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The Path to Command

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Vince Lang
  • 126th Air Refueling Wing

Colonel Nicolas Henschel took a unique route to arrive as the new commander of the 126th Air Refueling Wing.

Most of Henschel’s youth was enjoyed in Dillon, Montana, a small town with a population of about 1,000 situated just north of Idaho Falls near the border.

“Growing up, it was awesome, and I miss it,” Henschel said, talking about the time he lived there. “The mountains, the weather, skiing in the winter and flying little airplanes in the summer… it was a pretty cool way to grow up”.

Flying little airplanes meant more than most people think. It wasn’t radio-controlled models or drones.

“My dad was a pilot,” Henschel said, adding, “it was kind of a family thing.”

“We had a Cessna Turbo 210. Every weekend, we would pile into the airplane, put golf clubs in the back or whatever, and fly to the different places around Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and into the Wyoming-Colorado area. We called them, ‘lunch and back.’”

“At the time, my younger brother was the one always sitting up front with my dad, interested in flying and helping him navigate,” said Henschel. “I was always in the back sleeping the whole time.”

Henschel’s flying interests developed later.

“I was a senior in high school. Six months through my senior year I had gotten enough credits to graduate, so I could have graduated early. Instead of doing that, I convinced my principal to let me go to the airport as part of my school curriculum and get my pilot's license. The second half of my senior year was spent out at the airport flying every day.”

This life experience allowed Henschel to pass the test for his pilot’s license before graduating high school.

“I was like a hero across the whole high school,” said Henschel. “I was 18 years old and flying into the next town over with my girlfriend for lunch and then back. So that was really cool!”

At this point Henschel had flown to many places but still wanted more. He wanted to fly for the U.S. Air Force.

Not long after earning his pilot’s license, Henschel began the congressional nomination process to gain entrance into the Air Force Academy.

“I interviewed with the senators and congressmen,” said Henschel. One senator was impressed by his interview but didn’t have any slots left for the Air Force Academy and offered him a slot at any other military academy.

Henschel did his research and found an alternative that wasn’t as well-known but had high academic standards.

“I had never heard of the United States Merchant Marine Academy before, but doing research found out that you could graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy and go into the Air Force,” said Henschel. “The end result is still the same line-up.”

On its website, the academy states that its graduates control their future and can choose to work as a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer, serve as a reserve officer in the Armed Forces or apply to serve as an officer in any of the nation’s active Armed Forces.

With a beautiful campus, located on Long Island, in Kings Point, New York, it was a detour that ended up being the best thing ever.

“The whole experience built into the curriculum of the Merchant Marine Academy teaches you how to be a ship or boat captain,” said Henschel. “Six months of your sophomore year and six months of your junior year, you actually go out on ships and sail around the world.”

“I was a 19 year old kid going to Hong Kong, and going through the Panama Canal, and the Suez Canal. I was all traveling all over the world,” said Henschel.

However, being that close to New York City on September 11, 2001, gave him another experience he’ll never forget.

“We could see the New York skyline,” said Henschel. “We watched through binoculars on campus, standing on top of our buildings, as the second tower fell and the first tower fell.”

“9/11 presented a fundamental shift in our thought process,” he said.

The academy shut down normal campus operations to set up a triage center to accept victims and launched its fleet of training boats into New York City to assist with response efforts.

“We were transporting people, first responders, through to the different islands and boroughs in New York City,” said Henschel. “Unfortunately, as we know now, we didn't receive any survivors at the Merchant Marine Academy. From that point forward, it was a completely different military.”

“Shaping my military career from day one, we were engaged in war. My whole career has been in that type of posture. I haven't been in the military during a peacetime, so I don't know what that's like.”

Before graduation, and with his sights set on the Air Force, Henschel planned to enter as an active duty pilot but then discovered he could receive a direct commission into the Air National Guard.

Without a doubt Henschel knew he wanted to fly larger cargo or refueling airplanes, known as heavies, and while still attending school Henschel begin applying at potential units.

“I sent resumes out to all the different heavy units around the United States. I really didn't have a preference in where I ended up,” said Henschel. “I just didn't have any desire to fly fighters or anything like that.”

“My junior and senior year ended up interviewing with a couple different places,” he said.

Henschel had a few selections to choose from and saw that the 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott Air Force Base would be a good fit.

“I made the decision to come to Scott because the mailing address at the time was on Golf Course Road,” said Henschel. “I do like playing golf, so it’s just that which brought me here.”

“During graduation people are in all the different military service uniforms and swear into that service,” he said. “I was in Air Force blues for the first time, when I took the oath of office.”

For a while, Henschel did his Air National Guard duty at the 126th, near St. Louis, but lived in California causing him to spend more money on flights to the training weekends.

This brought about a teachable moment early in his career.

Due to an error brought on by how he commissioned into the National Guard, he wasn’t getting paid and wasn’t sure how to take care of it. He mentioned this to the wing commander at the time, Col. Larry Hammond, who walked with him to the finance office and made sure the problem was fixed.

“That completely resonated with me. Of someone at that level, to look after the Airman and to be able to do things and make decisions like that. So, from that point forward, I wanted to have that type of influence,” said Henschel.

Having spent 18 years in the 126th Operations Group working his way up to a flight commander, he believes he is well prepared to lead, partly because his time in the Guard was spent as a drill status Guardsman, attending monthly drill weekends, performing the additional 15 days of duty each year, and volunteering for even more opportunities beyond that.

“My entire career I have been a drill status Guardsmen,” said Henschel. “The overwhelming majority of the Airmen in the 126th are DSGs and that's an important perspective I bring to this position.”

Supporting relief efforts during disasters is a big Guard mission, so it’s not surprising that Henschel deployed as a citizen soldier in support of Hurricane Katrina.

One of his decorations that he’s most proud of is his Humanitarian Service Medal.

“Helping our citizens with domestics response is what the Guard is all about,” said Henschel. “Supporting our community.”

In his civilian work, Henschel has been with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for 20 years. Before taking leave to be a full-time Guard commander, he managed five divisions and over 250 personnel in a role that included a budget of $150 million.

As is common in the Guard, his civilian work helps him perform his military duties.

“I am capable of handling large organizations and large budgets,” said Henschel. “I bring my experience and skill to this position.”

There are many routes to being a commander and there are many components to being successful.

“It’s setting the direction of the mission and having the vision,” said Henschel.

And he doesn’t forget about taking care of the Airman.

“So, if there are any obstacles, let me know and I'll see what I can do to help clear those obstacles for my Airmen, and get after the mission,” said Henschel. “That’s what I am here to do.”

Even with taking an indirect route into the Air Force, 22 years later he’s still glad he made that choice.

A father of four, Henschel now enjoys flying with his children just as he did with his dad.