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By Michael DePietro
Last Wednesday, the Niagara Military Affairs Council met at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station Heritage Center to celebrate longtime volunteers, as well as award the annual Merrell Lane Memorial Aviation Scholarship.
After a short recap of the previous year, NIMAC Chairman John Cooper gave a sendoff for Vice Cmdr. Col. Erik Aufderheide of the 914th Air Refueling Wing who will be leaving NFARS this year to begin working at the Pentagon.
Aufderheide extended praise to NFARS, NIMAC, as well as the surrounding community.
“I’ve been on a lot of bases in my career and I’ve never been on a base with this much community involvement,” Aufderheide said.
Afterward, Cooper honored a number of longtime NIMAC volunteers and board members who will be stepping away from the organization this year. The honorees included Bill Wagner, vice chairman; Col. Kurt Hammer, secretary; CMSGT Norm Pearson; Brad Schumacher, director; and Fred Caso, treasurer.
Caso, who had been with NIMAC since its inception in 1995, reflected fondly on his time with the organization.
“It’s not work so much work as it is a calling,” Caso said. “The volunteers who work for NIMAC recognize the importance of this air base to this community. They bring their love for the base as a community, continuing to work on behalf of the base.”
Later, Hammer presented the 2019 Merrell Lane Memorial Aviation Scholarship to SSgt. Linda Heizyk, a combat crew communicator with 914th Operations Support Squadron.
Heizyk, who has spent the last two years as a loadmaster on the C-130 aircraft at NFARS, became the third person ever to win the annual $1,500 scholarship.
“It’s amazing, a huge stress relief,” Heizyk said. “There’s so much cost from (pilot training). I feel very honored to have gotten it.”
In addition to completing her Bachelor’s Degree in aviation, Heizyk is currently enrolled in a private pilot licensing program at the Akron Airport, which she hopes will help her to realize her passion and dream of becoming an aviator.
As the first member of her family to join the Air Force, Heizyk said that, while she had initially enlisted for the college benefits, she quickly fell in love with everything the Air Force had to offer.
“It’s been such a great adventure that this is definitely gonna be a for-life thing (for me),” she said.
Cooper was among many to commend Heizyk’s abilities.
“What we look for in an applicant is someone who’s serious about flying,” Cooper said. “We thought she had a great story as to what she was looking to do in the future.”
Additionally, Heizyk’s fellow crewmembers were quick to heap praise on her. SSgt. Kevin Foley, a boom operator for the 328th Air Refueling squadron, characterized her as an invaluable asset.
“She’s been a go-getter since I’ve known her. What she does now, combat crew command, she pretty much runs that shop herself,” Foley said.
Foley described a situation just that morning that demonstrated Heizyk’s mettle. While assisting Foley on the repair of one aircraft, Heizyk was called in for emergency repairs on another. After assisting with the distress call, Heizyk rushed back to assist Foley and his team.
“Those two birds would have been delayed and grounded if she wasn’t out there doing her job. … (She’s) definitely a go-getter, definitely deserving of the scholarship,” Foley said.
The scholarship was created in honor of Merrell Lane, the co-founder and first chairman of NIMAC, with the purpose of addressing pilot shortages in the USAF, as well as promoting incentives for individuals to build successful aviation-related careers.
One of the obstacles that many young pilots face is the costs incurred to obtain certification. NIMAC Executive Director Holly Curcione explained just how vital such scholarships can be for young aviators.
“When you’re getting your pilot’s license, you’re putting your money out. So you’re looking at a 20-year-old person who has to pay sometimes $25,000, $35,000 … (to begin) to become a pilot,” Curcione said. “By giving an enlisted person an opportunity to become a private pilot, they increase their chances of becoming an officer in the Air Force. You need to become an officer before you can be a pilot (in the Air Force).”
Last year’s recipient of the Merrell Lane Scholarship, Airman First Class Chase Jones, explained how the Merrell Lane scholarship impacted him.
“Pilot training is super expensive as anyone going through it knows, so any monetary scholarship is a huge help,” Jones said.
So far, Jones has completed over 90% of the required training on his way to receive a private pilot license.
When asked what Merrell Lane would think of the scholarship, Cooper smiled.
“He would just be thrilled to know there are young pilots out there who are being trained because of a scholarship that was … in his name,” he said.
During NIMAC’s inception, Lane helped spearhead the campaign to broker community support for the base when it was slated for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure commission.
Cooper discussed how much community support has meant to him and NFARS over the years. Over 25% of all the letters that came before the BRAC commission that year came from Niagara County.
“I just love to see what has happened here … not just with the base realignment and closure process, but just the passion that the people on this board have for the military -- for the mission here,” Cooper said.
He recounted how the community pulled together for a letter-writing campaign when the base was again slated for closure in 2005. Community support for the base was so strong that the BRAC reportedly received approximately 125,000 letters from Niagara County residents, nearly 25% of all the support letters it got that year.
Echoing Aufderheide’s earlier comments, Cooper said he admires the respect between the base and the surrounding community.
“There’s just not (that level of) support every place you go. Really, it’s been an honor for me being the chairman of this organization, to be as involved as I have been for a lot of years,” he said.
•In other news, as part of NIMAC’s annual meeting the board voted to appoint new and returning board members. Returning members included: Col. Richard Muscatello, Gary Strenkoski, LTC Jeff Glatz and Col. John Higgins. New members included Mary Cooke and John Rizzio.
NIMAC’s mission is to support the growth and prosperity of the NFARS and its personnel to create a positive economic impact in Western New York.
For more information on NIMAC, visit the committee’s website at www.nimac.org.