By Di Freeze,
Two types of salvation are especially near and dear to the heart of Al Ueltschi. The first is the saving of lives. The other, equally important to him, is saving sight.
Ueltschi accomplishes the first mission through FlightSafety International, the world’s largest provider of aviation services and training. The company’s mission is helping its customers in their quest for safe, reliable transportation.
“In doing that, we’ve helped save lives as a matter of course,” said Ueltschi, founder and chairman of the company.
Ueltschi, who has accumulated more than 35,000 hours of flight over the years, says the best safety device on any aircraft anywhere remains a well-trained pilot. More than 75,000 pilots, technicians and other aviation professionals train at FlightSafety facilities each year. The company designs and manufactures full flight simulators for civil and military aircraft programs and operates the world’s largest fleet of advanced full flight simulators at more than 40 training locations.
Ueltschi, 88, is also the chairman of ORBIS International, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to saving sight and eliminating unnecessary blindness worldwide. To date, more than a million people have received direct medical treatment and more than 93,000 healthcare professionals have enhanced their skills through ORBIS programs in more than 80 countries. It’s estimated that as many as 22.5 million children and adults have benefited from ORBIS programs worldwide, as a result of the skills gained by medical professionals through ORBIS training, then shared among colleagues and passed on to patients.
Although Ueltschi attributes “just plain luck” as part of the reason for his huge accomplishment in life, he doesn’t rely on luck in either of his life’s largest missions. Both ORBIS and FlightSafety work hard to accomplish their goals.
Early life in Kentucky
Ueltschi says his “great luck” goes back as far as the 1880s, when his grandparents came to America, leaving friends and family behind in Switzerland.
“If my grandparents had stayed in Switzerland, imagine what would have happened then,” he said. “If they’d done that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I’d have been a watchmaker or something.”
The Ueltschis settled in Kentucky.
“The Swiss who came from Bern, Switzerland, had a little colony up in Kentucky,” he said. “They named that little village Bernstadt.”
Later, his grandfather moved his family to a dairy farm in Franklin County. The Ueltschis settled in the rural community of Benson Valley, not too far from the state capital of Frankfort, Ky.
On May 15, 1917, Albert Lee Ueltschi was born to Robert and Lena Ueltschi, on his grandparents’ farm. Eventually, his father left the farm to work as an engineer, installing lights on Mississippi riverboats. But when Grandfather Ueltschi died, his three sons took over the farm. Al Ueltschi grew up there with his four brothers and two sisters. He was the youngest sibling.
“It was an interesting life, but it was tough,” said Ueltschi. “My father and mother were terrific. The only thing we didn’t have was money.”
He soon realized that life on a farm, even with so many to share the task, is “rigorous.” Each day, the cows needed to be milked. Then Ueltschi and his brothers would ride into Frankfort to deliver the bottles of milk door-to-door to customers.
“We’d get a nickel a quart,” he said. “It was pretty tough to do all this work and then only get a nickel.”
The empty bottles they brought home had to be cleaned for reuse. After they’d accomplished all that, and cleaned the stalls, it was off to school.
After four years in a single-room schoolhouse in Choateville, Ky., Ueltschi transferred to a school in Frankfort—again a one-room schoolhouse. Nothing he learned in school was as fascinating as the stories he loved to read about the pilots of the day and the aircraft they flew.
“I loved airplanes from the very beginning,” he said. “From when I was 5 years old, on the farm, I used to tell my dad I liked airplanes and that I wanted to fly airplanes. There was just something about it.”
Ueltschi will never forget the excitement he felt when Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927. He listened intently to the radio for any report on the flight and knew with a certainty he would be a pilot as he listened to the announcer tell how thousands of Frenchmen had carried the aviator off the field after he had landed in Paris.
“I’d follow my father around and tell him what I was going to do,” he said. “He probably thought I was a little nuts, but he never discouraged me. But when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, I told him, ‘Now, dad, I’m really going to be a pilot.’ He said, ‘Al, you are a pilot.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, I’m a pilot?’ He said to me, ‘You pile that cow manure over here and pile it over there; you’re a pile-it.'”
Ueltschi was even more determined to fly after he started high school in Frankfort. But he had no idea how he would afford lessons. Then the young entrepreneur had a brilliant idea.
“There was a little hamburger shop, White Castle, near the high school,” Ueltschi said. “I saw those hamburgers in there for a nickel and I thought, ‘My goodness gracious, if you can sell a hamburger for a nickel, it would be a heck of a lot easier to do that than to milk the cow and deliver the milk and get a nickel for a quart. So I started a little restaurant.”
A building owner generously allowed Ueltschi, 16 at the time, to use a corner of his building. With aviation on his mind, he called his hamburger stand the Little Hawk Restaurant.
“It was a little hole in the wall,” he said. “He let me put seven stools in there, a grill and a little counter. We were selling hamburgers for a nickel and canned Coke for a nickel.”
Although he sold “a lot” of hamburgers and Coke, he wasn’t making any money.
