Ruth-Ann Bell grew up with aviation in her blood; her paternal grandfather, grand-uncle and father were all private pilots.
“My earliest memories of flying were when I was around 3 to 4 years old in my grandfather’s and grand-uncle’s Piper Tri-Pacer and Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s D-25 New Standard,” she said.
It’s fitting, then, that Bell serves in both the Air National Guard and the Pennsylvania Wing. As a Guard senior airman, she was honored this year as not only the Pennsylvania ANG Airman of the Year but also the national 2021 ANG Airman of the Year.
“It’s a very humbling experience to have been named, and I’m still in a state of shock,” said Bell, who’s also a Civil Air Patrol first lieutenant in Capital City Composite Squadron 302. “All credit goes to my leadership for giving me opportunities and seeing something in me that I don’t. I see myself as just a mom who followed her inner calling to serve and has been blessed beyond measure.”
Her commander in the Air National Guard’s 203rd Weather Flight, Maj. Brian Nolan, said the honor is well-deserved.
“Senior Airman Bell has been an incredible asset to the 203rd Weather Flight,” Nolan said. “Her dedication to the Air Force core values were demonstrated perfectly this last year with all of the accomplishments she has had. She volunteered to help our unit when we became over-tasked, then volunteered to help a unit and in a role that she was unfamiliar with during the height of the pandemic, and finally volunteered to deploy in support of operations being executed across the Middle East. “
Nolan said Bell has consistently shown an aptitude of being able to dive into the unknown and getting the job done right – “a quality that oftentimes takes military members years to acquire,” he said, though “she seems to have had it from Day One,” he said.
Bell also applies some of her ANG-related knowledge to her responsibilities as assistant aerospace education officer for the Capital City squadron, where she also serves as cadet activities officer. She previously belonged to Lebanon Composite Squadron 307.
Bell’s grandfather and father both served in the Air Force. Her father later joined the 193rd Special Operations Wing Pennsylvania ANG and helped maintain EC-130s, deploying several times. Her younger brother joined the 193rd out of high school in the same engine shop and is a range scheduler for Bolen Range.
“My love and interest in serving is something that—like aviation—runs deep,” Bell said.
“When a recruiter spoke at our sons’ CAP squadron when I was a brand-new (ANG) senior member, I had a calling from within that said I needed to join.
“I had always put the family first—so I wasn’t sure how they would react when I told them I was interested in stepping up to serve. I really wanted to set an example for my children that if you feel called to do something, you should follow that calling.
“They were ecstatic and proud of the fact I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and follow my heart to serve.”
Although both her younger brother and her husband became pilots, Bell initially was reluctant to seek her private pilot’s certificate. That changed when she was introduced to gliders. She obtained her private glider certificate while eight months’ pregnant with twins in 2004.
In 2006, just after baby No. 4 was born, she obtained her private pilot airplane single-engine land license with a tailwheel endorsement. She added the commercial glider rating two years later and volunteered to give flights at a local glider operation.
Typically, Bell flies vintage single-engine aircraft and Schweitzer 2-33 sailplanes. She and her husband own a 1946 Taylorcraft BC12-D, and she and her brother co-own their father’s 1940 Luscombe 8A.
“Being in the air gives someone a different perspective on life,” she said. “The smile and elation that most individuals, particularly children and teens, have on their faces is a very gratifying experience.
“Sometimes those first couple of flights can be a life-changing event, pointing a young person towards a future goal.”
Bell visited a few ANG locations before serving in the 203rd Weather Flight at Fort Indiantown Gap. While considered a “traditional guardsman,” Bell, who completed Air Force basic training in 2018, works full-time backfilling a position as a temporary technician.
“Having a love for aviation with my head up with the clouds and also a mind geared toward science, weather seemed like the logical choice for me despite its long technical school,” she said. “When I met Senior Master Sgt. Kristin Graby, the full-time meteorological technician, everything she said about the squadron – which is quite small and more like a family – just clicked, and I knew I was ‘home.’
Real-time forecasts can mean life or death for pilots, their crew and passengers, Bell said.
“If they don’t receive accurate and timely forecasts, the results could be catastrophic. Overseas there’s not the weather data available as here in the U.S.—so they depend on us to get them to their destination and target safely.”
Dust storms are the most challenging weather she has encountered. “They can be very difficult to predict when exactly they are going to form,” she said.
Bell uses the TMQ-53, a deployed, tactical weather instrument that provides real-time data with wind speed and direction, precipitation type and amounts, any other obstructions to visibility (like dust, sand or smoke), cloud heights and lightning within a given radius of the deployed location. It can be set up and collecting data within a matter of minutes.
Last year, she supported statewide COVID-19 operations as part of Operation Safe Haven.
“It was a unique experience where I was stretched to learn more about various other roles within the military and finding a way to incorporate my experience as a weather forecaster into the various tasks that I performed,” she said.
In August she spent seven months at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, supporting the 2nd Battalion, 104th General Support Aviation Regiment as a staff weather officer for medevac and cargo missions.
“This was a challenging experience, as the weather team I was a part of was not co-located with all of the mission pilots we were providing weather,” she recalled. “Resources we take for granted in the U.S. are not available overseas. Forecasting with limited data while not being near the locations the pilots are operating is challenging and at times stressful, as lives are on the line.
“It was humbling and gratifying being a part of saving lives via getting the medevac crews to the individual(s) in need.”
Bell’s husband, Brian, is also a CAP first lieutenant and assistant aerospace education officer in the Capital City squadron.
Their daughter Abigail is counting the days until she can join her brothers—Jacob, Eli, Levi, Caleb and Isaac—as a CAP cadet.
Bell enjoys mentoring cadets, who she said “are our future leaders in whatever professions they decide to do as adults. Having a small part in the lives of cadets mentoring them as they grow, mature and make those choices is humbling.”.
“I really enjoy teaching kids anything STEM-related, particularly how it relates to aviation,” she added. “It’s satisfying to see cadets enjoy learning when doing hands-on tasks and sparking their creative imaginations.
“CAP helps to educate, nurture and grow youth by laying foundations in leadership and service,” she said. “Utilizing emergency services, cadet programs and aerospace education as platforms, CAP instills, in youth and adults alike, the values needed to make a positive difference in the world.
“It doesn’t matter what future aspirations an individual has or a career path an adult is currently doing, CAP has something for everyone.”