Col. Walter O. “Tim” Nelson wanted to be a military pilot, but his imperfect vision got in the way. In the years since, he’s managed to fly alongside fighter pilots, attack pilots, and transport pilots as a member of Civil Air Patrol.
Once he even got to fly an F-15 Eagle on its way to and from a four-jet, midair dogfight exercise.
“I didn’t puke. I didn’t pass out. I took 6.5 Gs … and we didn’t lose a fight!” he proudly recalled.
Nelson annually accumulates more Civil Air Patrol flight time – and by a wide margin – than any other pilot in the organization, and it’s easy to see why the Massachusetts Wing commander loves his service in the Air Force auxiliary so much.
Nelson was featured recently in the Smithsonian Channel’s On the Fly: Adventures at Altitude documentary series. The episode “A Game of Cat and Mouse” took viewers through an intercept mission known as Fertile Keynote, one of the air alert exercises the Massachusetts Wing routinely conducts with the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing.
“I wanted people to see we have this team that gets it done,” Nelson, who also is fire chief for the town of Amherst’. “Li’l ol’ Massachusetts is doing something that’s a really big deal.”
What he didn’t say is that his role is critical in ensuring those mutual exercises happen as scheduled and on time. The Massachusetts Wing has never canceled one of the missions for anything other than poor flying weather.
That elevated level of readiness is testament to Nelson’s positive impact on the organizations he represents and everyone who’s served.
“He’s all about getting things done,” said Capt. Eric Classen, the wing’s chief of staff, who flew with Nelson in that On the Fly episode. Nelson performs his duties with a quiet confidence, ample altruism, and genuine interest in everyone he meets, Classen added.
“He’s often said, ‘No one cares what you know until they know you care,’ which is something he once heard from a general speaking to cadets.
“And he latched on to that catchphrase because it’s how he thinks,” Classen said.
A Lifetime Serving Others
Both Nelson and his wife, Gina, grew up with fathers who pursued careers in the U.S. Air Force, so a service profession seemed natural — and worth passing on. Their daughter, Jessica Nelson, is a special needs teacher and multisport coach at her alma mater, South Hadley High School.
After graduating with a biology degree from Westfield State University, Nelson discovered that his need for eyeglasses, with no corrective surgery option, precluded him from becoming a military pilot.
After deciding to pursue a research career, he was running a warehouse to help pay for graduate school when one of his drivers suggested he join him that weekend to take a firefighter test.
Despite no preparation and little interest, Nelson finished on top and soon was offered a job at the Holyoke Fire Department.
When he was handed a mop his first day in December 1981, he thought it was a rookie thing.
Soon, though, he discovered everyone pitched in to keep the station clean and running smoothly.
That lesson would influence his leadership when he landed at the helm of the Amherst Fire Department in 2010 and as Massachusetts commander in October 2021.
By then he’d been a private pilot since 1983 and a Civil Air Patrol member for 30 years, serving in a variety of squadron and wing roles, most recently as Massachusetts Wing director of operations.
While Nelson was considering the wing’s top position, he approached Lt. Col. Carleton W. Jones, who’d worked closely with him the past couple of years and had known him for much longer. Jones had spoken out during a virtual professional development course, and Nelson appreciated that candor.
Nelson asked Jones whether he would take the job as his vice commander, explaining that he intended to make changes and empower under-resourced squadrons.
“In all of my 38 years in CAP, all of the wing commanders have been nice guys. But Tim took a whole new approach,” Jones said. “He got out there and met with cadets and their parents. He found new ways to support adult members.
“If a local unit needed something, he’d help them get it. And he visited as many people as he could – going to meetings across the state, attending awards ceremonies.
“People could no longer say ‘I’ve never even seen the wing commander.’ because he made sure they did.”
Jones said Nelson behaves similarly with his fire crews, setting high expectations and then assisting where needed to make sure they’re met.
“There’s just one speed — that’s Tim’s speed.”
The vice commander said people are impressed when they discover how often Nelson flies, whether to address cadets or escort remotely piloted aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, as an MQ-9 Reaper chase pilot.
Nelson has averaged more than 400 CAP flying hours annually the last four years. In 2022, he flew 445.7 hours compared to the next most frequent flyer, a New Mexico Wing pilot with 256.5 hours.
The average flown for the top 100 pilots with the most hours is 141.8, said Jones, who joked that one reason Nelson racks up so many hours is “because he treats that plane like a car.”
Nelson also appears comfortable speaking to any size group (or TV crew) with a slight speech impediment that he admits once posed a challenge because of initial perceptions he quickly dispelled. Now, he said, he hardly thinks about his occasional stutter.
Impacting Current and Future Generations of Volunteers and Cadets|
Maj. Charles Dale, a Massachusetts Wing pilot and member of Nelson’s staff, admits he was a bit intimidated when he first met the future wing commander seven years ago. Since then, though, he’s come to appreciate Nelson’s willingness to listen intently to anyone within his command.
Dale is particularly impressed with how Nelson interacts with cadets to help them realize their potential. Many go on to service academies, prestigious universities, and military leadership roles.
“There’s a whole group of up-and-coming leaders that is largely attributable to Tim and how he deals with people,” he said. “He has the wonderful ability to see people’s strengths and to support and encourage their growth and development.”
Nelson recalled a practice flight about 15 years ago with a nervous cadet who became physically ill when confronted with something difficult. When it came time for him to take over the controls of a CAP aircraft, he told Nelson he couldn’t. Nelson gently nudged him into doing what he most feared that day.
Afterward, the cadet told Nelson he was grateful the man didn’t let him quit.
“That was probably the first time he got through something that was challenging. For me, that is still my best day in CAP,” Nelson said. “You never know what kind of effect you’ll have on someone.”
That includes mentoring with a decent dose of humbleness and empathy and leading by example.
Nelson also understands his unique opportunity to inspire more diversity within CAP.
“One of the things I said in my acceptance speech when I became wing commander is we’re going to shake things up, and we’re going to up our game,” he said. “I said I would change how we support people in the wing. I was going to be a change agent. And I would get us to the point where folks don’t notice that the wing commander is a person of color.
“We’re going to build our bench for the next three to six years, so we have folks who traditionally haven’t considered taking on a leadership role.”
Jones said Nelson embodies CAP’s core values of integrity, excellence, service, and respect and puts them on display each day. “His dedication to both his roles of service is impressive,” he said.
Nelson’s advice to anyone who dreams big, despite considerable obstacles: Don’t quit.
“It’s easy for me to say that, but at the same time, I’ve lived it,” he said. “I’ve had roadblocks thrown my way, and you either go around them, go over them, or bust through them. As long as what you’re trying to do is for the good of others, you will do well.”
Civil Air Patrol recognizes Black History Month with this profile of Col. Walter O. “Tim” Nelson, commander of the Massachusetts Wing.
This look at Nelson’s service is 19th in a regular series of articles showcasing how CAP and its members make an impact in their communities and throughout the nation.