“Finally I said, ‘This isn’t going to work, either. I can’t make it on a nickel.’ So, I just raised the rate to 10 cents,” Ueltschi said. “If they bought a dozen, I gave them a volume discount. I’d give them 12 for a dollar.”
Soon, he hired school friends to run other hamburger stands. Now that he was making a little money, he was able to take flying lessons, in an OX-5-powered Waco based at a grass-strip airport near Lexington. He soloed at the age of 16, but that was just the beginning of his dream. He now wanted to buy an aircraft. Just as the 18-year-old was nearing the end of high school, the hamburger business helped in a further, unexpected way.
“The president of the bank in Frankfort—Farmers Bank—used to come down and eat my hamburgers,” Ueltschi said. “He was a heck of a nice guy. I used to talk to him and I told him I was learning to fly and all these dreams I had. I told him the only problem was that I could sure get going faster and do what I had to if I had an airplane. He said, ‘How much money is it going to take?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a great airplane I could buy for $3,500.’ He loaned me the money.”
The aircraft Ueltschi bought to begin his barnstorming days was an open-cockpit Waco 10.
“The engine in it was an OX5,” he said. “It was liquid cooled. It wasn’t one of these modern engines. It was out of one of the old Jennies they had in WWI. You could fly it from the back seat. I’d fly in pastures for a dollar a ride; kids would go for 50 cents. I’d put two people in the front—two grownups, maybe a kid or two. I’d just take off and make a circle around the airport and make a landing. I wasn’t up there for more than maybe three minutes.”
Ueltschi based his Waco 10 at a farm on Georgetown Pike in Lexington. To attract business, he passed out flyers stating that Frankfort Flying Service was open for business. He continued to sell hamburgers after school during the week, but on weekends he gave flying lessons or took people for rides.
Although he had little interest in college, Ueltschi’s parents wanted him to get a degree, so he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Kentucky that same year.
“I went there for a little bit, but I wasn’t interested at all in reading about ancient history,” he said. “The airport was right near the university. I’d spend my time out there. Let’s put it this way; I didn’t spend hardly any time at all at college. People say, ‘You’re a dropout.’ No, I’m not a dropout. I hardly even ‘dropped in.’ I never graduated from college. Bill Gates and I are two losers.”
Ueltschi continued to give rides and lessons.
“I was out flying pastures,” he said. “There were no airports. When I’d go out and fly those people for a dollar a ride, I’d put on an air show, to bring people out to these open fields. I’d say, ‘Come out to Black’s farm—or somebody else’s farm—because we’re going to put on an air show. I’d do all kinds of crazy stuff. I was hot stuff—I had white coveralls, helmet and goggles. People would come up to me after I’d put on an air show, and say, ‘What’s the most hazardous part of flying?’ I’d look them straight in the eye and say, ‘Slow, painful starvation.’ But it was a lot of fun.”
He struck up friendships with other barnstormers, including Joe Mackey, who later founded Mackey Airlines in Florida, and Mike Murphy, who later became the aviation manager for Marathon Oil’s flight department. He credits those “hell raisers” for teaching him how to do “all kinds of aerobatics.” Sometimes the three men put on shows together, doing formation flying, low-level aerobatics, ribbon cuts and parachute jumps. But eventually, Ueltschi decided it was time for a change.
A lack of funds was one of the reasons he readily accepted when George Wedekind, president of Queen City Flying Service, offered him a job in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although it was steady work, and he got to fly almost every day, he still dreamed of flying “bigger airplanes” for an airline. So, after logging about 2,000 hours of flying time, he applied with various carriers.
Pan American Airways was on the top of his list. In 1941, while most other carriers were struggling to maintain service between a few cities around the country, Pan Am was flying scheduled service to the far corners of the world. Its Clippers were the “most modern, luxurious and magnificent flying machines in the sky,” and its flight crews “were the most experienced and the most respected in all of aviation.”
The whole package appealed immensely to Ueltschi. But it was Northeast Airlines, at the bottom of his list, which gave him an offer. However, immediately after he drove to Boston, Northeast’s hometown, and began training, a letter arrived from Pan Am. Soon after that, he was in his car driving toward Miami, for an interview that would take place at the airline’s base at Dinner Key, in Biscayne Bay. The interview would be successful.
Ueltschi described himself as “something of a general assignment pilot” for Pan Am. After working in the training department for a while, he crewed briefly in the airline’s “flying boats.” He was also assigned to Pan Am’s “Air Ferries,” before being transferred to Brownsville, Texas, the airline’s principal base for Central and South American operations.
Fortune smiled on him again when he was told to go to Colombia to pick up a Lockheed 10A Electra that was to be converted to an executive aircraft.
“It was a twin-engine airplane like Amelia Earhart had,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those four-engine jobs.”
Ueltschi would become the aircraft’s pilot fulltime after the modifications were completed. He would be flying for Juan Terry Trippe, the founder and CEO of Pan Am. Ueltschi had huge respect for the man who had started Pan Am in his twenties and was to become his mentor.
