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Son takes flight, continues family legacy

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mary Hook
  • 162nd Wing

Some sons walk in their father’s footsteps, while others fly. That sentiment was especially true for father-son F-16 pilot duo, Lt. Col. Joseph Thomas and 1st Lt. Nathan Thomas, here at the Morris Air National Guard Base this year.

In early 2022, Nathan arrived at the 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard base for the F-16 Fighting Falcon Basic Course. Typically, the unit hosts student pilots from around the country and the world who have never been to the Old Pueblo. Yet for Nathan, the assignment was a homecoming and a reunion.

Nearly 20 years ago, Joseph joined the Air National Guard family after ten years of active duty service as an F-16 pilot at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.  Joseph moved to the Netherlands to participate in a Dutch exchange tour, bringing along his own family, to include young Nathan.

“When I was younger, we moved to a couple different places,” said Nathan. “As a kid, I thought that was pretty normal, and I have some pretty good memories from Europe.”

The Thomas family eventually returned to Arizona, settling in Tucson, where Nathan graduated from Salpointe Catholic High School.

Despite being a fighter pilot, Joseph admits he and his wife tended to hover in their parenting.

“We are helicopter parents for sure, but we had to check ourselves,” said Joseph. “We wanted [Nathan] to build his own path.”

After high school, Nathan decided to attend the Air Force Academy, which was his father’s alma mater.  However, Joseph proudly shared that in addition to studying civil engineering, Nathan was an accomplished cross-country runner for the Falcons.

“Growing up, there was never any push from dad to go to the academy,” said Nathan. “But his dad was a Naval Academy graduate, so our family was just familiar with the military service academies. But the Air Force seemed like the best fit.”

“We were super happy,” said Joseph. “We enjoyed all the parents’ weekends and everything we got to see from the other side. But for Nathan, you really don’t know what role you’ll have until you’re on your way to your career.”

Nathan continued a similar trajectory as his father and was selected to become a pilot. He attended undergraduate pilot training in Oklahoma, but he got his first taste of family separation when his wife Shanna was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

“Especially starting with a new marriage, I had a lot of military family questions,” said Nathan. “I know I’ve asked my mom and dad because they both had a lot of good perspective on that.”

After three years of training and living apart from his wife, Nathan was up for his aircraft assignment, and subsequently, his next duty station.

“You just try your best and everybody submits a dream sheet, but everybody in my class would be happy flying any fighter,” said Nathan. “I was very thankful and surprised when I got F-16.”

Having learned where his next training tracks could take him, Nathan requested an assignment at Luke AFB to at least be closer to family. However, serendipity struck again, and the Air Force Personnel Center offered him an even better option.

“They totally helped me out and said I could come here to the Guard unit to train,” said Nathan. “It’s very selective because they don’t’ have very large class sizes here, so I banked on Luke because I know they have a couple F-16 squadrons there. But [AFPC] came back with one better.”

While Nathan was on a similar journey to his father’s, Joseph said that he and his wife committed to hovering less.

“I know the path he’s going into, but we want him to figure it out on his own,” said Joseph.” “There’s been a couple things like, ‘Hey, dad, what about this,’ and we can help him put things into perspective, but we definitely want him to have his own experience.”

Joseph said that he hadn’t revealed his relationship with Nathan to many people in the squadron, but he continues to serve as an instructor pilot as a drill status guardsman and could not resist an opportunity to train with his son. 

“Halfway through his training, I got to fly Red Air for a mission he was on. So I got to be a training aid for him, an that was really fun,” said Joseph.

According to Nathan, training at the 162nd Wing offered more advantages than being close to home.

“We have friends that are training at other places, and it sounds like there are so many students,” said Nathan. “Our classes are two to four, so we are really fortunate because we get extra attention if we need help in a certain area. It feels more individualized.”

Ultimately, Nathan and Joseph said that the experience has been special to their family, and they are grateful for where their paths have taken them, and how they’ve taken them.

“It’s super nice to be here near family because I feel like that’s such a unique opportunity, especially in the military,” said Nathan. “But I appreciate how he wants me to have my own experience and figure it out for myself.”