Albert L Ueltschi (1917 – 2012)
Ueltschi attributes “just plain luck” as the reason for his accomplishments in life.
Ueltschi said his “great luck” goes back as far as the 1880s, when his grandparents left Switzerland and came to America.
“If my grandparents had stayed in Switzerland, imagine what would have happened then,” he said. “If they’d done that, I’d have been a watchmaker or something. The Swiss who came from Bern, Switzerland, had a little colony up in Kentucky named Bernstadt.” His family moved to a dairy farm in Franklin County.
On May 15, 1917, Albert Lee Ueltschi was born to Robert and Lena Ueltschi. Al grew up on the farm with his four brothers and two sisters. “It was an interesting life, but it was tough,” said Ueltschi, the youngest sibling. “My father and mother were terrific. The only thing we didn’t have was money.”
“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.” Each day, the cows needed to be milked and then Al would ride into Frankfort with his brothers to deliver the bottles of milk door-to-door to customers. “We’d get a nickel a quart,” he said. “It was tough to do all this work and then only get a nickel.” The empty bottles were brought home and cleaned for reuse. After that, they cleaned the stalls and then went to school.
Ueltschi never forgot the excitement he felt when Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight in 1927. He listened to the radio for reports on the flight and he knew he’d be a pilot. He told his Dad, ‘I’m really going to be a pilot.’ He said, ‘Al, you are.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You pile that cow manure over here and pile it over there; you’re a pile-it.'”
When Al was in high school he opened a hamburger stand called the Little Hawk. “It was a little hole in the wall,” he said. “We were selling hamburgers for a nickel and Coke for a nickel.”
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. After soloing at the age of 16, he dreamed of buying his own aircraft.
With a loan, Ueltschi bought a Waco 10 and passed out flyers to attract business for his Frankfort Flying Service. He continued to sell hamburgers after school during the week and on weekends he gave flying lessons and rides. He charged adults a dollar and children 50 cents.
Queen City Flying Service, offered him a job in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although it was steady work, and he flew 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.
In 1941, Ueltschi started as a general assignment pilot for Pan Am. After working in the training department before being transferred to Brownsville, Texas, the airline’s principal base for Central and South American operations. Ueltschi became the fulltime pilot for Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am. While working for Pan Am, Al got married in 1944.
It didn’t take long for Ueltschi to realize that Pan Am’s approach to flying was superior. Ueltschi saw possibilities 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 have to be sure you do it right.”
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, 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.”
“I didn’t have a big plan,” he said. “It started out with an idea, and it just kind of grew. I saw what Pan Am was doing. I saw a need and had to find 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.
In 1968, Ueltschi, 50, took FlightSafety public. 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 one of the most exciting moments of his career.
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. Today, FlightSafety has more than 1,500 instructors and offers more than 3,000 courses for pilots, maintenance technicians, flight attendants and dispatchers.
Al became involved with ORBIS, a nonprofit organization that strives to eliminate avoidable blindness and restore sight in the developing world, home to 90 percent of the world’s blind. 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 in the spring of 1982, for its first program, in Panama.
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.
In February 2006, Ueltschi received the ORBIS Lifetime Achievement Award but he said he wouldn’t accept it for himself.
“I accepted this for the organization,” he said.
It wasn’t long into the new millennium when he began investigating the possible use of high fidelity simulation technology and other aviation instructional techniques to train highly skilled cataract specialists to solve the problem of cataract treatment access. Al co-founded HelpMeSee with his son, Jim Ueltschi, with a singular purpose: to eliminate cataract blindness.
He brought to HelpMeSee more than a half a century’s experience in simulation-based aviation training to successfully design and develop a virtual reality eye surgical simulator to train to proficiency 30,000 cataract specialists.
Al died in October 2012, but not before signing the Giving Pledge along with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. As of this report, together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the A.L. Ueltschi Foundation and the Jim Ueltschi Foundation collectively contributed the start-up cost to successfully launch the HelpMeSee campaign to eliminate blindness caused by cataract.
Reference: A.L. Ueltschi: Saving Lives and Saving Sight by Di Freeze 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."