“He was one of the greatest men I ever knew,” he said.
In Trippe, Ueltschi saw a man with great character, intelligence and insight, as well as tenacity, wisdom, business savvy and a deep understanding of “aviation’s true international potential.” He also would come to admire his “canny politicking and willingness to take huge risks.” Those combined traits, Ueltschi said, enabled Trippe to build “the greatest airline that ever was” in just a dozen years.
Trippe’s mode of transportation might have seemed strange, but Ueltschi explained that while a passenger could fly Pan Am to “the ends of the Earth,” getting to major cities such as Chicago, Dallas or Washington, D.C. was another subject. Although the airline was America’s only international carrier, regulators denied it any domestic routes. That meant that when Trippe traveled around the country, he needed his own private plane. Later, he had other reasons to fly anonymously around the globe.
“Mr. Trippe wanted to fly around to different parts of the world,” Ueltschi explained. “If he got on an airline, everybody knew where he was going. He didn’t want everybody to know where he was going, because when he went places, they’d follow him. It was just like today; many corporations have their own airplanes, so they can go where they want to, and when. There are a lot of advantages there.”
Initially, Ueltschi’s assignment as Trippe’s personal pilot was supposed to be for six months, but that would not be the case. His tour lasted until he retired from Pan Am 25 years later. After the Electra, Ueltschi flew different aircraft, including a DC-3 and a converted B-23 bomber. The final aircraft he flew for Trippe was a Falcon 20.
Trippe wasn’t the only important executive Ueltschi flew.
“General Eisenhower came back after World War Two ended, before he ran for president,” he said. “I flew him out to Wisconsin. I used to fly all these dignitaries around. I had a lot of good experience.”
Other prominent passengers included Gen. George C. Marshall and Francis Cardinal Spellman. Washington D.C. was one of their more frequent destinations for business meetings, and members of Congress were among Ueltschi’s regular passengers. Among many memorable flights was one to Seattle for negotiations with Bill Allen at Boeing, and one to Thermal, Calif., to meet secretly with Howard Hughes.
Ueltschi valued his time spent face to face with Trippe, but was also fortunate to be introduced to Trippe’s many companions, who invited him along on some of their excursions. One of those companions was financier Bernard Baruch, whose advice on business and finance was highly valued by several U.S. presidents. Often after Ueltschi flew Baruch to his plantation in South Carolina, he would remain as his guest for several days.
FlightSafety’s humble beginnings
It didn’t take long for Ueltschi to come to believe that Pan Am’s approach to flying was superior.
“Pan Am had a great training program,” he said.
For that, he credited Andy Priester, Pan Am’s head of operations, who “demanded precision.” He said that pilot training at Pan Am was rigorous, exacting and never-ending. While waiting at fixed based operations around the country, though, and communing with other business aviation pilots, he didn’t notice the same diligence.
“When WWII ended, a lot of airplanes became surplus,” he said. “Companies were buying these surplus airplanes—DC-3s, Lockheed Hudsons, Lodestars and aircraft like that. But the pilots coming back from the war hadn’t gone through the kind of training the airlines provided.”
When airline pilots who were used to operating airplanes “low and slow” transitioned to pressurized, high-performance aircraft entering the commercial fleet, Ueltschi knew they were up to the challenge. He was assigned to help older Pan Am pilots transition to DC-6s and Constellations.
Although the government required airline pilots to demonstrate proficiency in training at least once every six months, no similar requirement was in place for business aviation pilots. Ueltschi was correct in assuming that as aircraft advanced in technology, those pilots would also have a problem transitioning.
Even if corporate pilots wanted to do transition or proficiency training, they were on their own, because no training organization was available. Just as he’d recognized the opportunity to sell hamburgers as a youth, Ueltschi thought there might be one in giving corporate pilots a training system similar to what the airlines had. His boss was one of the first people he told about his idea.
“I told him, ‘Safety’s the most important thing!'” he recalled. “Your life is the most important thing you have, and if you’re flying an airplane, you’ve got to be sure you do it right.”
Ueltschi recalled one particularly vivid account of “doing it wrong.” Back in 1940, when he was 23 and working as chief pilot for Queen City Flying Service, one of the assignments he liked most was conducting aerobatic standardization courses for Civil Aeronautics Administration inspectors. Although seasoned pilots, few had done serious aerobatics.
He considered himself a good aerobatics pilot, and says he was a little cocky about his accomplishments and always went out of his way to give a new inspector a thorough and sometimes harrowing introductory flight. He was fond of telling the trainees to trust the equipment—especially the seat belt. He insisted his trainee always raise both hands above his head once inverted to hammer home the point.
