Only a few times in a lifetime do you meet someone at a special place and a special time that you truly admire, not for what they’ve done, but for who they are as a person, and that is based partly upon thier experiences. For me, the place is Dillingham Airfield, the time was May 2011, and the person is Elmer Udd.
Dillingham Airfield is truly a special place in the world. It sits nestled at the northern edge of Oahu flanked on one side by the beautiful Waianae Mountains and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Home to a bunch of interesting airplanes such a Waco, several Stearmans, Cessna Caravans (used for skydiving), and L-19 Bird Dogs, Dillingham is one of my favorite airports of all time, and it is also one of the best places on earth to soar gliders.
Since I come to Hawaii annually for my Army Reserve training, I decided this time to make sure to get my glider license. There are several businesses that operate gliders at Dillingham and as I began to casually interview people to seek out the best place for training, the name Elmer Udd just kept coming up. They’d all say that Elmer was the old guy that worked with Yuko, another interesting person in her own right, at Hana Hou Air. She is a Japanese lady who got a glider Designated Examiner (DE) position from the FAA and then bought a glider business…and she bought it from Elmer.
Elmer shows up at Dillingham each work day with a smile, a large frozen bottled water, and his lunch…and, oh, by the way…he’s 87 years old! When I heard he was 87, I thought there was no way he could still be piloting actively. I figured at best he gave some lighthearted instruction a few days per week to pass the time away, but that is just not the case. When I first met him, he was on his 10th glider tow in the L-19 Bird Dog that day and had more tows yet to fly before going home. I was bold enough to ask him if I could sit in the back of the L-19 on his upcoming tows, and he agreed (Yuko told me later that he must have really liked me, for he rarely lets anyone go in the Bird Dog with him). I was amazed at his ability to handle the Bird Dog. A seasoned tailwheel pilot myself, I can assure you the Bird Dog is no easy flier as it is absolutely unforgiving of any pilot error. Bouncy narrow gear, high CG, a high power-to-weight ratio, and a history of humbling cocky pilots, the Bird Dog can ground loop easily if not watched closely. Elmer had no issues at all with this airplane.
I asked him how many flight hours he had, and he stated he had “over 40,000”, but he stopped counting long ago. I’ve never met anyone with over 40,000 hours of flight time, and I’ve met a LOT of pilots. As a matter of fact, I’ve only heard of pilots with over 30,000 hours. I’m not sure if anyone is still keeping track, but Elmer Udd is probably the most experienced current pilot and flight instructor still working. The fact that he can still keep his FAA medical current is simply amazing. Most pilots 20 years his junior have long ago lost theirs to some heart ailment, illness, neglect, or faded desire. Considering he started flying in 1942, he’s got nearly 70 years of continual aviation experience!
Elmer is a humble person, so you can’t just sit down and ask him to tell his life story and expect to get it from him. You’ve got to slowly put it together with bits and pieces of stories. He started his flying career in the US Navy in WWII. I know this because we saw a Stearman taking off while sitting in our glider, and I asked him if he had any time in one of those. He said he had over 1,000 hours of dual-given in Stearmans, and he lamented that he probably had more hours than that because the Navy only logged 0.3 hours per flight back in 1942, even if you flew more for a training flight. He said he then went on to fly Corsairs (and probably some other WWII airplanes).
In the 1950’s Elmer started his airline career with Northwest Airlines and flew everything in their fleet from the DC-3’s to the Boeing 747. In 1970 Elmer found Dillingham and began a love affair with gliders. Retiring in 1985 from Northwest, Elmer bought a glider company at Dillingham and owned it until not long ago.
Elmer was my instructor for my glider training and I could not have chosen more wisely. Very mild-mannered in the cockpit, Elmer would only make simple comments here and there, but would absolutely get his point across. If he said, “Well, that’s not the way I’d do it”, then I’d immediately transfer the controls and he’d, with pin-point accuracy show exactly what he wanted to see. If he said, “I’m comfortable”, then you know you’d done a good job. He loved finding good lift in the glider and could point out the best places to find it based upon the winds and be exactly right every time. He once took a glider up to 28,000 ft over Hawaii, with a rare episode of wave lift.
I asked him what makes a good pilot. He said, “a good pilot is one who is always precise. When you fly an ILS, fly it precisely; when you make an approach, do it precisely; you can always tell if someone is a poor pilot because he is sloppy.” He then went on to tell me stories of flying with other pilots and his bringing their skills up by announcing his desire and then exemplying it with his own precise flying. “The flight instructor or senior pilot must always demand precision from their students or their crew. Aviation is so unforgiving, there is just no room for a sloppy pilot.”
Hawaiian Airlines recently restored one of their original airplanes, a 1929 Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker and now give rides to retiring employees and their guests. One day while we were flying gliders, they had the Bellanca at Dillingham giving rides. I asked if he wanted to get a ride and he said, “If I can’t fly it, I don’t want to ride in it.” That’s how I picture him…as a pure pilot who just doesn’t want to give up his passion. Airplanes are great, but to go to an aviation museum for him would only be fun for a short while…pretty soon, someone would have to open the door and let him take one for a spin to keep his attention.
I asked him how he stayed “so young”…his answer was a simple, “…avoid sugar, eat right, get sleep, do what you love…”. Yet, he didn’t have to answer, for I got an object lesson on staying young on the next 11 glider tows. Each time, he’d tow me up to 1000’ and then immediately start back down in the Bird Dog. When I landed in the glider, usually not more than 3 minutes behind him, he’d be standing there with the tow rope in hand ready to hook me back up. That means, he shut down the Bird Dog, unbuckled, got out, walked at least 100’ to get the tow rope, walked 100’ back to me, moved the glider into position (by hand), jumped back into the Bird Dog, buckled in, started it up, did all the preflight checks, and then negotiated another takeoff, all with me sitting in the glider strapped in and ready to go. After about 3 of these takeoff and landing routines, I felt bad watching him work so hard shouted to him that I’d get out and get the next rope hook up. Upon landing, it took me a full 3-4 minutes of solid hustle to do what he did. My point…he stays young by staying active. With an airline retirement, a military retirement, and social security, I’m reasonably certain Elmer’s not piloting for money…in fact, that’s exactly the point. He’s piloting because he absolutely loves aviation and there’s a whole lot of people who are better because he is still so active.
I hope when I’m 87, if I make it to 87, I still have the mental and physical capacity that Elmer’s got…and I hope I’ve still got the passion to fly. Patriarchs of aviation are becoming hard to find these days. While some of the old timers are still living, most don’t do much with aviation anymore on any consistent basis. They can tell stories, but they can’t wiggle the sticks and show you how to do it.
I’m glad to have Elmer’s signature in my logbook. Although his name may not be known by most, there are many in Hawaii who know exactly who Elmer was, and is, and will probably be for a lot longer. He’s one of the classy guys in aviation that we all should strive to emulate.