Erstwhile pilot at home among comrades
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There's an old saying: "You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy."
A slight alteration might read, "You can take the pilot out of the plane but you'll never take the plane out of the pilot."
Such a pilot is President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency. Professionally, he left the cockpit in 1996, two years after he was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy. At that time, he was senior vice president for flight operations and chief pilot for Lufthsana German Airlines. In the military, he earned German and U.S. wings: He served six years as a fighter pilot in the German air force and graduated at the top of his class in pilot training in the U.S. Air Force in Texas.
It is little wonder that he feels so much at home at the Utah Air National Guard Base near the Salt Lake City International Airport, which he has visited twice this year — first in February when he delivered a Sunday morning devotional address (see Church News, Feb. 14) and May 12 when he returned for a tour of the base. He visited the 151st Air Refueling Wing, which is the host unit of the UTANG, and several other squadrons, including the 109th Air Control Squadron, the 130th Engineering Installation Squadron, the 169th Intelligence Squadron and the 101st Information Warfare Flight.
President Uchtdorf said that he was thrilled to see the planes — especially the 1950s-vintage KC-135 tanker that can refuel any plane in the Air Force or Navy anywhere in the world, and the "modern and most exciting planes in the Air Force," the F-15s and F-22s. However, he said, he was more impressed with the men and women in the Guard and their high level of professionalism and commitment to serve their country.
Speaking with the Church News about his latest visit to the base, he recalled the first time he became aware of the Air National Guard. "I was in pilot training in Texas and saw an Air National Guard F-102 squadron. We didn't have anything like that in Germany," he said. "I thought, 'Boy, that is the best of two worlds. They work in their civil lives during the week and then on the weekend they have a chance to fly beautiful planes, do something great and have some fun.'?" With a winning smile, he added, "Flying a plane is fun."
He said that many who are serving in the Utah Air National Guard signed up years ago when the Guard provided an educational opportunity and, perhaps, the worst-case scenario might have been providing assistance to the southern coast in hurricane season or to some other disaster.
"Now, for quite some years, they have been putting their lives on the line," he said, noting that some of the Guard's personnel he met had recently returned from Afghanistan and Turkey.
The UTANG has federal and state missions. It maintains trained and equipped units that are available for quick mobilization for war, national emergencies or other situations, and provides trained forces for domestic emergencies or as otherwise required by state law.
The majority of Guard members serve part time, reporting for duty one weekend a month and two weeks a year, unless they are deployed in conflicts.
"When I was at the base, I was deeply impressed by their goodness and spirit," President Uchtdorf said. "The atmosphere was almost like a family. They make references to themselves as the 'Air Guard family.' In many instances they have family members serving in the second, third and fourth generation.
"This family-like atmosphere is combined with a very high professional level in exercising their responsibilities and their tasks, which are crucial to the safety and security of the country. I think this is an exceptional indication of people who are really committed to serve their country and to serve in their tasks to the best of their ability, to have that family relationship and still honor in their professional tasks a very high quality of performance."
On the day President Uchtdorf visited the base, many members of UTANG had brought their spouses and other family members. "We had a delightful time together," he said.
Col. Kelvin G. Findlay, UTANG Commander, 151st Air Refueling Wing, said, "President Uchtdorf's visit in February, when he spoke to nearly 500 of our Guardsmen and women, was a highlight of the year and is still talked about. He and his wife are so gracious, and he is so well thought of. So having him come out to spend a bit more time with us was a tremendous treat."
Col. Findlay referred to a refueling flight President Uchtdorf went on and said, "I am confident he thoroughly enjoyed the flight. I can tell you that the flight crew count the experience as a highlight of their career. He was so engaged, and his airmanship is as sharp as ever.
"As he took the time to have lunch with about 75 of our airmen (including many spouses), speak to the group, and visit with all who wanted that treasured moment with an apostle of the Lord, we were continually humbled by his interest and willingness to share. We tried to give him a flavor of the various missions that we in the Utah Air National Guard are involved with. And as he walked through some of our facilities visiting with more of our people, he was kind, interested and engaged. Although he spent over six hours with us, it was not enough. But it will give many here a career-long memory.
"Our airmen and women are a dedicated and professional group. Our members are involved in a full spectrum of missions. Besides air refueling the world over, they are active participants in the global war on terrorism as well as homeland defense. They are at the forefront of counter-drug operations and are always ready to serve with disaster relief. They are active on the ground, watching the skies, and monitoring cyberspace. We are proud of our federal service as well as our duty to the state of Utah, and grateful to be citizen soldiers.
"Our fellow Utah Army Guardsmen are equally engaged, and represent well the communities of Utah statewide."
The concept of the National Guard (the Air National Guard is an offshoot of the Army National Guard Air Corps) goes back to colonial times when a militia was formed of volunteers — called "Minutemen" — from Lexington and Concord, Mass. Statues in each place have been erected honoring the Minutemen. On a corner of President Uchtdorf's desk sits a small bronze statue of the "Concord Minuteman," symbol of the Guard, which was presented to him by Brig. Gen. David Hooper on April 21. The plaque on its base reads: "Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Honorary Wingman, from the Men and Women of the Utah Air National Guard."
"This statue means a lot to me," President Uchtdorf said. "I enjoy studying American history. The Concord Minutemen showed dedication in the way they worked. When they were called to the front and trenches, they went." Pointing to the bronze, he said, "You see the plow and the man with the gun in his hand.
"When they brought this statue I was deeply touched. It represents the beginnings of the country in a great way. It expands into all fields, the principles and ideals they stood and fought for."