Up up and away: Nevada County native reaches new heights in U.S. Air Force | TheUnion.com

Up up and away: Nevada County native reaches new heights in U.S. Air Force

Colonel Philip Cooper (right) proudly assumes command of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing. His squadron is responsible for helping Afghan soldiers build their Air Force from the ground up.
Submitted Photo

Since graduating from Nevada Union High School in 1992, Colonel Philip Cooper has led a life that movies are made of.

Graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Prescott, Arizona, Cooper — a Nevada County native and graduate of Hennessy Elementary, Union Hill middle, and Nevada Union high schools — set off on what has become a decorated career with the United States Air Force.

Currently stationed in Afghanistan, Cooper is the commander of the 438th air expeditionary advisory group.

“I am, by trade, a helicopter pilot,” said Cooper. “I’ve grown up both in the special operations community and rescue community, flying helicopters. However this group is fairly new in that I have a bunch of different aircraft in different missions.”

“We’re a little different in our job,” Cooper said, “in that we’re not doing the combat missions themselves, but we’re training the Afghans. All of these aircraft are aircraft that we have given to Afghanistan and we are building the Afghan Air Force.”

Cooper explained his group is responsible for training the Afghans in the operation of aircraft such as the C-130 and the Cesna 208. Cooper’s squadron has undergone training and is responsible for TAAC — train, advise, assist, and command — as it pertains to the Afghan air force.

“We’re building them from scratch,” he said. “We’re teaching them how to do maintenance on their own aircraft (and) teaching them to fly combat-type missions.”

Cooper said the Afghans they are training are receptive and eager to learn, sometimes making suggestions as to what could be done differently. He said the progress is slow but steady.

“If this was a football analogy,” he said, “we don’t measure in yards, we measure in inches. We hope to go inch by inch and it’s not that they’re not capable or not smart, but it is a different culture. We have to remember that they’re not Americans and we have to be respectful of their culture and we have to go at their pace.”


Football is something that is decidedly not foreign to Cooper. He spent four years as a receiver for the Nevada Union Miners, and when not on the field he could be found racing down slopes for Nevada Union’s ski team or spiking for the school’s volleyball team.

Philip’s dad, Jay Cooper, beams with pride for his son’s many military achievements.

“He determined in about the ninth grade that he wanted to fly for the Air Force,” said Jay. “His idol, General Chuck Yeager, was an inspiration to him. Bart Riebe was an inspiration, and his grandfather and his uncle both flew (as well).”

The elder Cooper said that his son’s involvement in the U.S. military has made other, more visible impacts on the lives of their family members.

Philip met his wife Keri at Embry-Riddle, where she was also enrolled in the R.O.T.C. program. The couple have four children: son Mickey, daughters Petra and Rebecca, and oldest son Levi, himself poised to continue the Cooper family’s Air Force legacy.

Next year, Levi will finish at Texas Tech Air Force R.O.T.C. and the Air Force has agreed to allow Philip to commission his son into the Air Force as a second lieutenant.


For now, Cooper said he has about 200 American Air Force personnel under his supervision, in addition to about 53 NATO partner countries. There’s the political side of NATO, he said, which he feels he has no business talking about.

However, he is more than happy to talk about the military and tactical side of NATO “because we have an awesome relationship and I love working with our NATO partners.”

“It’s really fun to get to work with them and see how professional they are and how much alike we are with our militaries, and what the differences are. We really work together as an effective team. I think that helps as we are all trying to raise up Afghanistan.”

In his time with the Air Force Cooper has earned three master’s degrees and served at least four tours of duty. His heart, he said, has a special place for his youth in Nevada County.

“My dad was at Beale when he was an enlisted man so getting to see the SR-71 flying overhead and that connection with Beale had an impact on me,” Cooper said. “And that’s what we are seeing now in our military, is kind of this warrior class where only about one percent of the nation has even served in the military, and a large percentage of that one percent is sons and daughters of people who served.”

“I love to see things that Grass Valley and Nevada City does in their patriotism and really pushing love for country and service for country because we do need more people to come into the service.”

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.

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