Issaquah grad takes wing for flyover

January 11, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Navy Lt. John Nelson, a 1997 Issaquah High School graduate, pilots a Boeing EA-18G Growler in the dash-2 position (left) in a two-plane flyover of Qwest Field on Jan. 8 for the Seattle Seahawks playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. By Greg Farrar

Sure, the Seattle Seahawks received a boost from the 12th Man in the improbable playoff triumph against the New Orleans Saints last week, but the home team had some air support before the match-up, too.

Issaquah High School graduate Lt. John Nelson, a Navy pilot, participated in the Qwest Field flyover just before kickoff Jan. 8.The pair of Boeing EA-18G Growlers sliced through the air above the stadium just as “The Star-Spangled Banner” faded. Nelson piloted the jet in the wing position.

Then, the pilots landed at nearby Boeing Field and headed to the game to watch the Seahawks defeat the Saints, 41-36.

Nelson had participated in a local flyover for Independence Day, but had not done anything on the scale of a nationally televised sporting event.

“The hardest part of the flyover is the preflight coordination,” Nelson said.

The south-to-north flyover only lasted a handful of seconds, but preparations started late last week.

The flyover occurred in the path for jets bound for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, so the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration coordinated the flight.

So, the Navy monitored weather conditions in Seattle. Stubborn clouds cleared in time for the 1:30 p.m. kickoff.

The jets completed the flight from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island — almost 70 miles distant — in mere minutes. The pilots circled Vashon Island and listened a pregame radio show as kickoff neared.

Nelson, a 1997 Issaquah High School alumnus and Anacortes resident, had long considered Navy pilot as the ideal career in part, due in part to “Top Gun” — the ’80s film gem.

“When you see that as a second-grader, you’re like, ‘Yup, that looks good to me,’” he said.

Nelson graduated from the University of Washington in June 2001 — Navy pilots must be college graduates — and headed to Pensacola, Fla., for officer candidate school.

The commissioning ceremony occurred Sept. 14, 2001. Nelson’s parents could not travel to the ceremony due to the air travel shutdown in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks

Navy flight training meant stints in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Meridian, Miss., for the soon-to-be pilot. Nelson earned his pair of wings in June 2004.

The pilot has also participated in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

Nelson recalled logging 10 hours strapped to the ejection seat — and completing a trio of midair refuelings — during the longest mission.

“The most challenging part is, at the end of that 10 hours, you had to land on the boat at night,” he said.

The pilot is part of a naval tradition: His father is a retired naval officer and his sister is married to a Navy pilot.

Nelson opted to fly Growlers in part because the squadron is based at Whidbey Island.

“It’s pretty rare in the Navy to be stationed near your family and your hometown,” he said. “I got really lucky in that respect.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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