During a flight on a cold winter day with an inspector-student who was an Army Air Corps veteran, Ueltschi demonstrated a snap roll midway through the course, at 2,500 feet. After a snap roll to the inverted position, the next step was to continue flying straight and level—but upside down. The student followed Ueltschi’s lead, and although he stopped the roll correctly, the nose was too high and they stalled. Ueltschi showed him the maneuver again, and turned the airplane over to him. Once again he ended the maneuver with the nose too high and they stalled.
After shouting into the gosport (a rubber tube that served as the intercom) for his student to follow him through once more, Ueltschi performed the maneuver again. When the student began the roll sharply, the airplane twisted onto its back. It took a few moments for Ueltschi to realize that he was no longer in the backseat of the open-cockpit Waco, but was instead falling toward a patch of Ohio farmland.
Luckily, he was wearing a parachute, so the result of his fall into a briar patch was a few minor scratches—and a heightened awareness of safety issues. He said it took a while to appreciate them, but several significant realizations came from that experience: 1) training in an airplane can be hazardous; 2) when the unexpected occurs, take appropriate action in a timely fashion; 3) if at all possible, be lucky.
Trippe knew as well as Ueltschi that training was important. He wholeheartedly agreed that he was on to something. Ueltschi also bounced his idea off Baruch. He was more cautious, frankly saying there was as much to be lost as gained, and advising him to keep his job at Pan Am. Ueltschi thought it was good advice.
“I had four kids,” he said. “I had to send them to school, and I had to make a living. I told Mr. Trippe what I wanted to do and he gave me permission to do it (and still fly for him).
In 1951, Ueltschi took a $15,000 mortgage on his house and started FlightSafety on the third floor of LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal, just across from Pan Am’s operations building and the hangar that housed Trippe’s airplane.
“I had a little office there,” he said. “I had a desk and one fulltime employee.”
What he didn’t have was an intricate strategy.
“I didn’t have a big plan,” he said. “I’ve never had a big plan. It started out with an idea, and it just kind of grew. I saw what Pan Am was doing. I felt there was a need, so there had to be a way to fill the need.”
Although his strategy wasn’t mapped out, Ueltschi was well aware of his mission.
“Our mission is to train every pilot, so that no matter what happens, that pilot is prepared to handle the situation,” he said.
Ueltschi himself didn’t instruct. His job was to manage things and find customers.
“I was running the company,” he said. “I used some of the Pan Am instructors when we got business—if we got business. I paid them by the hour. I didn’t have anybody on the payroll for a while, until I built up the business.”
Ueltschi’s secretary’s priority was typing letter after letter to solicit business. On Ueltschi’s off hours and days from Pan Am, he worked on building FlightSafety. At first, however, “for a frighteningly long time,” each day was a challenge. He said most of the corporate pilots he approached had a single mindset: “I already know how to fly just fine, thank you, so why do I need advice?”
Ueltschi agreed they were “fine pilots,” but tried to convince them that FlightSafety could help point out ways they could work better as a team and that a few sessions in the procedures trainers would help sharpen their instrument-flying skills. For the most part, his pitch was unsuccessful.
Fortunately, however, he had sold Trippe on his business. In turn, Trippe urged his friends, of whom many were CEOs of companies that operated airplanes, to have their pilots trained at FlightSafety. Slowly, the customers came.
“It grew from there,” Ueltschi said. “It just kept growing.”
In the early days of FlightSafety, training was a little different than it is today.
“We had no simulators, so we did all the flying in the airplane,” he said. “You’d just ride in the airplane, and you’d shut the engines down on takeoff, and you’d do all these crazy things.”
That training most often occurred in customers’ airplanes and, since LaGuardia wasn’t nearly as busy in the 1950s, right outside FlightSafety’s office. Ueltschi was familiar with simulators, however.
“We had some of the first simulators at Pan Am,” he said. “But they weren’t real simulators. They were the old-fashioned kind. They were almost like a simulator. Now, with the technology, you can do everything in the simulators you can do in an airplane—and it’s under controlled conditions. You can teach them how to handle all emergencies, so that no matter what happens, they’re prepared. They won’t be surprised when it happens. It’s a worthwhile thing to do.”
Ueltschi voices his thankfulness for luck again—this time, because he was “born at the right time and in the right place.” That timing meant he would be ready to take advantage of the new technology as it came along.
FlightSafety did rent Link Trainers from United, which had a hangar at LaGuardia, in the training company’s early days. Later on, Ueltschi acquired four used Links from TWA, as well as some Dehmel Duplicators, a real instrument trainer manufactured by the Curtiss-Wright Company that was much more advanced than the Link. Later, FlightSafety became Ed Link’s first customer for the Translator, a piston twin machine similar to a Convair that was an even more capable trainer.
That first simulator, which they acquired in 1955, cost $150,000. A nucleus of flight departments, including those at Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, National Dairies, Gulf Oil and Olin Mathieson, advanced nearly $70,000 to guarantee training for their pilots within five years of simulator delivery.
That second-generation Link helped advance FlightSafety to a new level of service. After four years of struggling, the first annual report signed by Price Waterhouse in 1955 listed total revenues of $177,096.34. Expenses came to $176,818.93. FlightSafety had made a net profit of $277.41.
