By Jack Olcott
Safety is essential to any transportation system whether on land, sea or air, and space shuttles are a vivid example of that axiom. Before completion of NASA’s shuttle program in 2011, craft such as Enterprise and Atlantis moved people and cargo at unheard of speeds over tens of thousands of miles around the Earth, through space and to the moon. When measured by productivity metrics such as passenger miles per hour, shuttles are highly successful transports yet 1.5 percent of the U.S. shuttle flights — two out of the 135 that were launched between April 1981 and July 2011 — ended in tragedy. Russia also lost astronauts as they ventured into space. The record is not a good one, and without vast safety improvements, space flight will not be an accepted means of travel—at least not by the public.
A century ago, aviation in any form had a similarly unsavory reputation as the realm of daredevils and instant fame seekers. Successful flight was measured in minutes or, if lucky, a few hours. Anyone amassing any significant time aloft was considered a person of superior skill and extraordinary ability.
It was only after Charles Lindbergh flew the “Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic in 1927 that aviation began its transformation from sensational novelty to a useful means of transportation. By the 1960s, air travel was in its heyday. but although airline passengers were blasé about safety, those flying aboard business aircraft were not as fortunate. Tragedies such as the loss of Mike Todd’s Lodestar, the Liz (named after his wife Elizabeth Taylor) plus several other high-profile business jet accidents underscored that training for corporate pilots was not up to airline standards. Investigations proved that a major factor in the safety equation was the pilot, not the airplane.
That situation changed dramatically when a visionary named Al Uletschi came along. Uletschi founded FlightSafety International and introduced advanced-technology ground-based simulator training and comprehensive classroom instruction to business aviation. Through Uletschi’s vision and leadership, FlightSafety set the bar for all business jet training, and it continues to do so. In fact, thanks to Al, business aircraft flown by two-pilot, simulator-trained flight crews have achieved a standard equal to or better than the impeccable safety record set by scheduled air carriers. For users of Business Aviation, the contributions of FlightSafety International’s founder have helped make business jets one of the world’s safest, if not the safest, forms of transportation.
Despite his many awards and achievements, Al was an unassuming, gracious gentleman. Our paths first crossed in 1968 when I was exploring the use of variable-stability aircraft to provide inflight simulation. Such technology had been perfected for the research community and some organization felt that in-flight simulation could be used for training. Rather than dismiss my proposal, Al gave me the full measure of his time and insight even though a new generation of ground-based full-motion simulators based upon advanced digital computer technology was emerging, which FlightSafety would later incorporate.
We had several business dealings in subsequent years. In the early 1980s, Al was an active participant and made meaningful contributions on a safety panel that then FAA Administrator Lynn Helms asked me to form. We were both Trustees for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, which Al strongly supported, and he was a true advocate for Business Aviation as the National Business Aviation Association launched its No Plane, No Gain program in the 1990s.
A long-time placeholder on Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, Al used his resources to create ORBIS International, a highly successful non-profit program that uses a flying hospital traveling worldwide to train eye surgeons who perform needed intervention and help combat blindness in developing countries. Al pledged half his considerable fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stating “My share will be contributed to helping the least fortunate people in the world to lead healthy and productive lives through medical innovation.”
Al Ueltschi —visionary, leader, humanitarian — died recently at the age of 95, but he leaves an enduring legacy.