Nicholas “Nikko” James ’17, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and a cadet member of MIT’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), has been named the 2017 U.S. Air Force Cadet of the Year. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson presented James with the award in a Feb. 23 ceremony at the Pentagon.
The award is sponsored by the Royal Air Squadron, a private organization of prominent British aviation enthusiasts. The honor pays tribute to the Air Force for supporting the United Kingdom over the years and recognizes the most outstanding cadet in an Air Force commissioning program. Its criteria include military performance, academics, and physical fitness.
Submitted by his unit, Detachment 365, James’ Cadet of the Year nomination refers to him as “cream of the crop” and notes his leadership as Wing Commander directly led to the detachment’s recognition as High Flight and Right of Line for 2017. He also earned the Society of Military Engineers award. It credits him with orchestrating an Air Force UH-1N Huey helicopter fly-in and display on MIT’s Briggs Field to celebrate the Institute’s 150th anniversary. James oversaw MIT’s largest General Military Corps training in 10 years and organized Harvard University’s first AFROTC training event since 1970.
James was also praised for his academic accomplishments. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his MIT class. He analyzed F-35 aircraft structural fatigue as a Northrup Grumman intern, identifying a structural defect and implementing a solution. He co-led an innovative experiment in AeroAstro’s Space Systems Lab exploring the feasibility of using magnetic fields to de-tumble and capture expended orbiting satellites and rockets — so-called “space junk.”
MIT AFROTC Detachment commander Lt. Col. Sheryl Ott says the detachment “is extremely honored to have one of our cadets earn the Cadet of the Year award.”
“It’s a testament to the efforts and achievements, not just of Cadet James, but of all our dedicated and hard-working cadets who, for the second consecutive year, earned us the Air Force ROTC’s Right of Line Award as best small detachment in the nation,” Ott says.
Accepting the award, James says being named Cadet of the Year “is really a testament to the support I received from my cadre, the guidance from my mentors, and the patience of my peers.”
“I’ve enjoyed the challenges and opportunities that have come my way, and I’m excited to give back to the Air Force that’s already done so much for me,” he says.
AeroAstro department head Jaime Peraire congratulated James on his achievement, saying: “Nikko is one of our great achievers, especially academically, and in service to the department, the Institute, and the nation. To say AeroAstro proud of him is an understatement.”
James holds a private pilot’s license and has earned an Air Force pilot training slot at Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training — the Air Force’s most prestigious undergraduate flying training program. His goal is to be accepted for astronaut training.
James is the third MIT USAF Cadet and AeroAstro student to be named Cadet of the Year since the award’s inception in 2000. The first was Ryan Castonia ’10, SM ’10, in 2009; followed by Martin York ’16, SM ’17, in 2016.
“We’re proud that the combination of Air Force training in our program, paired with the academic excellence of our host institution, MIT, is producing future lieutenants of such a high caliber,” Ott says. “It’s truly heartening that outstanding individuals like Cadet James will shape and lead our Air Force into the future.”
MIT’s AFROTC detachment is nicknamed “Doolittle’s Raiders,” an homage to famous MIT alumnus General James “Jimmy” Doolittle SM ’24, ScD ’25. One of Doolittle’s many accomplishments was receiving the Medal of Honor as commander of the Doolittle Raid, a bold long-range retaliatory air raid on the Japanese main islands following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.