Living life to the fullest
WEST FARGO -- In the high-flying, adrenaline-filled, "Top Gun"-glamorized world of fighter pilots, Capt. Eric Ziegler was the anti-maverick.
The humble West Fargo native was quick to change the subject when someone would mention his accomplishments, his sister said.
The experienced Air Force instructor pilot liked to plan things out and choose his paths carefully, his dad said.
And the new father possessed a strong, yet quiet faith, the kind that has comforted his family since he died on June 28 when his fighter jet crashed during a training exercise in Nevada, his widow said Thursday in the family's first extensive public comments about the crash.
Last month, an Air Force investigation concluded Ziegler blacked out because of gravitational forces during a high-speed maneuver.
Finally knowing what led to her husband's death seemed "kind of irrelevant," Sarah Ziegler said.
"I've always believed, and still do, that everything happens for a reason and a purpose, and so I didn't need a source or object to blame or anything like that," she said.
Sitting on the couch at her mother-in-law's house in West Fargo, surrounded by framed pictures of Eric as their 13-month-old girl slept in the next room, Sarah didn't hesitate when asked about that reason.
"I think it's part of God's plan for all of our lives," she said. "And it's I think so others can learn from it, whether it be pilots or just people looking at Eric's life, and maybe his story can just be an inspiration to a kid in West Fargo who might want to fly airplanes."
Eric's desire to fly didn't develop until college.
Sports were his first love, said his father, Lynn Ziegler. As a senior at West Fargo High School, Eric helped lead the Packers football team to a state title in 1999. He also played baseball and ran track.
Beyond sports, Eric enjoyed fishing and was active in his church youth group, said his mother, Val Ziegler.
He met Sarah Kotte, a student at Fargo South, in June 1998 when both attended the Summer Scientific Academy at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Their mothers worked at a hospital together and, playing matchmaker, made sure Eric and Sarah knew each other would be there.
By senior prom, both had been accepted to the Air Force Academy. For one picture, Sarah wore combat boots to complement her prom dress.
During their sophomore year at the academy, Eric took an interest in fighter pilots' tales of the challenges and camaraderie their careers offered. He gradually decided to pursue flying, while Sarah, whose imperfect eyesight kept her out of the cockpit, became an aircraft maintenance officer.
After graduating from the academy in 2003, they bounced around several bases as Eric continued his pilot's training. The couple tied the knot in 2004.
With his training completed, Eric spent about 14 months with a combat squadron in Korea before he and Sarah were stationed in September 2007 at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, where Sarah managed the same F-16 jets that Eric flew.
Eric twice deployed to Iraq, first from January to June 2008 and then with Sarah from May to September 2009. They celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary with dinner in the chow hall at Joint Base Balad on a 110-degree day.
In September 2010, Eric joined the 442nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Sarah decided to leave the Air Force for a new career path: mother.
Anna Mae Ziegler was born Sept. 22, 2010, three days before Sarah's discharge from the Air Force.
June 28 started out as a normal day, Sarah said.
She and Eric ate breakfast with Anna before Eric headed off to work.
His ill grandfather had died the day before, which wasn't unexpected, but he decided to wait until the next day to fly.
Sarah said she and Eric spoke only briefly about that afternoon's mission: a proficiency training exercise, his last before heading off to the selective U.S. Air Force Weapons School, to which he'd already been accepted. While it was a prerequisite flight for attending the weapons school, Eric could have received a waiver because of his grandfather's death, she said.
"He was looking forward to it, and he felt prepared," Sarah said of the 4:50 p.m. flight.
Twenty-six minutes into flight, Eric was attempting a high-speed turn that likely involved 8 Gs or more when the jet stopped maneuvering and nose-dived, according to the crash report summary. There was no evidence that he tried to eject or maneuver the jet before it crashed in a wilderness area north of Las Vegas.
At 9:30 p.m., one of Eric's friends, a family liaison officer, and his wife arrived at Sarah's door with an Air Force chaplain and doctor.
"All they said is that Eric's aircraft had gone down," Sarah said, "and they weren't sure if he was in it at the time or not, and there were search and rescue helicopters going out to try to find him."
Sarah called Eric's family to let them know. Eric's friend and his wife stayed the night.
The chaplain and doctor returned at 5 a.m. to deliver the tragic news.
"I think it was just shock at that point, and it really didn't sink in," Sarah said. "It didn't feel like reality. Just kind of going through the motions and doing things, and for me it lasted about a month."
Meanwhile, the support from Eric's squadron and commander "was just amazing," she said. They opened their homes, delivered meals and gave rides to Eric's grieving family.
It was the first time the family from West Fargo had been around the military family of which Eric had spoken so fondly.
"The kindness and compassion was just true. They were all feeling the same," said his mother, Val Ziegler.
Sarah said the family also deeply appreciated the love and prayers extended by people around the world and in their home communities of Fargo-Moorhead, West Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Almost four months after the crash, the brigadier general who served as president of the Accident Investigation Board personally delivered the report's findings to Eric's parents and Sarah.
According to an executive summary, the general found "clear and convincing" evidence that the cause of the mishap was a loss of consciousness.
Based on the evidence, he concluded that the blackout was caused by Ziegler not adequately performing an anti-G straining maneuver, a technique in which pilots contract their lower body muscles and take quick, deep breaths to keep blood flowing to their eyes and brain to help maintain consciousness.
Ziegler "had excessive motivation to succeed" and "had slight fatigue" during his fourth engagement of the exercise, the summary states.
However, the general also "found no evidence the (pilot's) physical or mental condition ... contributed to the accident," it states.
Based on how the accident happened, Sarah wasn't surprised by the investigation results, which she said was "good information to have, but it didn't really change anything for me."
In the end, Eric died doing what he loved.
"He loved every aspect of it," she said. "And I loved the opportunity to be around the planes, too.
Just the camaraderie in the Air Force, but really in the fighter squadron is something that's unique.
And a sense of purpose, defending our country is something that we both were very proud of."
There were easier things Eric could have done with his life, said his older sister, Erin Petersen.
"I think with Eric, he welcomed challenge and succeeded," she said.
Now, family members see Eric in his daughter's facial expressions and her brown curls.
On the living room floor -- at Anna's eye level -- sat a framed portrait of a smiling Eric holding his flight helmet in front of an F-16.
"He was a man of faith, character ... humility ..." Sarah said, wiping away tears as she watched their daughter play. "And I think above all he just loved to have a good time and live life to the fullest, whether that was flying an F-16 or ... playing on the floor with Anna. Just getting the most out of life."
Nowatzki is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.