Salt Lake City, Utah, and Frankfurt, Germany … a German airline … pilots and airports. With these places and people, does anyone come to mind — like maybe Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles?
On a Monday afternoon — usually an off day for senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of weekend meetings and travel, Elder Uchtdorf was at Salt Lake City International Airport, greeting flight crews and passengers and walking onto an Airbus A330 wide-body aircraft for a brief look.
No, Elder Uchtdorf wasn’t bound for an international ministry assignment. Nor was the former Lufthansa chief pilot and airline executive doing any anecdotal “research” for a future general conference message.
Or was he?
With a career of nearly four decades flying commercial jets professionally and fighter jets for Germany’s air force and longtime ties to both Salt Lake City and Frankfurt, Elder Uchtdorf was invited to join state, airport and airline dignitaries at the airport Monday, May 23, to commemorate the first nonstop service between the two cities.
“A nonstop flight is something special, because it connects one place with the other,” said the Apostle, who is well-known for turning flight anecdotes and airplane mentions into life lessons in his conference and devotional addresses over his nearly 30 years as a Church general authority.
“And that’s like between people, too,” he continued, drawing a parallel to nonstop flights. “If you have someone else in between, then it’s harder to communicate. But if you have a direct line from one person to the other, like from one departure directly to the destination, there is a direct connection.”
Many possible benefits
Eurowings Discover — the Lufthansa Group’s new leisure, low-cost and long-haul subsidiary airline — launched new summer routes out of Frankfurt and Munich in Germany to Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, Tanzania and several cities in the United States, including Salt Lake City.
The new SLC-FRA route is the Salt Lake airport’s first international nonstop in 15 years, with the new and larger airport hoping to add more, in addition to the post-pandemic resumption of nonstop flights to Paris, France; London, England; and Amsterdam, Netherlands, as well as existing flights to and from Canada and Mexico.
Elder Uchtdorf said that when he was in charge of Lufthansa’s worldwide flight operations, he always tried — albeit unsuccessfully — to get a nonstop flight between Frankfurt and Salt Lake City, emphasizing the “nonstop,” since a “direct” flight in airline phraseology can mean a route with one or more stops between the departure and arrival cities but no change in the airline flight number.
“When I flew the 747 for many years, I always flew over Salt Lake on my way to Los Angeles,” he recalled. “And every time I crossed over the valley here, I explained what Salt Lake City is and how beautiful Utah is. … But we never landed here.”
He sees Salt Lake City, the state and the region’s numerous national parks as natural, inviting, year-round destinations for Germans and Europeans.
“Whatever it is, they will come to Salt Lake City, they will see the headquarters of the Church, they will see Temple Square. They will talk to people and find out that ‘the Mormons’ — the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are real people, good people, nice people.”
And he looks the opposite direction and sees how the Utahns and local entities — including the Church and its members — could benefit from nonstop flights into Frankfurt in central Europe and then connections across the continent and on into Africa and Asia.
“For the Church, it has important value in all the missionaries going to Africa and Europe and to the rest of the world over there,” he said. “And vice versa — the members coming to Salt Lake City for general conference or to visit their friends and families here in Utah.”
Helping celebrate an inaugural flight
Eurowings Discover Flight 4380 was celebrated in the airport’s “Greeting Room,” an open reception area just outside the main passenger exit from Terminal 1, used by many families not only welcoming relatives and friends but also missionaries returning home from full-time service all across the globe.
Elder Uchtdorf took time to take photos with the pilots and flight crew of the Eurowing Discovery’s inaugural flight from Frankfurt to Salt Lake City, and he took a quick look inside the A330 airplane. He recalled participating in a number of inaugural Lufthansa flights, the most memorable being when the airline opened a route between Washington, D.C., and Frankfurt in 1987.
“Lufthansa had no direct connections to Washington, D.C., even though it and Frankfurt were two capitals of the free world,” he said, adding “so these inaugural flights have a significance in history, of connections between countries. They open borders, they bring freedom, they bring communication.”
In the airport, on the jet, around pilots and airline executives, Elder Uchtdorf was back in his element. His boyhood dream of flying airplanes resulted in a career where he retired from Lufthansa as chief pilot and senior vice president for flight operations as well as chairman of the Flight Operations Committee of the International Air Transport Association.
His piloting past
Conscripted into the newly formed Bundeswehr in 1959, 19-year-old Dieter Uchtdorf volunteered for the air force with hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
Because of a training agreement between the U.S. and West German governments, he and a handful of peers trained in Texas and later Arizona with the U.S. Air Force from 1960 to 1962, with Elder Uchtdorf graduating at the top of his class.
After completing his training and returning to West Germany, he spent six years as a fighter pilot.
Faith and family meshed with Elder Uchtdorf’s training and military and professional careers.
During the short time of his training at Luke Air Force Base west of metro Phoenix, Arizona, he received his endowment in the Mesa Arizona Temple. And while in the military piloting fighter jets, he married Harriet Reich — whom he had met in his ward as a teenager — Dec. 14, 1962, in the Bern Switzerland Temple.
After leaving the military in 1965, he joined Lufthansa, reaching the rank of captain five years later at the age of 29. Rising through the ranks as a pilot and airline executive, Elder Uchtdorf retired from Lufthansa in 1996 at age 55, two years after being called to the First Quorum of the Seventy.
His last Lufthansa flight was memorable.
“I took my last flight for Lufthansa in a 747 and came back to Frankfurt with Harriet in the cockpit with me,” he told the Church News in 2009. “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.’”
Elder Uchtdorf has had no regrets transitioning from flight to full-time Church service, from the Seventy to the apostleship, including a 10-year period as a counselor in the First Presidency.
“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.’”
He has been involved in a handful of flight events and experiences, as invited by the Utah Air National Guard and Hill Air Force Base, south of Ogden, Utah. A highlight was being a passenger in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet that hit 6 G-force in flight.