The business aviation industry lost a visionary leader yesterday evening, October 18, when Albert Ueltschi, founder and chairman emeritus of industry training provider FlightSafety International, died peacefully at his home in Vero Beach, Fla. at the age of 95. Growing up during the Great Depression in rural Kentucky in a family of modest means, he was bitten by the flying bug early on and decided to become a pilot. In pursuit of that dream, he ran a hamburger stand to fund his flying lessons, and soloed at the age of 16.
After buying his own open-cockpit airplane, he barnstormed around the country, performing in airshows and giving flying lessons. In 1941 he joined Pan American Airways and was eventually selected as the personal corporate pilot for the airline’s founder and president, Juan Trippe, a role he maintained for a quarter century. During that time, Ueltschi recognized a need to provide corporate pilots with the same level of comprehensive training as commercial pilots and in 1951, with Trippe’s encouragement, he founded FlightSafety, which remains headquartered at New York’s La Guardia Airport.
While building and diversifying the company, Ueltschi remained an active pilot with Pan Am until 1968, when FlightSafety went public. Today the company is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and employs more than 4,200 people at 40 facilities around the world and is one of the world’s largest providers of flight and maintenance training. “Safety is the cornerstone upon which business aviation is built, and in a lot of ways Al Ueltschi is the person who laid the cornerstone,” said NBAA president Ed Bolen. “He always said that the best safety device in any aircraft is a well trained pilot, and he made sure our community had a lot of well trained pilots.”
Outside his thriving business, Ueltschi was also a staunch supporter of the vision care charity Orbis International, serving as chairman for many years and helping transform a Douglas DC-8 into a flying eye hospital to provide eyesight care for people in impoverished regions. In 2010 he and his son Jim founded HelpMeSee, a not-for-profit organization that intends to restore sight to millions of cataract-blinded people worldwide by training thousands of eye-care practitioners in the latest low-cost vision-restoration techniques and providing equipment, clinics and funds for the procedures.
A month before his death, Ueltschi announced he had joined the Giving Pledge, vowing to donate half his personal wealth to philanthropy. “I have never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer,” he wrote in a letter announcing his joining the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in the charitable cause. “You can’t take it with you.” His donation will be contributed to “helping the least advantaged people in the world lead healthy and productive lives through medical innovation.”
During his career Ueltschi was bestowed with many honors, receiving the NBAA Award for Meritorious Service in 1991 and the NBAA American Spirit award a decade later. In 2006, in recognition of his charitable work, NBAA established the Al Ueltschi Award for Humanitarian Leadership. It was presented this year to FedEx and its founder, Fred Smith, in recognition of the company’s 30 years as the leading aviation sponsor of Orbis.
Ueltschi was also given the FAA award for Extraordinary Service in 1991, the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1994, and in 2001 he received the National Aeronautic Association Elder Statesman Award and was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2006 he was presented with the Canadian Business Aviation Association’s first lifetime achievement award.
“Al was an aviation icon and pioneer,” said FlightSafety International CEO Bruce Whitman, who worked with Ueltschi for nearly 50 years. “He was admired, respected and held in the highest regard by all who knew him. While his loss will be mourned by us all, we also celebrate Al’s remarkable life and accomplishments. He was one of a kind and serves as an entrepreneurial role model to each of us.”