AFCEC engineer leaves behind 40-year legacy of environmental protection, compliance

  • Published
  • By Deb Aragon
  • AFCEC Public Affairs

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- After four decades of protecting and restoring the environment in the European theater, Karl Willi Ningelgen, a member of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s European store front, is saying “Auf Wiedersehen.”

As he retires, Ningelgen leaves behind a legacy of strong environmental protection and compliance, as well as young engineers ready to carry on his work.

Ningelgen joined the Air Force almost by chance in 1977.

“(Out of university) I basically already had a job offer as a construction manager and I thought about the future, what’s coming and it was pretty obvious that environmental issues would be the future and that was my drive to start working in the environmental field,” he said.

He came across the Air Force’s announcement for the first environmental position at Ramstein Air Base, applied and became the environmental engineer and environmental coordinator for the installation.

“My first priority at the base level was protection of ground water and soil,” said Ningelgen, who was born and raised in nearby Kaiserslautern. “In Germany, communities are so close together that the protection and quality of ground water has a very high priority. I used that as my start at Ramstein AB to improve a surface drain project.”

In 1989, Ningelgen transferred to headquarters, U.S. Air Forces in Europe environmental staff and then to AFCEC as the AFCEC Europe senior environmental advisor.

Much has happened in Europe over the last forty years, including in the environmental arena.

“I think in the beginning, we had still the political situation of the Cold War so we were more faced with bloc thinking – here is the eastern bloc, here is the western bloc – when that started to change, mainly in Germany, the laws also started to change. We had to comply now with environmental standards,” he said. “I had to work much more with German authorities to make sure we get permits, we get our projects approved.”

From the beginning, Ningelgen, who said he only planned to stay with the Air Force for a few years, has had a significant and lasting impact of environmental programs in the European theater.

“(Staying with the Air Force) allowed me to build up an environmental program at the installation level, go out to the other bases when I was at the MAJCOM-level to build up environmental programs,” he said. “I always had the opportunity to learn from the beginning which allowed me to stay tuned and updated to the pulse of the problems and to interchange with host nation regulators. That was really challenging but also very interesting.”

Considering the constant rotation of personnel at most overseas locations, he’s also supported, guided and trained his share of American engineers.

“It was difficult sometimes to start from scratch, all of the turnarounds presented real challenges,” Ningelgen said. “You always had to train people. But on the other end, you get used to it. The work relationship always was good.”

In addition to helping new team members with host nation rules, regulations and requirements, he also tried each day to teach his American teammates his native tongue.

“I always come in to my boss’ office and have a German term like ‘Gutten tag. Wie geht es Ihnen?’ (Good day, how’s it going in English?). Then he had to repeat it in German,” Ningelgen said. After some weeks, they seemed to do well with the local language, he said.

Over the years, Ningelgen said he’s enjoyed working with Americans while in his various positions and has always had an excellent working relationship with those around him.

“Willi has a tremendous amount of experience and expertise in the field of environmental,” said Jeffrey Domm, chief of AFCEC’s Europe Division. “He’s a consummate expert when it comes to environmental matters having worked all of the programs.  But, where I think he really makes money for the Air Force is in his ability to work with the other departments within Germany … he really has the Air Force’s interest in mind when dealing with all of the various entities.”

“Willi is an integral part of many of the storefront environmental projects and requirements,” added Scott Vincent, chief of AFCEC’s Europe Division Environmental and Real Property Branch. “He was really at the forefront of the environmental enterprise in USAFE. He knows all of the bases and most of the personnel at those bases.”

Although his retirement is expected to be “a tremendous blow to the continuity of the office,” Domm said Ningelgen has done an excellent job of preparing his colleagues to pick up the torch and move forward.

As he looks back over the last 40 years, Ningelgen said his main focus was always to protect the environment and human health while supporting the U.S. mission.

“I think I reached that,” he said. “We were able to save a lot of trees, which didn’t hurt anybody, we still could do our construction. It was just a matter of smart planning and talking … you can site a facility in the middle of a forest and cut thousands of trees or a little bit to the side of a forest and just cut a few hundred trees. Things like that give me a lot of satisfaction.”

On the eve of his retirement, Ningelgen said he’ll miss the camaraderie of working with his peers and the exchange of innovative ideas that brings, but he’s excited about what the future holds. That includes more flexibility in his schedule and enjoying music that he loves.

“I like a lot Jazz and Blues music and I’ve already started to study that … it’s my future project,” he said.

For more Karl Willi Ningelgenon's career, check out the video at the following link.