Eye on the sky

Heather Wilson, who grew up in Fitzwilliam and Keene, has been confirmed as U.S. Air Force secretary. In this file photo from 2008, Wilson, then a congresswoman from New Mexico, shares a laugh with former N.H. Senate president Thomas R. Eaton during a visit to Keene State College.

When Ian Wilson first heard the news, he was beyond elated. Heather Wilson, Ian’s sister and a Monadnock Region-area native, would be President Donald J. Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Air Force.

On Monday, the Trump administration made the decision public, touting Heather Wilson’s record and exalting her suitability for the highest position in the Air Force.

In a statement, the White House noted her career in the Air Force, in the National Security Council in 1989, as a four-term Republican congresswoman representing New Mexico and, presently, as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

“Heather Wilson is going to make an outstanding Secretary of the Air Force,” Trump said in the statement.

“Her distinguished military service, high level of knowledge, and success in so many different fields gives me great confidence that she will lead our nation’s Air Force with the greatest competence and integrity.”

Hours after the announcement, Ian Wilson, of Keene, was overjoyed.

“I feel an incredible sense of pride,” he said Monday. “She’s never been secretary of the Air Force. But she’ll be the best at it. I’d put money on that.”

Ian, Heather, and their brother Scott have their roots in this area, growing up in Fitzwilliam and then Keene. Born to Doug and Martha Wilson, native New Hampshirites, the Wilsons had in some ways typical childhoods, shaped and developed at Keene High School.

But in other ways, theirs was a unique upbringing, centered on aviation. Their father, Doug, was an avid local pilot, an Air Force veteran and member of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Their grandfather Scotty Wilson had immigrated to the area after flying for Scotland in World War I, later becoming one of the first wing commanders of the N.H. Civil Aviation Air Patrol, according to the patrol’s Col. William Moran Jr.

That zeal for the skies was passed down through the generations. Doug Wilson would put his children into the cockpit of his J3 Cub, a vintage propeller plane, Ian Wilson recalled. They’d fly around Mount Monadnock and swoop down to land on Bretwood Golf Course, whose owner was a close family friend.

Doug Wilson died in 1967, in a car crash, when Heather was just seven. But through a godfather, she and her brothers kept flying, and the passion took root through her teenage years.

At Keene High School, Heather Wilson set her sights high, Ian Wilson said. She excelled in classes — “smart as a whip” — earning As across the board. She applied herself outside the classroom, as vice president of student council, president of the debate club and saxophonist in the school band.

She made connections with teachers and kept them. In an interview with The Sentinel in 2012, Wilson said she kept in touch with her physics teacher John Amstein for advice while at the Air Force Academy.

“I remember being challenged, falling asleep every night doing my homework and learning how to work hard,” Wilson said then.

A spokeswoman for the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology said that Wilson was unavailable to interview Monday due to the sensitive nature of her nomination.

Steve Lindsey of Keene was a few years below Heather Wilson at Keene High, but recalled her strong sense of compassion and empathy.

“I was unpopular, being a dork, a geek,” Lindsey recalled in an email. “Few would talk to me during those unpleasant years. But Heather did. She was vibrant and intelligent and had empathy. Well raised and poised. She listened.”

“She’s just outgoing,” Ian Wilson agreed.

So when she applied for the Air Force Academy in high school, just two years after it first began accepting women, it made perfect sense, Ian Wilson said.

She entered in the third co-ed class, and graduated in 1982. “That was a big event,” Wilson added.

She received a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England, joining the sixth-ever co-ed class and gaining her masters and doctoral degrees. She went into the Air Force, serving for seven years. In 1989 she was put on the National Security Council by George H.W. Bush, as director of the European Defense Policy and Arms Control during a period that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And then Wilson settled down, in New Mexico, running a business development company. She served in the U.S. Congress from 1998 to 2006, mounted an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2008 and took over as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 2013.

She had, by all appearances, left behind a career in government. But Ian Wilson, who has stayed in Keene and is a guitarist in the local band Tom Foolery, says his sister always had a sense of duty to her country.

So when Trump picked up the phone, Heather Wilson answered.

To assume the role, Wilson will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate; Air Force Undersecretary Lisa Disbrow will serve as the service’s acting secretary for now.

But in the meantime, Wilson and other Granite Staters are celebrating.

“New Hampshire is proud today,” Gov. Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, said of Monday’s announcement. “I congratulate (Wilson) on this distinctive honor and I thank her for her courageous service to our country.”

Col. Moran said the N.H. Civil Aviation Patrol is excited too. “This is good for us,” he said, citing her family’s roots to the patrol. “Obviously it’s good to have someone in your backyard (leading the Air Force).”

But for Ian Wilson, Heather Wilson’s nomination is just another milestone from the big sister he always believed in.

“I’m very proud of her, I truly am,” he said. “She’s quite a woman.”

Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or edewitt@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @EDeWittKS