Rob Zettel by a fighter jet.
Rob Zettel ’76 beside a Russian MiG-23 while a member of the 4477th TES (Test and Evaluation Squadron) in spring 1986.

Former USAF Fighter Pilot and St. Thomas Alumnus Aids Ukrainian Refugees

In early 2022, Rob Zettel ’76 made a trip to Poland, just six miles from the Ukrainian border, to provide food and supplies to Ukrainians displaced by the war.

Zettel knew he wanted to become a pilot since before his high school guidance counselor gave him several reasons why he shouldn’t. If that challenge didn’t galvanize his determination, his first visit to the University of St. Thomas in 1972 surely did. It was the first flight of his life, and it made an impression on him. “The plane was half full, and I had my nose pressed up against the window the entire time wondering who wouldn’t want to do this for a living,” Zettel said.

Zettel, who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, chose to attend the University of St. Thomas for its ROTC program and the potential for a career in aviation. On graduation day in May 1976, he received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

Rob Zettel ’76 in the cockpit of an F-15, Luke Air Force Base, January 1987.

After graduating first in his class at flight school, Zettel put in for a coveted fighter pilot position. As assignments were handed out in painstaking alphabetical order, Zettel anxiously awaited his fate. To his delight, he had been assigned to fly an F-4 Phantom. He would go on to fly the Phantom and several other fighters for several years in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, all the while gaining a reputation as a top-notch fighter pilot.

As a result of his exemplary record, Zettel was selected to join an extremely selective and confidential squadron within the Air Force, flying as an adversary against U.S. and NATO pilots during training exercises.

“Actually, I was flying against the Top Gun squadrons in their F-14s in the summer of 1986 when the original ‘Top Gun’ movie came out,” he said. “We were training students how to fight against Russian MiGs, and because we had flown what the students were flying, we could teach them how to win if they ran into a MiG-21 or MiG-23. Sometimes the students would win, and a lot of times the students lost, but by the end of (the training), they got better, and that was the whole idea of the program.”

Rob Zettel ’76 on his last flight for United Airlines.

After serving 14 years of active duty and 10 years in the reserves, Zettel eventually retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. Upon his retirement, he started flying commercial airliners for United Airlines. In his last four years at United, he was responsible for the ongoing qualifications of more than 2,000 pilots.

While Zettel is proud of his achievements, he is careful not to let them define him. That is why four years into retirement, he is once again answering a call to service, this time providing aid to Ukrainian refugees and support for Ukrainian defense forces.

‘Don’t forget about them’

His experience taking supplies to Poland led him to a group called NY4Ukraine, a 501(c)(3) supplying aid to Ukrainian military units and refugee camps.

In February 2023, Zettel traveled with the group to Lviv, Ukraine, and surrounding cities, where they partnered with local religious leaders and battalion commanders to coordinate the disbursement of a wide range of supplies.

Children at the Lviv orphanage.

We had over 30 bags of gear with us,” he said. “It included humanitarian aid for homeless refugees, a lot of stuff for kids, whether it’s art supplies for art therapy for children, clothes for the orphanages, and some much-needed military supplies to some of the territorial defense forces in Ukraine itself.” Some of the items are as simple as Advil, bandages, gauze, or chest compressions and tourniquets.

“Don’t forget about them,” Zettel said. “We in the Western world tend to have short memories for what’s not on the front page of the newspaper. People tend to forget about the human cost of what’s going on. Through no fault of their own, these people and their culture are being terminated or extinguished.”

For Zettel, he said the measure of a person is less about what they are, and more about what they do for others.