“We’ve been profitable every year since,” Ueltschi said.
In the early 1960s, turbine-powered aircraft such as the JetStar, Sabreliner, Gulfstream and Learjet began changing the face of business aviation. Ueltschi said that in general, pilots reacted to these sophisticated, high-altitude, high-speed jets in one of two ways.
One group, ill at ease in jets, distrusted them completely and had an aversion to flying anything without propellers. The second group saw very little difference in flying an aircraft with turbojets or one with pistons and props. He said both groups had their share of problems, and the evidence was a series of unfortunate accidents involving “new kinds of airplane killers such as Mach tuck and overspeed.”
The dawn of turbine-powered aircraft signified a definite increase in business at FlightSafety. Ueltschi said pilots, owners and insurers all realized that the best place to master this new breed of business aircraft was inside a simulator. The company soon began adding real simulators and using type-specific machines instead of generic trainers, and real cockpits were united with analog computers and hydraulic-motion bases.
“Sabreliner pilots flew Sabreliner simulators; King Air pilots flew King Air simulators,” Ueltschi said. “We even converted our original Link Translator into a Gulfstream I.”
Ueltschi said that while those simulators were a major improvement, they were far from perfect. True simulation began with the arrival of the digital processor.
“When simulators were mated with these new computers, the resulting fidelity in handling, visuals, motion, instrument readouts, sound and feel reached unprecedented levels,” he said.
Pan Am Business Jets
While FlightSafety was taking off, Ueltschi continued to enjoy his ties with Pan Am. Trippe, intent on having the “everything aviation company,” had his eye on business aviation as well, and believed Pan Am should market and support a brand of business jets.
Charles Lindbergh, who served as one of Trippe’s special advisers, was particularly attracted to the Mystere jet, made by Dassault in France. While Pan Am evaluated the aircraft, Ueltschi had the chance to room with his boyhood hero in Bordeaux. Ueltschi had the honor of flying with Lindbergh several times, and the two men became friends.
In 1966, Trippe made a deal with Marcel Dassault to form a new division called Pan Am Business Jets. The division would handle North American marketing for the French airplane, which was named the Falcon Jet. Ueltschi persuaded Trippe to include pilot and maintenance technician training at FlightSafety as part of the purchase price of every new Falcon. He said that deal established FlightSafety’s simulator training as an integral part of modern business aircraft operation.
“FlightSafety training became the standard,” Ueltschi said.
In the early 1970s, Learjet agreed to the same kind of arrangement. Other manufacturers would also designate FlightSafety their official training company, with Gulfstream, Sabre, JetStar and Jet Commander among the earliest.
In 1968, Ueltschi, 50, decided he needed to take FlightSafety public. Simulators were a vital part of the company’s future, but they were expensive and required a big investment. He also decided to retire from Pam Am, believing it would be unsuitable for the CEO of a public company to be employed by another company. He said leaving Pan Am, after 26 years, was both one of the hardest and most exciting moments of his career.
“When I left Pan Am, that’s the first time I took a paycheck out of FlightSafety, after working there for 17 years for nothing,” he said.
As different manufacturers designated FlightSafety their official training company, dedicated training centers were built at or adjacent to the manufacturers’ factories and service centers.
“That way, pilots could train as their aircraft were being built or serviced,” Ueltschi said. “They would also have ready access to the people most familiar with their airplanes—the people who designed and built them.”
FlightSafety training centers sprang up in Kansas, Georgia, Texas, Missouri, Florida and New Jersey.
As more companies came to understand the transportation advantages of business aviation, the industry rapidly expanded, and FlightSafety flourished.
“The executives who rode in these machines expected a level of safety equal to or surpassing that provided by the airlines,” Ueltschi said. “FlightSafety was the only company with the equipment, staff and experience to provide the training necessary to assure that level of pilot competence. We were in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.”
By 1972, the company had doubled the gross revenues figure it had shown in 1967 of a little over $4 million. Five years later, that figure would again double. Instead of squandering their profits, Ueltschi said money was poured back into operations and facilities to make sure customers had the most sophisticated, complete and convenient training experience possible.
By 1978, FlightSafety listed 1,200 business aircraft operators and airlines as clients, and was training thousands of professional pilots at 18 different learning centers in the United States, Canada and Europe. The company operated 30 simulators, and although they would continue to buy simulators from other manufacturers, the need was so strong they bought a simulator manufacturer in Tulsa, Okla., and formed FlightSafety’s Simulation Systems Division. FlightSafety began producing some of the most advanced and sophisticated flight simulators anywhere for use in its centers and for sale to airlines and operators throughout the world.
By 1996, FlightSafety had become the authorized training company for about 20 different aircraft manufacturers, and was conducting initial and recurrent training for a number of domestic and international carriers. The company’s simulator fleet was the largest in the world. FlightSafety operated more than 100 flight simulators for more than 50 different types of aircraft. More than 50,000 pilots and maintenance technicians trained with the company annually at three dozen learning centers around the world. Annual revenues were $325 million.
