I was one of scrambling thousands, my bride included, snatching peanuts off Main Street's macadam and stuffing fistfuls of the goobers into my jacket pockets, laughing at the mad scene.
It was the 69th Annual National Peanut Festival parade in Dothan, Ala., and a cement mixer filled with the celebrated legume was leaving a miles long trail for the spectators to grab and munch before mammoth farm rigs, marching bands, beauty queens, Clydesdales, Harleys and fire engines passed by.
The day's festivities paid special tribute to members of the U.S. military and we waved, hooted and cheered as a camo-clad company of young soldiers from nearby Fort Rucker marched past, our son among them.
Four years earlier we had financed his high school graduation road trip from New England to Houston and back with a buddy. One of the many stops along the way was at Fort Rucker to see its U.S. Army Aviation Museum. During that stop, they also got to fly a Black Hawk sim, compliments of FlightSafety International. That was way cool until the screen went red and everything stopped. Sure they busted the thing badly, they exited, offered hasty thanks, piled into their Toyota and zoomed away.
Regardless, the experience evidently made a lasting, positive impression, since now 2LT Garvey, U.S. Army, is spending long days and nights learning the systems, limits and the challenges of controlling Fort Rucker's Bell TH-67 training helicopters. If all goes well, he should be wearing Army wings next year.
The peanut parade was a part of his training class's family weekend, which his mother and I attended for a couple of reasons. First, primary training can be dispiriting — flying helicopters is an unnatural act, after all — and we wanted to show our support. Secondly, I wanted to see that FlightSafety operation.
By way of background, I worked at the training outfit's LaGuardia headquarters in the mid-1980s and witnessed some of the company's significant moves then. Constructing the base adjacent to Fort Rucker was one of them.
I was in his corner office when Al Ueltschi, the company's founder, chairman and CEO, announced he was putting a center in Alabama to provide simulator training for the U.S. Army. FlightSafety didn't then do much dedicated military training, and I said I was surprised that the service wasn't already conducting its own simulator instruction.
“They do,” he responded.
“Then why hire us?”
“They aren't. At least not yet. But they will, once we get the center built.”
(To be totally honest, the preceding is not even close to a verbatim account of our exchange since Ueltschi loaded almost every spoken sentence with a bomb bay full of unprintables).
So, 25 years later, I eagerly accepted an invitation from Daleville center manager Mitch Alexander to tour his facility during our Rucker weekend and see firsthand how prescient the boss had been.
What I found: FlightSafety's Alabama outpost now houses six flight simulators and two flight training devices all dedicated to C-12 training for Army aviators, among others. It also operates a fleet of eight182s, seven Zlin 242Ls, five B58 Barons and 10 C-12s leased from the Army for the purpose. Meanwhile, the Army's Flight School XXI next door is chock-a-block with two-dozen FlightSafety sims and devices for TH-67 training, plus two Huey sims for U.S. Air Force pilots. The center has 150 employees.
Ueltschi had got it right. No surprise, since he was more often right than wrong, and that went all the way back to 1951. At the time he was serving as Pan Am's company pilot, assigned to fly Chairman Juan Trippe, and noticed that business pilots were not receiving training of the quality and regularity experienced by his airline colleagues. And so he founded FlightSafety for that purpose . . . but held on to his day job.
That changed in 1968 when he took the company public. At that point he retired from Pan Am and went to work for FlightSafety full time. By the time I showed up he was pushing 70, rich and still going full throttle. He was fully engaged — crackling, demanding, pushing — and helped energize the organization, which grew to become a global phenomenon.
Famously tight — I witnessed him order one manager to compute the per-cup cost of a month's worth of coffee provided free to customers — he also demanded top-notch equipment and courseware for students, and gave millions of his own dollars for Orbis International, the DC-10-borne ophthalmological teaching hospital he helped found and oversaw.
Alternately coarse and charming, lashing and laughing, calculating and considerate, he was something to see up close and in action. A man in full. And now gone. He died Oct. 18 at age 95.
We all hope to make a positive difference with our lives, to leave things better than we found them. Al Ueltschi did that and then some. Because of him and the organizations he created and nurtured, countless aircraft have delivered their crews and passengers safely, and millions with failed or threatened sight now behold clearly the people and places dear to them.
And pretty soon, yet another unsure but eager second lieutenant will enter a sim and learn to pilot a helicopter expertly through the muck because long ago a man with vision and a penchant for expletives invested to help ease his way.
For that and more Al Ueltschi has my heartfelt thanks. May he rest in peace. He earned it.