SOUTH PORTLAND — Lt. Col. Eric Samuelson never struggled to reconcile his roles as fighter pilot and church pastor, even in combat in Iraq, where he had a hand in destroying enemy vehicles.
It didn’t hurt that, as far as he knows, there was no one inside.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had to cross that bridge,” Samuelson, pastor of The Rock Church in Scarborough, said about harming another human.
Now he knows he’ll never have to.
Samuelson, 46, took the last flight of his 24-year military career Thursday. As is tradition, his final training mission was turned into a ceremony of sorts. Flanked by two other F-15 fighter jets, Samuelson led the formation from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Massachusetts, to northern Maine for low-altitude training. After buzzing Portland, they headed for the jetport, where more than 100 members of his church were waiting in a parking lot by the runway off Westbrook Street.
“We’re all a little excited for our pastor,” said Melanie Malia of Yarmouth.
She and others held signs for when he flew by. “From Cockpit to Pulpit Go Eric!” one said. “There Goes My Pastor!” read another.
Members of the church said they’re proud of Samuelson’s military service. They believe it gives him a broader perspective that lends itself to the practical brand of faith he brings to the congregation, which they described as their family.
Plus, Susan Davis said, “It just adds a cool factor.”
Samuelson knew he wanted to be a pilot long before he decided to become a pastor. As a child in Syracuse, New York, he’d look up every time a plane passed overhead and pictured himself as the one flying it one day.
Since then, his priorities have shifted. It was during his 10 years as an active-duty Air Force member that Samuelson got involved with a church community in North Carolina and was inspired to become a pastor.
He had already studied theology and done Bible training as an undergraduate at Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts. All he needed was to complete an apprenticeship to be ordained.
The position was easy enough to find. Samuelson’s brother-in-law, Kirk Winters, had recently started The Rock Church in Scarborough and, with a growing congregation, needed help.
After three years working together, Winters left for Bangor to start another non-denominational Christian church and left the southern Maine congregation to Samuelson.
When Samuelson moved to Maine, the church had about 100 members, he said. Last Sunday, some 700 people attended its four services.
“As the church grows like that, I just want to be more involved,” said Samuelson, who was taken away several days a month to maintain his status in the Air National Guard.
There’s also his desire to spend more time with his wife, Kim, and their four children, ages 8 to 15, who live in Gorham.
“I think the biggest thing is the strain that it puts both on my family and the shared responsibility to church and country,” he said about his reason for retiring from the military.
Although the time commitments needed for his two jobs conflict, he said, their purposes aren’t at odds.
“My primary mission is to protect and defend,” Samuelson said of his role as a fighter pilot. “There’s nothing in the Christian culture and Scriptures that wouldn’t protect the innocent and preserve peace.”
Even, he said, if that required him to kill.
There are things, however, that separate him from most of his fellow fighter pilots. For one, he doesn’t drink, though he’s stood at the bar with his friends for hours, he said. But he sees how their demeanor changes when he walks in a room.
“There’s a different air, a different attitude,” he said.
What they all share is the rush of flying 600 miles an hour, 40,000 feet in the air, as well as the call to serve their country, which Samuelson said was the same as the reason he came to serve his church.
“To do something meaningful for others,” he said.
Judging by the crowd at the jetport, he’s had an impact.
Hundreds of eyes searched the sky after the first onlooker spotted the jets just after 3 p.m. Thursday, when they appeared like little black dots above Maine Medical Center.
While the children pressed up against the chain-link fence, other church members stood on cars with iPhones and tablets. Scott Grant, who was an airplane enthusiast before he began attending the church, brought a ladder and a telephoto lens.
As the planes got closer, the crowd got louder with shouts of “They’re coming!” and “Here we go!”
Just seconds after the jets were barely visible, they zoomed right in front of the hollering onlookers, who threw their arms in the air.
After circling overheard, the thunderous fighters flew by twice more, approaching the runway in single file. Samuelson, who was last in line, tilted his wings, as if he was waving back, before shooting into the sky, looping in the air and heading back to the base.
As others started to pack up, Patrice Silva kept watching, her hand over her mouth.
“It’s exciting and sad at the same time,” she said. “That’s his farewell.”
Samuelson, however, seemed to be taking it in stride.
“Everyone has to have a last mission,” he said.