(January 2012) The history of powered flight is short. So short that A.L. Ueltschi has lived during most of it. Ueltschi is, of course, the founder of FlightSafety International. The company is perhaps one of the most emblematic of the exponential growth of aviation; as airplanes became more sophisticated and pilots were asked to understand and do more than just manage a stick and a pair of rudder pedals, FlightSafety grew along with the challenges.
Ueltschi was an entrepreneur from the get-go. Born the seventh child to a farming family in Kentucky, he got his life course changed by listening to a vacuum tube RCA radio as the flight of Charles Lindbergh was detailed with scratchy updates. He and Lindbergh ultimately became friends, but he didn’t know that in 1933 when he soloed in an OX-5 Waco. He didn’t know that when he opened a hamburger stand across the Kentucky River from a popular outfit called White Castle so as to finance his aviation addiction. Soon Ueltschi had a few more stands manned by high school classmates. Hamburgers were to figure again in FlightSafety’s history many years later. This time Ueltschi made a deal over hamburgers and cherry Cokes with another familiar name: Warren Buffet. But that is much later in the story.
With money from burgers and a loan from a fast food customer, Ueltschi bought a Waco 10 for $3,500. He was 18. After a brief and unhappy experience with college, which served only to emphasize the young man’s ambition to be a full-time pilot, A.L. became a barnstormer and ultimately landed a job as chief pilot for Queen City Flying Service in nearby Cincinnati. After 2,000 hours of all kinds of flying, he struck out for the airlines, landing at Pan American World Airways.
It was at Pan American that he became a personal pilot for its founder, Juan Trippe. Ueltschi wrote, “In my wanderings, what I especially valued was the time spent just observing Mr. Trippe and his associates. Listening as these men, some of the most successful businessmen alive, negotiated business deals, argued politics, forgave slights, planned new ventures, and worked out financing strategies, was a business school education of the highest order.”
It was, though, an experience while he was in Cincinnati that persuaded Ueltschi that simulation training in airplanes might have an advantage over training in real airplanes. While instructing a Civil Aviation Authority (the forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration) inspector on the fine points of aerobatics, he turned an airplane upside down (a Waco!) and promptly fell out. After deploying his parachute, he made three important conclusions from the mishap:
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.