Fly boys of Eagle County
This is a tale of two boys – each with a passion for flying in his heart, a diploma from Eagle Valley High School in hand and a captain’s hat residing on his head. As coincidental as that may seem, these two boys, both named Jeff, share one other remarkable thing: a history of flying that predates their births and that left its mark upon aviation in the valley.Whenever Jeff Williams was riding a horse, or sitting on a tractor at his family’s ranch in Lake Creek as a child, his eyes turned skyward, starring wistfully whenever planes flew overhead.”I always looked up when a plane went overhead and thought that would be a much better deal,” Williams said.Perhaps even more prescient was the day at flight school in North Dakota when Williams looked up to see a Frontier airplane pass above. That was 10 years ago and the first day Frontier Airlines had taken to the skies again, after shutting down for many years.Today, Williams not only has his captain’s wings, but he also flies for Frontier Airlines.”It’s pretty amazing to realize that 10 years ago I was a student watching that plane land,” Williams said, still in awe. “If somebody would have said 10 years ago, ‘Oh, you’ll be a captain for Frontier,’ I would have laughed.”
But Williams is not the first Eagle Valley High grad to wear the captain’s hat for Frontier. Jeff Ruggeberg has been flying for Frontier for 5 1/2 years, now. The 1988 Eagle Valley High alum not only preceded Williams into the skies, he helped the younger man get on board with Frontier. And when it came time for Williams to shed co-pilot status and earn his captain’s wings, who should be in the seat next to him during in-flight training but Ruggeberg.”We always talked together that it would be cool to fly together some day,” said Williams. “It was awesome.” Now, both captains are based out of Denver, Frontier’s hub city.Flight dreamsGrowing up, both boys displayed a persistent fascination for flying. Ruggeberg said he is not sure what first interested him in flying. “Like most little kids, I probably wanted to be a truck driver, or a rodeo cowboy, too,” he said.
The passion might have come, however, at least in part, from all the stories he heard growing up about his great grandfather. Ruggeberg’s great-grandfather, Eldon Wilson, is largely credited with starting the airport in Eagle years before it became the Eagle County Regional Airport. Wilson was the one who set up the radio beacon at the airport. Ruggeberg fondly recalls his great-grandfather’s fascination with remote-control airplanes.Although Ruggeberg’s petition to the Eagle County Commissioners in 1997 to rename the airport “Eldon Wilson Field” did not pass, there is a road named his great-grandfather. As a boy, Ruggeberg also loved going down to Stapleton Airport to watch the planes land and take off. A neighbor, Leonard Sinclair, who had a little charter flying business, used to take him for a flight once in a while, too. “I don’t know if I took it from there,” Ruggeberg said. “I just never wanted to do anything else.”Williams was constantly making models of commercial airplanes, when he was little. Some of the planes, such as the Pan Am and TWA models, are probably collectors items today. Williams, too, may have gotten his penchant for flying through bloodlines. His great-grandfather and his great uncle, Albert and Jule Oleson, both early ranchers in Eagle County, owned the first plane in the valley in the 1930s. They kept it on property at the very west end of where the Eagle County Regional Airport resides today.
“They had a little runway and a plane,” said Williams’ mother, Charlynn Williams Knight. Jule’s Lane, by the airport, was named after her grandfather.The hangar where the Olesons used to store their plane is now gone, but the family still retains 200 acres of the larger, historic ranch spread they once farmed in Lake Creek.Common rootsAfter high school, Ruggeberg, a Gypsum native, took his passion for flying and headed to Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely, before getting a degree from Metro State in Denver. While there, he helped the mechanics and washed airplanes for Corporate Air. After graduating, Corporate Air hired Ruggeberg on as a co-pilot, flying from Denver to Aspen, and later flying the U.S. Postal Service route out of Twin Falls, Idaho. When he moved back to Denver, Ruggeberg was hired by Federal Express to fly its Eagle-to-Aspen route for four years, before he finally landed his job at Frontier.
“I really didn’t have any desire to work for one of the big airplane companies,” Ruggeberg explained. “I just wanted to fly. I think everybody wants to fly bigger airplanes.”Williams said his teachers at Eagle Valley High School were very supportive of his dreams to become a pilot. He remembers drafting teacher Dave Scott, in particular, allowing him to spend hours on the computer flight simulator game at school. After graduation, in 1991, Williams, too, headed to Rangely, before attending the University of North Dakota for his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences. From there, like Ruggeberg and countless fresh pilots before them, Williams had a series of jobs, mostly as a flight instructor, but he also worked as a part-time firefighter for Eagle. He was a flight instructor for Mesa Airlines and flew for Sky West, before he was hired by Frontier in 2001.”We’ve all got the same story,” said Williams. “We’re like gypsies.” ‘Corner office’
Today, Ruggeberg lives in Castle Rock, with his wife Nikki, a flight attendant now on maternity leave, and his two children. The couple is poised to move into a house they just purchased in Aurora. Ruggeberg said that although Frontier’s hub is Denver, its pilots can live just about anywhere. “Right now, I want to be around the kids,” he said. “I don’t want to spend days off coming and going to work.” His typical schedule is three days on, four days off, but it can vary from one-day trips to four-day layovers on a variety of routes. “I love it,” Ruggeberg said. “I really have no idea what I’d do with my life if I had to do something else.”Williams hopes to move back to the mountains before too much longer. His wife of two years, Christine, has another year left of veterinary school at Colorado State University, and then the couple may well head west of the Continental Divide. He still serves as a volunteer fire fighter in Eagle – at least two days a month, too.Although Williams admits that sometimes he looks down at the ranches he flies over and muses, ironically, about the virtues of farm life, he wouldn’t trade flying for the world. “I still love this job. I get to sit up there and look out of that cockpit. It’s the best view I could hope for,” Williams said. “I’ve got the corner office.”