“From cockpit to pulpit.”
That phrase aptly sums up the past 50 years of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s life.
Having had a boyhood dream of flying planes, he joined the air force in his home country, Germany, in 1959. Half a century later, he looks back on a career in aviation that began with earning German and U.S. wings. He trained in the U.S. Air Force from 1960-62, graduating at the top of his class, and served six years as a fighter pilot in the German air force. After he left the military, he was a pilot for Lufthansa German Airlines. When he retired in 1996, two years after he was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy, he was senior vice president for flight operations and chief pilot for Lufthansa. He was also chairman of the Flight Operations Committee of the International Air Transport Association.
President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, still loves flying, but his focus goes beyond the skies he cruised as a pilot. His concerns are aimed heavenward.
In a Church News interview, President Uchtdorf spoke of his training as a fighter pilot at Big Spring, Texas, and at Arizona’s Luke AFB. He was the only Latter-day Saint among nine Germans training with the U.S. Air Force.
In Big Spring, LDS meetings were held on the base and were attended by American personnel stationed there and some local members. He actively participated in the branch and spent a lot of his free time helping construct the branch chapel that became the first phase of an LDS meetinghouse in use today.
Local members welcomed him into their homes. He spoke with fondness of the branch president and his wife, Robert and Pat Allen. “They had a young family and a small home off base. When I wasn’t at the chapel or doing something else, I would drop in and say hello, sit on their couch and feel at home,” President Uchtdorf said.
“Many times, my German colleagues commented, ‘It’s easy for you. You have here something like a family.’ And a comment I heard all my life was, ‘You have your faith, you have your church.’ “
When he transferred to Luke AFB in Arizona for gunnery training, he attended the Glendale Ward in what is now the Glendale Arizona Stake.
“The bishop was very kind,” President Uchtdorf said. “For the short time I was there, about three months, he gave me a calling. It was to teach the 15-16 year olds.
“I was out at Luke Air Force Base dropping bombs, shooting rockets and firing on the range every day, and often in the evenings I drove my car to the quiet sanctuary of the temple in Mesa. I received my endowment there.
“In an address at the dedication of the Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple, I said that Luke Air Force Base made me combat ready, but in the temple I learned principles that make me ready for the combat in life with the principles being taught there. That’s the real combat readiness.”
After he returned to Germany, he married Harriet Reich in December 1962. They are parents of two children and have six grandchildren.
In 1975, President Uchtdorf became head of Pilot Lufthansa School in Goodyear, Ariz. He and Sister Uchtdorf bought a home in Glendale, where they lived until 1978, when they returned to Germany.
When he was called as president of the Frankfurt Germany Stake in 1985, he said, he counseled members to plan to go on missions after retirement.
“Harriet and I had the dream that when I retired, we would go on a mission,” he said. “The option Lufthansa offered me was that I could retire at age 55, so that was our plan. Then, when I was 53, I was called as a General Authority. Our plan didn’t quite work out. I was still working full-time for Lufthansa and was serving full-time as a member of the Quorum of the Seventy. I retired at 55, and have continued on as a General Authority since then.
“I took my last flight for Lufthsana in a 747 and came back to Frankfurt with Harriet in the cockpit with me. We docked at the airport in Frankfurt. The welcome team was there, and amidst them was our family and our children holding up a huge sign saying, ‘On to new horizons.’
“I could have continued to fly until I was 60, but I wanted to retire to fulfill my calling better. Some people asked, ‘Are you going to continue to fly? Will you at least keep your pilot’s license?’
“I thought about it a lot because I love flying very much. I had the best profession you could ask for. I always called it ‘the best-paid hobby’ possible. But I said, ‘No, this is a part of my life that is behind me. Now comes a new phase, a new part of my life.’ Harriet said, ‘Oh, you will miss flying because you love it so much.’ ”
With retirement, he said, he made the transition “from cockpit to pulpit” quite easily.
“I must say that serving full-time, I never missed flying for a second.”
In 2007, he and Sister Uchtdorf attended his class reunion at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
“That was 25 years after graduation at Luke,” he said. “The F-84 fighter planes that we flew at the time are now found in museums. At the reunion at Luke we saw the F-16 flying. We went to the flight line and met with the pilots. It was all very interesting. My classmates were there with their spouses. They were not members of the Church, so I took them to the visitors center on the temple grounds in Mesa. The missionaries helped give presentations, and some local members helped to show them what the Church is all about. They did an excellent job and the group was very impressed.”
Upon returning to Salt Lake City, President Uchtdorf said, he began thinking about “the wonderful men and women of the armed forces who serve their country so well.” He thought about those serving in the Utah Air National Guard. In February of this year, he spoke at an interdenominational devotional at the base. In May, he returned for a tour of the base and visited the 151st Air Refueling Wing. He was given a ride in a KC-135 tanker that can refuel any plane in the U.S. Air Force or Navy anywhere in the world.
His latest return to the skies in a military aircraft was a flight he took in July aboard an F-16 out of Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. The invitation was extended because of his standing as a civic leader in international aviation — his role as chief pilot and senior vice president of Lufthansa, including responsibility for worldwide flight operations and being closely connected to communities around the U.S. and the world.
Two Hill AFB personnel who were especially helpful were Lt. Col. T.G. George, director of operations, and Lt. Col. Travis Rex (whose call sign is T-Rex), the pilot who took President Uchtdorf up in the F-16.
President Uchtdorf said that the flight was thrilling. “T-Rex showed me almost everything that pilots do today. It reminded me of the wonderful things I did back then, and it gave me a chance to see what they can do now in those marvelous planes.”
Prior to the flight, he was physically tested “in the 9-G environment.” President Uchtdorf said, “T-Rex kept it to slightly under 6-G. I went through it better than I thought I would with all the G-forces, but I also recognized this is something for tough, young people.
“It was such a joyful and impressive flight. I consider it as a kind of closure to my whole flying career, to have the privilege to fly in such a high performance plane with high performance pilots who are true warriors for their values, for their country, for freedom, for the mission that they have.”
President Uchtdorf said that his flights in recent months with the Utah Air National Guard and out of Hill AFB were thrilling and impressive, but what remains uppermost in his mind is his association with men and women who serve their country with great dedication and commitment. “They have my utmost admiration and respect.”