Ueltschi said there was a time when they were busy but barely made money. At that time, FlightSafety had primary flight training centers at five different airports and operated more than 100 airplanes. He said they fixed that problem by limiting primary flight training to the FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., dedicated exclusively to training future professional pilots. The academy has become one of the premier primary schools in the world.
Believing that helping to educate and mold youth is a priority, FlightSafety also has a relationship with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. An Advanced Flight Simulation Center on the Daytona Beach campus created through a joint venture between the university and FlightSafety now houses an FAA-certified Level-D Beech 1900D full-motion simulator that provides a level of training not available at any other university in the world.
FlightSafety Simulation is comprised of Simulation Systems Division and Visual Simulation Systems. SSD, headquartered in Broken Arrow, Okla., designs, manufacturers and fully supports full flight simulators and simulation-based training software and devices for clients worldwide. VSS, based in St. Louis, Mo., develops advanced imaging systems, including SkyLight projectors and the VITAL series of visuals.
Over the past 20 years, FlightSafety Simulation has served all branches of the U.S. armed forces as well as foreign military by training pilots, providing state-of-the-art full flight simulators and flight training devices, as well as performing upgrades to existing training equipment. FlightSafety Simulation has built, or is currently building, a number of military simulators, including C-17, T-6A Texan II, MV-22, CV-22, TH-67, UH-60A/L, AH-1, UH-1, C-12, OH-58D, U-21 and C-130.
FlightSafety also trains law enforcement specialists from the U.S. and abroad. The company has trained FAA and DEA pilots, as well as pilots who fly aircraft assigned to the White House.
Believing their expertise in hands-on, simulator-based training would work well in other fields, in the mid-1970s, Ueltschi established MarineSafety to provide training for merchant marine and surface Navy officers. MarineSafety training centers are located in the United States and Europe. Ueltschi said it’s still hands-on training, but instead of aerodynamics, it’s hazard-dynamics.
Although he considers himself lucky on many levels, he says he’s been luckiest where it comes to picking the right people, from instructors, to technical staff and courseware creators, to company executives.
“It doesn’t matter how technically advanced the simulators, how colorful the textbooks or how comfy the learning centers are, FlightSafety is first and foremost a training company where knowledge is transferred from one person to another,” he said. “If the instructors and managers aren’t first rate, the training experience will be unsatisfactory, and the customers won’t return. It’s that simple.”
What will happen when I exit the stage?
In the 1990s, Ueltschi became concerned that once he “exited the stage,” FlightSafety—the company he and others had built so carefully and so well—could fall into the hands of an outsider, be taken over and possibly be parceled out. He didn’t want that to happen, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it.
“We were doing pretty well,” he said. “I went public—over the counter—and then we went to the American Exchange, and from there to the New York Stock Exchange. We were making good money—not too much, but we were doing well. Of course, we had to report all of it in earnings and so forth. A lot of big companies wanted to buy us. I didn’t want to sell it, because I’ve seen what happens when big companies buy a company. The first thing they do is they want to change everything—put their name on it and put in new management and everything. I had a good little company there, and I wanted to be sure that we kept our mission going. If I had sold it to some of these big companies, we wouldn’t have been in business. I felt obligated to the employees as well as to the shareholders and to the people we’re training.”
His concern turned to relief when Warren Buffett requested a meeting.
“I said, ‘Sure, we’re a public company, and we’ll talk to anybody,'” Ueltschi said.
Although Buffett had sent his pilots to FlightSafety for training, the two had never met. One afternoon in late 1996, they did.
“He and I had a meeting there in New York, in a little room with one table,” he recalled. “He had a hamburger and a Cherry Coke, and I had a hamburger and a Coke, and we put a deal together.”
Buffett told Ueltschi he wanted FlightSafety to be a part of Berkshire Hathaway, but that it would remain independently operated, continuing on the same course of business, and run by the same people as before. Ueltschi liked the sound of that.
“I knew that if Warren Buffett had the company, it would continue its mission,” he said. “After we made our agreement, he went home and wrote it all up. Of course, being a New York Stock Exchange company, you had to go get a fairness opinion. Some people said, ‘You should have gotten more money.’ I said, ‘We’re a public company, and I had a fiduciary responsibility. We had no breakup fee or any of that at all—just straight stuff. We didn’t negotiate at all, just made the deal. He didn’t even do due diligence on the company, because he had been reading my annual reports, and he knew a lot about the company. He talked to my customers, and he knew what was going on.”
The $1.5 billion deal, for which Ueltschi received Berkshire Hathaway stock, was completed in late December 1996. Ueltschi remained president of FlightSafety until November 2003, when he assumed the title of chairman. At that time, Bruce Whitman became president of the company. Whitman, who joined FlightSafety in 1961, formerly served as executive vice president.
