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A legacy of wings

A digital art piece that has the pilot wings and the title of the article 'A legacy of wings'.

This digital art piece was created along with a feature article about Capt. Nathan Cooper’s journey to becoming a U.S. Air Force pilot and his family’s history of military pilots. The pilot wings featured in this graphic are a representation of the same wings Cooper received from his father and were passed down from his grandfather. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Philip Bryant)

Four Cooper family members take a group photo. All four are in uniform and served at one point in their lives presenting more than 70 years of military service.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dennis Cooper, left, Oregon National Guard medical evacuation pilot, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Cooper, top middle, retired U.S. Navy Commander Craig Cooper, right, and U.S. Air Force Capt. Nathan Cooper, 96th Bomb Squadron pilot, come together for a photo presenting more than 70 years of military service, May 4, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

The front and back of the Cooper's pilot wings. Passed down from his father U.S. Air Force retired Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper and grandfather U.S. Air Force Capt. Gerald Cooper, the initials of each are engraved into the back of the wings.

The Cooper’s pilot wings, front and back, sit in possession of Capt. Nathan Cooper, 96th Bomb Squadron B-52H Stratofortress pilot July 8, 2020. Passed down from his father U.S. Air Force retired Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper and grandfather U.S. Air Force Capt. Gerald Cooper, the initials of each are engraved into the back of the wings. (Courtesy photo)

A portrait of Capt. Nathan Cooper, 96th Bomb Squadron pilot, poses for a photo in front of a B-52H Stratofortress.

Capt. Nathan Cooper, 96th Bomb Squadron pilot, poses for a photo in front of a B-52H Stratofortress prior to taking off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, during a bomber task force deployment June 18, 2020. Cooper is a third-generation military pilot with and one of five military pilots in his family. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Philip Bryant)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

Alone, with a few weeks’ worth of clothes and food packed into his 1991 Nissan Maxima, 16-year-old Nathan Cooper made the two-day drive from Nevada to Montana to enroll in flying lessons out of the local airport on the weekends. At the time, learning to fly was a passion he grew up with, but it hadn't yet dawned on him that this trip would end up being his start down the road of a family tradition.

More than 50 years before Nathan’s first flying lesson, his grandfather, U.S. Air Force Capt. Gerald Cooper, was flying F-100 Super Sabres for the Kansas Air National Guard. Nathan’s great uncle, U.S. Marine Captain Melvin Cooper, also became a military pilot, flying the H-34 Choctaw as well as the A-4 Skyhawk in Vietnam. This family service is ultimately what then led Nathan’s father and both of his uncles to join the military.

Nathan’s eldest uncle, retired U.S. Navy Commander Craig Cooper, served 24 years as a certified registered nurse anesthetist while Nathan’s younger uncle, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dennis Cooper, still serves in the Oregon National Guard as a medical evacuation pilot. Lastly, Nathan’s father, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, served for 37 years which included six deployments in multiple roles, one being a combat rescue pilot flying Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawks.

When Nathan’s interest in flying first peaked, his father was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. However, because the airspace around Nellis was bustling and crowded, his parents decided the open airspace in Montana was a better option for a beginner pilot.

“I always thought that it was cool that my parents encouraged me to take calculated risks. They would sit me down and they would actually have me brief them,” said Capt. Nathan Cooper, 96th Bomb Squadron pilot.

After his summer of flying ended, Nathan returned from Montana to learn his father had taken a job as an ROTC instructor at Norwich University on the other side of the country. It was during this time in Vermont when Nathan’s decision to pursue his dream of becoming a military pilot like the generations before him, was solidified.

“I'd be lying if I said there wasn't at least a little bit of a desire to want to be a part of a legacy,” Nathan said. “That's a small part of it at least.”

Naturally, his next step became Air Force flight school, which he successfully finished while his father was deployed to Qatar. Unbeknownst to Nathan, his father caught multiple flights and flew over 70 hours to be present for Nathan’s graduation.

“It was a big surprise. He and my flight school flight commander talked it over and he kept it from me,” Nathan said, recalling the special day. “Then the very next morning following graduation, he started the whole process over again to make it back to Qatar by Monday.”

Needless to say, his father was elated to pin Nathan’s pilot wings on during his graduation ceremony. This was a particularly special moment as the wings pinned to Nathan belonged to his father and his grandfather before that.

“I feel unbridled pride to have a son serving his country as an Air Force pilot, following in my and my father’s footsteps,” Jeff said. “What more could a man ask for?”

Although becoming a military pilot ran in the family, Nathan’s motivations to serve stretched beyond his familial ties.

“An innate desire to serve our country and fellow man transcends my whole family,” Nathan explained. “Whether it be as a pilot, or a nurse, or a doctor, none of us do it for the money or for ourselves. I believe we feel pride in following a family tradition, as well as in the fact that these careers must each be earned on their own.”

In 2016, Nathan’s pursuit of becoming a pilot landed him behind the wheel of the most accomplished strategic bomber in the Air Force. Today, he has more than 980 flight hours, involving flights over countries including England, the Philippines, and Guam as in the B-52H Stratofortress.

The time Nathan invested in flying for a summer in Montana, the unwavering support from his parents and the knowledge gained in flight school paid off well for him. As an esteemed pilot in the Air Force, he not only keeps his family’s legacy alive, but also continues to further develop and define his personal dreams while living a life dedicated to protecting the United States.