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On Aug. 25, 1977, Air Force navigator and former Corps of Cadets member Capt. Alan “Al” Aertker ’74 and his pilot, Capt. Ken Seder, were on a mission over rural Germany when calamity struck. As the two approached Thuine, a village with less than 2,000 residents, a heart attack incapacitated Seder, giving Aertker mere seconds to act. Despite being trained to eject in this situation, Aertker went down with the F-4 Phantom jet, crashing into a pasture just outside of town. He left behind his wife, Jean, and their 2-week-old daughter, Kate ’99.

In 1977, Capt. Alan “Al” Aertker ’74 died during a plane crash over rural Germany. Decades later, his family discovered the truth behind his actions and forged a connection with the village he saved.

Twenty years later, during Kate’s junior year at her father’s alma mater, a series of letters arrived from a German schoolteacher and amateur historian named Joachim Eickhoff. While studying air crashes, Eickhoff had discovered multiple eyewitnesses who saw the Phantom heading straight for the village center before abruptly veering into the field. Al hadn’t failed to eject; he’d intentionally stayed at the stick, sacrificing his life to save countless others.

In 1998, Jean and Kate visited the village, where they were welcomed as guests of honor. “It was kind of surreal,” Kate remembered. At her home in Florida, Jean keeps a recovered piece of the Phantom on her mantle. It reads, partially: “Pull here to engage canopy.”

“There’s so many details like that, little connections and coincidences,” Jean said. “It feels like Al’s still talking to me through them.” Across the Atlantic, a stone marker at the crash site commemorates Aertker’s and Seder’s sacrifice. “They gave their lives for the people of Thuine,” it reads. “The grateful inhabitants of Thuine.”

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