FORT RUCKER, Ala. — Growing up in Panama in Central America, Jaime Ambler shined shoes and delivered newspapers to help his mother with expenses. He never owned a bicycle, much less dreamed of flying a U.S. Army helicopter.
A door of opportunity opened for him as a teenager in the early 1970s when his mother sent him and his brother to live with family in New York City, and he quickly decided to enlist in the U.S. Army for a guaranteed income and place to stay.
Today, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter civilian standardization instructor pilot and instrument examiner for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment, has accrued 50 years of combined federal service — including 21 years on active duty, followed by 29 years of employment as an Army civilian at Fort Rucker.
“His staggering wealth of experience gives him a calm and steady presence. He never gets overly excited by challenges, choosing instead to de-escalate and say ‘we can figure this out’,” said Lt. Col. Edward C. Adams, 1-212th Aviation Regiment commander.
To mark the 50-year milestone in his storied career, Ambler received the Department of the Army Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, the Order of St. Michael — Bronze award, and a 50 Years of Government Service award, presented by Maj. Gen. Michael C. McCurry, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commander.
Ambler, who received the USAACE Instructor of the Year award in 2005, has taught thousands of students, including Spanish speaking students, a mission that for a time had its own company at 1-212th.
“I have a passion about training folks, to teach them how to operate that machine in different environments,” he said, of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
His Army journey began as an enlisted medic. After completing the medical corpsman training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. From there, he deployed to Panama as an airborne medic. Soon he would set his sights on aviation. The journey had its challenges, including a language barrier — English is Ambler’s second language. In fact, when he was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., serving as the NCOIC at a clinic, and a neighbor suggested he drop his packet for flight school, Ambler said he didn’t know how to spell the English word 'flight'.
“I was in the military still learning the English language. (Flying) was not one of my goals. I never saw myself doing that. But the Army has this phrase, ‘Hooah Hooah’ — (meaning) drive on, let’s go do it,” he said.
Units in the New England area would arrive at Fort Drum for summer training, and that included aviation support. At one point, when two UH-1 helicopters were parked at the clinic, Ambler talked to the pilots and they encouraged him.
He eventually put in his packet, and was accepted. He loaded up his family and headed to Fort Rucker to be trained to become a warrant officer aviator. Though he faced some setbacks in flight school, he was part of a cohesive team of Soldiers that helped each other succeed.
“The esprit de corps, the teamwork that was there … I think that’s what really helped me get through flight school because we were looking out for one another. Today you don’t see that as much. It’s more like, digitizing has separated us from straight down being raw, helping each other out. We encouraged and supported one another,” Ambler said.
He earned his wings as a Huey pilot in the early 1980s, and deployed to Korea. While serving there, he learned the Army needed Initial Entry Rotary Wing instructor pilots for Fort Rucker. He had just left Fort Rucker, but the advice he got from other aviators was never to turn down an opportunity. He served as an instructor pilot at the rank of warrant officer, a more junior grade than his peers. He also helped create the Spanish Helicopter School Battalion.
Ambler made time to continue working on his education. He had left Panama as a teenager without a high school diploma. While stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., while he healed from an injury, he had taken a college prep course that also included the opportunity to earn his high school equivalent diploma. At Fort Rucker, he was able to build on that foundation to complete a college degree program.
In 1989, he completed his Black Hawk helicopter qualification just in time for deployment to his homeland of Panama. Within months of his arrival there, the U.S. and Panama were at war: As a chief warrant officer 3, he served during Operation Just Cause, when the U.S. Army spearheaded an attack that overwhelmed the Panamanian Defense Forces of Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was wanted by the U.S. for drug trafficking and racketeering.
“Before the invasion, they moved all the Americans from downtown back to base, and the families that were there they shipped them back to the States,” he said.
His leadership talked with Ambler about the mission, because he was being asked to fly a combat mission in the town where he grew up.
“I said, ‘Sir, I’m OK, I’m ready to go’,” Ambler said.
Ambler was eager to be part of an effort to try to restore a democratically elected government, and remove a dictator from power, because he grew up under that oppression.
“If you made five dollars at your job, the government would get a dollar. It was …’Are you going to argue about that? Then I’ll take two dollars, and you get three’. I lived under that regime,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Ambler returned to Korea as a UH-60A instructor pilot. He again returned to Fort Rucker to serve this time as the battalion standardization instructor pilot at 1-212th. Ambler retired from active duty in 1993, but was not done with federal service, nor travel. He continued on at Fort Rucker as a standardization IP, and in 2001 and 2007, he was sent to Colombia to assist with training Colombian Army aviators. He helped train approximately 100 people, including instructor pilots.
In his current job, Ambler “floats” to assist with several courses, including Initial Entry Rotary Wing training, the Aircraft Qualification Course, the Instructor Pilot Course, and the Resident Instructor Course.
Along the way he embraced the importance of spiritual resiliency, and has come to see the hand of providence throughout his life.
“If it wasn’t for my spiritual belief right now — being a Christian has really shown me where God has brought me from to present day, and during that time I didn’t know anything about God. But all that time he had me, throughout jumping out of airplanes … all this time he was guiding me, keeping me to today,” Ambler said. “I don’t take that lightly.”
With grown children of his own now, Ambler’s advice to young people today is to learn about career options while they’re still in school, to work for their income instead of looking for “fast money,” and to have a plan and share it with someone else.
“A graduate says, ‘I’m just going to hang out.’ That’s wrong. You need a plan prior to age 18,” Ambler said. “They must be exposed to some things to give them options. Ask questions.”
For Ambler, a good tool for finding those options was the U.S. Army.
“Without the Army I probably never would have an education, wouldn’t be able to help my mom, and stabilize here in the United States,” he said.
Ambler said if he had it to do all over again, he would not change a thing. Whereas he once shined shoes, now he gives check rides.
“The Army opens doors,” he said. “I fly helicopters for a job. I’m happy with that.”