FlightSafety has more than 1,500 instructors and offers more than 3,000 courses for pilots, maintenance technicians, flight attendants and dispatchers.
FlightSafety presently has a network of 43 Learning Centers in the U.S., Canada, France, and the U.K. The company’s fleet of more than 230 FAA-certified flight simulators—from piston twins to commercial airlines, helicopters and large military transports—is the world’s largest. Several of the centers are equipped with facilities providing type-specific training for pilots of most light aircraft widely used today.
Since 1978, FlightSafety has produced nearly 400 full flight simulators. The company currently provides engineering and logistic support to approximately 350 simulators worldwide.
It was through Juan Trippe that Ueltschi got involved with ORBIS, a nonprofit organization that strives to eliminate avoidable blindness and restore sight in the developing world, where 90 percent of the world’s blind live. The founders of ORBIS chose the name because it aptly captured their mission and global, long-term goal. The word is drawn from both the Greek and Latin languages. In Greek, ORBIS means “of the eye.” In Latin, it means “around the world.”
One day in the early 1970s, Trippe called and asked Ueltschi if he’d have lunch with him and his daughter, Betsy Trippe DeVecchi.
“I went down there and had lunch with them and David Paton, who was one of the top ophthalmologists at Baylor School of Medicine in Houston,” Ueltschi recalled. “He and his father were both ophthalmologists. They had been to a lot of these developing areas of the world, and seen all the blind people. He had an idea that if he put a hospital in an airplane, he could get into these different parts of the world.”
More than 37 million people worldwide are blind. Seventy-five percent of all blindness is preventable or curable with existing eye care resources and medical interventions. Paton’s interest in international ophthalmology and the problems of eye care in both developed and developing nations led him to travel extensively in teaching capacities throughout the globe.
During his travels, he observed that the high costs of tuition, international travel and accommodations prohibited the majority of doctors in developing countries from participating in overseas training programs. Even when they could afford to study abroad, their opportunities for direct clinical experience were limited because strict licensing laws often prevented them from performing surgery. His solution was a mobile teaching eye hospital. With a fully equipped airplane, American doctors trained in the latest techniques could teach doctors in developing countries their surgical knowledge and skills through hands-on training and lectures.
Trippe thought Ueltschi would be the perfect person to help him with his cause.
“He said, ‘Skipper, do you think you could help this guy out?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know; I’ll go down and see what’s going on.’ I went down to Houston and they were doing a good job,” Ueltschi recalled. “Betsy was running things. She was great.”
Other people, including philanthropists, doctors and aviators, soon became heavily involved, such as L.F. McCollum, the president of Conoco. Project ORBIS was officially established in 1973. Initially, the biggest job was finding an aircraft.
“We went around the country to get one,” Ueltschi said. “After going to a lot of airplane manufacturers and airlines, we finally wound up at United Airlines. Eddie Carlson was the chairman of United. He heard about the program and said, ‘Well, it sounds pretty good.’ He told Dick Ferris, who was the president at that time, ‘Dick, give these guys an airplane.'”
The aircraft they eventually received was far from pristine.
“It was an old DC-8,” Ueltschi said. “It was one of the oldest ones they had that they had taken out of service. It was leaking fuel out of the wings and everything else. He told Dick, ‘Now, you’re giving them this airplane, so make them file a statement that they won’t sell it, and that they have enough money to fix it up.’ We didn’t really have the money to fix it up, but we knew we could get it, so we signed it up.”
With a grant from USAID and funds from private donors, extensive modifications were made to the DC-8 to convert it into a fully functional teaching eye hospital. Staffed by a highly skilled team of ophthalmologists, anesthesiologists, nurses and biomedical technicians, the ORBIS DC-8 Flying Eye Hospital took off from Houston for its first program, in Panama, in the spring of 1982.
In the next few years, ORBIS programs were initiated in critical areas including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Turkey, Colombia, Jamaica, Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Cyrus, Swaziland, Malawi, Botswana and Kenya. In 1985, ORBIS conducted its first week-long hospital-based training program for eye surgeons. The focus of the programs quickly spread beyond the surgical element of saving sight to offering training opportunities in biomedical engineering, nursing, community eye care and other support areas critical to ophthalmology.
A DC-10, with more than twice the interior space, replaced the DC-8 in 1992. ORBIS received a total of $14 million in donations in order to purchase the DC-10. Of that $14 million, Ueltschi donated $6 million; Y.C. Yo, a Hong Kong businessman donated $7 million and an anonymous donor donated the remaining $1 million. The total cost to transform the former DC-10 passenger plane into a fully equipped eye hospital was $15 million. Including the design phase, the total project took two years to complete.
In 1994, the DC-8 was formally retired. It’s now on display at the Aerospace Museum in Beijing, China. The DC-10 completed its inaugural mission to Beijing that year.
