Notre Dame alum currently flying for the U.S. Air Force says Memorial Day is a good reminder to appreciate the sacrifices of many who came before him.
Nick Hafner currently is stationed at Osan Air Base, which is located in the city of Pyeongtaek in South Korea. He is flying F-16s for the United States Air Force and is stationed there following what he says was a route not usually traveled by most students coming out of high school.
"My college experience was a little more on the unconventional side when compared to what a 'normal' college experience would be," said the 2010 Notre Dame Prep graduate. "I enrolled in the Air Force Academy back in 2010 and graduated in 2014. With a minimal military background, it took a while to get over the initial culture shock of being placed in a completely new environment compared to any experience I had up to that point."
He said that while the first years in the Academy were difficult, he eventually started to settle in and become accustomed to this new way of life. He ended up graduating from the Air Force Academy with a major in physics and a minor in Russian.
"While I was at the Academy, I also took part in various extracurricular activities by being the captain of the powerlifting team, becoming an instructor pilot and spin instructor in the glider program that flew TG-16 sailplanes, operating a drone in the drone program, and taking part in various other military programs," he recalled. "Also, I was lucky enough to travel around the United States on various temporary duty assignments and even spent a month in Russia studying at a university in Petrozavodsk."
Hafner eventually graduated with a pilot slot after which he enrolled in pilot training at Vance AFB in Enid, Okla. There he competed with 23 others in flying the T-6 turboprop aircraft to get one of the four T-38 slots available to train on fighters jets. After ranking No. 1 at the end of T-6 training, he began flying the T-38, which is a two-seat, twinjet supersonic jet trainer. He was then assigned to fly F-16 fighters and moved to Holloman AFB in New Mexico to start training on that aircraft. After completing the initial training in 2017, he went to survival school and moved to Osan AFB in South Korea in May of 2017. He says eventually he will be moving to his next base in Italy starting in August of this year to continue flying the F-16.
"My time spent in South Korea has been a little uneasy at times as I was stationed here during the North Korea missile test launches back in 2017 when tensions were rapidly rising," Hafner said. "But the assignment has been an amazing experience so far as I completed my four-ship flight lead training and currently I'm in the instructor pilot upgrade in the greatest fighter squadron in the world, the 36th!"
Hafner said he loves what he's doing but he's always cognizant of the ultimate sacrifice made by many of those who came before him, especially as America celebrates the Memorial Day holiday.
"Memorial Day definitely has had deeper meaning to me since joining the military and being out in the combat Air Force with other military members who have been in for a while," he said. "In my current fighter squadron, the 36th, we have a lot of drawings, paintings and plaques of those who were MIA/KIA throughout our squadron’s 102 years."
Even though he passes by them often, days like Memorial Day, he says, are still a good time for him to think about priorities and appreciate everything he has.
"I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any close friends pay the ultimate sacrifice, but coworkers and other fighter pilots who I fly with who've been to the Middle East know some who didn’t make it back," he said. "We actually took some time this weekend to keep their legacy alive. I also think I am fortunate to be able to train and become more tactically proficient every flight in order to honor the legacy of the squadron and all its members past and present. It's truly been an honor and I wouldn’t trade it for anything."
Hafner also says he wouldn't trade his high school experience for any other.
"I actually attribute my success at the Air Force Academy directly to the habits, patterns and lessons learned at ND Prep," he said. "The academic workload along with the robust sports program taught me crucial skills of prioritization, time management, and the efficient use of my studying and training in order to maximize readiness for any possible tasks. Had it not been for the opportunities given to me by attending ND Prep, I would have started in a grossly disadvantageous position in college and would have had to work much harder than I did in order to meet the standards set by my peers."
"Like many others back then, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career, or life, even as a junior in high school," he said. "In fact, the college fair at ND Prep was the first time I'd heard about the Air Force Academy and I believe it was the main reason I am where I am today."
He said he knew even back in high school that he didn’t want to work in a cubicle or at a desk, didn’t want to wear a tie and, plus, he liked the color green, "so I figured going to the Air Force Academy and trying to get a pilot slot was what I wanted to do with my life. I definitely attribute having such a competitive resúme when applying to different colleges to ND Prep’s academic curriculum and reputation. I believe those skills and strengths have aided me in this 'job,' and I also think the sports programs at NDP helped me with the athleticism and decision-making under pressure that are really necessary in the jet every time I fly."
Now looking forward, Hafner said he's hoping for continued good fortune in the Air Force.
"For the time being, fingers crossed, we don’t push north into North Korea in the next few months so I can finish up my training and perhaps start living life out in Europe for a few years," he said.
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Notre Dame is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's lower and middle schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. NDPMA is an International Baccalaureate "World School" and is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers. It is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org