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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Nov 12, 2019

Humble Hero: Colts Neck Kid Turned TOPGUN Instructor

By Shanna O’Mara

Daniel Westendorf is seen after his last flight in VMFA-323, prior to heading to TOPGUN to become an instructor.

Forget Tom Cruise. Forget the “need for speed.” Forget outright arrogance, buzzing the tower and those iconic aviators. There’s a TOPGUN instructor from right here in Monmouth County with more humility, pride and bravery in one finger than any Hollywood writer could ever script into an entire character. And yes, he does all his own stunts. Meet Colts Neck’s Daniel Westendorf.

Westendorf grew up in the area, moving to Colts Neck just in time to attend Cedar Drive Middle School. He went on to graduate from Colts Neck High School, where he participated in the school’s ROTC program.

“At a young age, I was taught the value of honesty, work ethic and dedication,” Westendorf said. “These values were instilled in me by my parents and reinforced during my time with the ROTC.”

During his time in the program, he met retired United States Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jim Sfayer, whom Westendorf called his mentor.

“Dan Westendorf has had an aviation mindset since I met him in September of 2002,” Sfayer said. “He has distinguished himself in every service school he has attended and is always at the top of his class. Dan was and is the finest young man I have had the privilege to teach. He is a leader who understands the importance of being a teacher, a mentor, a coach and a role model for the Marines he leads.”

Westendorf participated for several years and served as cadet commander during his senior year.

“I always had an idea I wanted to serve my country, but nothing was set in stone,” he said. “ROTC affirmed it.”

Celebrating Daniel Westendorf’s graduation from TOPGUN is (from left) his father, Russell; his mother, Cindi; Daniel; his wife, Laura; and his brother, Nick.

After high school, Westendorf set his sights on higher education. He attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy and earned a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation, a field of study which includes nautical science and a business core. Westendorf said he learned the “art of shipping,” weaving concepts of maritime economics with vessel stability and meteorology influence.

In 2005, he moved away from New Jersey and has since been stationed all over the country, including, most recently, California and now Nevada. While he has been flying F-18 combat jets for six years now, he was just promoted to be a TOPGUN instructor. The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, more commonly known as TOPGUN, teaches fighter and strike tactics to gifted aircrew who then return to their operating units to instruct other fighter pilots. The program is a subset of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center.

“[Westendorf’s] selection as a TOPGUN instructor is evidence that he is one of the finest pilots in the world,” Sfayer said. “To put it in laymen’s terms, he is simply the best of the best and is now sharing his skills as an instructor with other pilots in the toughest training for fighter pilots in the world. The world is a dangerous place and it is more dangerous when you strap yourself in to a $70 million aircraft that can go 1,300 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, if Dan launched from Fort Dix [in Lakehurst] headed for Ground Zero in New York, it would have taken him two minutes and 38 seconds from when he is wheel up.”

While Westendorf’s accomplishments are certainly something to marvel at, he often diverts conversation when given praise or asked about his accolades. Instead, he focuses on his brothers and sisters in uniform.

“It’s all too easy to forget the men and women who are serving overseas,” he said. “Of course, those who serve [domestically] are valuable, but those who serve abroad are often overlooked. They are mentioned less in the news now, but people should think of them as they are away from home daily serving their country.”

He also deflects compliments onto his true family. When asked his personal life, Westendorf paused and then gushed about those most cherished in his life: his hardworking parents who raised three rambunctious boys and his two brothers who helped ensure that was never too easy. His younger twin brothers also serve this country. Nick was active duty army for five years while Chase has been serving as a merchant marine.

“His commitment to this country and to the Marine Corps was instilled in him by his parents, Russel and Cindi Westendorf, who have set an example for Dan and his brothers,” Sfayer said.

As for those pursuing this honorable path, Westendorf has simple but valuable advice: “Continue to work hard, and stay focused to serve the greater good.”

The Journal sincerely thanks Westendorf, his brothers, all active duty and retired military, as well as soldiers lost and the families who grieve them.