The success of hospital based programs encouraged ORBIS to expand its efforts to help countries with long-term blindness prevention. In 1998, ORBIS established the first of five permanent country programs, in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam. The centers enable ORBIS staff and volunteers to work directly with national medical and ophthalmology communities to develop programs, open eye banks and establish eye care facilities, widen training, and conduct outreach in rural and poor urban areas.
Ueltschi has been on many of the missions, including the DC-10’s inaugural mission to China.
“I went to Russia when they still had the Iron Curtain up,” he said. “This airplane’s been to more than 70 countries. Just recently, we went to Libya.”
Ueltschi said that ORBIS, just like FlightSafety and MarineSafety, is about education and hands-on training, although its focus is medical education.
“Years ago, when we first started out, we’d go into a country, and the first thing we’d do is go to the butcher shop and buy a bunch of pigs’ eyes and put them in a bucket with some ice,” he said. “Then the doctors would practice operating on pigs’ eyes. They’re not like a human’s, but that was our wet lab. Now we have simulators, just like we have for the airplanes. Doctors love it; it feels just like operating on a human being.”
The simulators can be moved into the hospitals.
“We can go into the hospitals, and we help them set up hospitals in these different parts of the world,” he said.
Along the way, ORBIS has had help from many sources. FedEx is one of those partners.
“FedEx is a big part of this,” Ueltschi said. “Fred Smith is a wonderful guy. He’s done so many things for us at ORBIS. I put a lot of money into that DC-10 when we got it, and another person put the rest of it in. We had it all fixed up, and then we lost an engine on one of the first missions. … I called all these places because we had to overhaul one of the engines. Everybody wanted $100,000 to sign a contract just to use the engines, and so much a cycle. We couldn’t afford that.
“I finally called Fred Smith. I said, ‘Fred, we have a problem and we need this engine. Could we borrow an engine from you for 30 days or a couple of months?’ I told him how much money everyone wanted for it, and that they wanted me to sign a contract. Fred said, ‘Let me look. I’ll call you back.’ He looked and he had one. He called me back, and he said, ‘Yeah, I have one; we’ll let you have it. But you’ll have to sign a contract.’ Then he said, ‘Let me think; it will be ten dollars.’ He had his people take the engine off; he had it overhauled, and put it back on the airplane. I bet it cost $1 million. And he did the whole thing. He’s been a very wonderful guy.”
Volunteer DC-10 pilots from FedEx Express and United Airlines fly the Flying Eye Hospital from program site to program site. Until 2001, when United retired its fleet of DC-10s, the airline held the lead role in maintaining the Flying Eye Hospital. FedEx has since taken over as the primary aviation sponsor. In addition to providing pilots, recurrent pilot training and a fulltime aircraft maintenance technician, FedEx ships urgently needed medical supplies to ORBIS program sites at no charge.
Ueltschi points out that the ophthalmologists also donate their time.
“We have 350 of the finest ophthalmologists in the world, and we don’t pay them either,” he said. “The money we get all goes toward our mission of reducing blindness and suffering and saving sight. We don’t pay the directors any director’s fees. They have to give or get—give it, get it, or get off.”
Many individuals and companies have pitched in to help the cause.
“We’ve had a lot of great people helping us, like Alcon,” Ueltschi said. “I bet they’ve given us $5 million. Not in money; a lot of it is in stuff. Pfizer and a lot of these companies, they’ve helped us a lot to try to reduce blindness. There are a lot of people involved in it. It’s not one person. It’s an organization.”
When Ueltschi was told he would be receiving the ORBIS Lifetime Achievement Award, he said he wouldn’t accept it for himself.
“I accepted this for the organization,” he said. “I’m not a doctor; I was just a dumb pilot. These doctors are doing it. This organization is doing it. That’s what it’s all about.”
That’s not the first time he’s been honored. Ueltschi was the recipient of the 1991 National Business Aircraft Association’s Award for Meritorious Service to Aviation. That same year, he received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Award for Extraordinary Service. In 1994, the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy was presented to Ueltschi, and Aviation Week magazine awarded its Laurel Award to him at a 1995 Washington ceremony, citing his lifelong achievement in aviation.
In July 2001, during the 50th anniversary year of the founding of FlightSafety, Ueltschi was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, following in the footsteps of Lindbergh, who was inducted in 1967, and his aviation mentor, Juan Trippe, who was a 1970 National Hall of Fame inductee.
The National Aeronautic Association presented Ueltschi with its Elder Statesman Award in November 2001, and in December he received the NBAA’s American Spirit Award. The Aero Club of New England presented its Godfrey Cabot Award to Ueltschi in June 2003. The Aero Club, which was founded even before the Wright Brothers first flew, cited Ueltschi’s “unique, significant and unparalleled contributions to foster aviation.”
For more information about FlightSafety, visit [http://www.flightsafety.com]. For more information about ORBIS, or to find out how to donate to this cause, visit [http://www.orbis.org].
This article is based on a personal interview with A.L. Ueltschi, supplemented by a Wings Club Sight lecture he gave in 1997, which later became the foundation for the book, “The History & Future of FlightSafety International.”