Just think of having only one day left.

Also while in the academy, Ziegler wasn't allowed to get married -- something he did as soon as he graduated this spring -- could only own one car and had to sign in and out on a regular basis. In Texas, although he doesn't know exactly what to expect, he does know he can live off base, own two vehicles and doesn't have to sign in and out anymore.

During pilot training, he will decide whether he wants to fly fighter or bomber planes and which type of fighter or bomber. His school in Wichita Falls only trains pilots for fighter and bomber planes, narrowing out any who will fly cargo, refueling and other support planes.

He's not certain how much the caseload will vary between classroom time and fly time, but he said he thinks he'll be able to fly one to two hours a day, and then have classroom time and individual study time.

With the mentality of always looking toward the end result, Ziegler said after pilot training, he'll be at the end. Except for his end goal of colonel.

Since graduation from the academy this spring, Ziegler has been enjoying 60 days of leave. He's been to a friend's wedding, had a wedding of his own, took a three-week honeymoon to New York, Washington, D.C., and the Caribbean, and basically spent as much time as he could with family and friends before heading to Wichita Falls. He's also been enjoying the lakes. He didn't see any in Colorado Springs and likely won't see many in Texas either.

Friday, Ziegler will officially sign-in in Texas and then send the next two and a half months on the base talking with other pilots and then start school in mid-October.

After his 13 months, Ziegler doesn't know where he and his wife, Amanda, will be moving, but the type of aircraft he'll be flying will help determine the location, since certain bases house certain planes. For now, he's committed to five years, and he said he plans to make a career out of the Air Force.

"Until I don't like what I do anyway," he said with a smile.