Living Legend Lands In Payson

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The recognition may be a little late, but it has finally arrived.

At the age of 89, and after 70 years as an aviator, Ernie Pretsch is finally becoming known around the world as a living legend of the air.

The only question is, why didn't it happen sooner?

After all, it was Captain Ernie Pretsch who flew German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on his historic 1955 journey to Moscow, during which the return of 10,000 German prisoners of war 10 years after the end of WWII was negotiated.

It was Captain Pretsch who in 1942 flew Hollywood star Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, on the first leg of her fateful journey from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

It was Captain Pretsch who in the mid-'50s became the very first chief pilot of Lufthansa Airlines.

And it was Captain Pretsch who was inspired by his friendship with American icon Charles Lindbergh but who was not at all surprised by the death of another friend, Amelia Earhart.

For 40 years, Pretsch has been one of aviation's unsung pioneers. But some very loud singing commenced last month, in the September issue of the slick German magazine Aero International, wherein the lead story tells of the life and times of Payson resident Ernie Pretsch.

That saga began in Froedenau, West Prussia (today a part of Poland), where Pretsch was born and where as a 5-year-old boy he would watch WWI form overhead as reconnaissance planes flew toward the front.

"I would stand up and say, 'That's what I want to do,'" Pretsch remembers. "Right then, I set myself a goal. My dad was a builder, and I didn't want to go into the carpentry or building trade. I wanted to fly."

And fly he did after immigrating to the U.S. with his family at the age of 13 and, in the mid-1920s, befriending Charles Lindbergh at New York's Roosevelt Airfield.

"I washed the Spirit of St Louis before Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight," Pretsch says before launching into a story of that 1927 event that he says has never before been chronicled.

"The Sunday before the flight, he invited some showgirl to look at the airplane. For good luck, she hung a St. Christopher medallion on the compass. Luckily, Lindbergh noticed that the compass was about 10 to 12 degrees off because of that medallion. Metal and compasses don't mix. If he had flown with that thing next to the compass, we would have never heard from him again. That was kept quite secret."

In later years, Pretsch adds, Lindbergh was often his co-pilot on commercial flights. The famed aviator remains Pretsch's inspiration, he says, because "he was the one who taught me that the No. One idea in flying is safety."

One pilot who never learned that lesson, according to Pretsch, was Amelia Earhart, who fell from the sky on July 1st, 1937, southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Her plane was never found.

"She brought me coffee many times from the restaurant at Roosevelt Field," he says. "She was completely in it for the publicity. As a pilot, she wasn't worth a s-. She was very sloppy. That whole mission was a total disaster. First of all, she couldn't fly the airplane too well. She just proved that she was stupid. I blame her and her alone.

"Her navigator was so drunk the night before, he couldn't walk. He had to be carried home and put to bed. The next morning they flew. He was so hung over that he gave her the wrong headings. And all of this 'poor Amelia Earhart' stuff. She had no business being in that airplane."

By the time Earhart disappeared, Pretsch had been flying for five years. He had started in 1932, when only 10 flying lessons were required to be licensed as a private pilot. A year later he received his Limited Commercial License, allowing him to fly planes with no more than two other people on board. And by 1935, he had racked up enough experience to gain a full commercial license.

But instead of shuttling passengers cross-country, Pretsch chose to become a crop duster, hunting for potato beetles in Caribou, Maine. Back then, he explains, "Crop dusting was the only way you could make any kind of money flying an airplane."

Pretsch got his first job as a commercial airline co-pilot in 1939, with the fledgling TWA. It was during this tenure that he piloted Carole Lombard on the first half of the journey which ended when, in the second half, her plane crashed into the side of a mountain.

"I flew her from Kansas City to Albuquerque," Pretsch recalls. "We were about 30 minutes late, but we got there safely. Wayne Williams was the captain who took her from there. I had been Wayne's co-pilot many times. He had a nasty habit at night; as soon as he got airborne, he'd say 'You've got it,' to the co-pilot, and then he'd flip on the cockpit lights.

"Well, with the cockpit lights on, you can't see out. That's why they flew into the mountain."

Pretsch found out what had happened from a TWA colleague. Moments after that conversation, Lombard's husband, Clark Gable, called.

"He wanted to know her demeanor before she died. I told him she was full of high spirits and looking forward to getting home. But, of course, she never made it."

Pretsch's proudest moment in the air, however, occurred in 1955, when as the first chief pilot for Lufthansa Airlines, he flew the late but still-beloved German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Moscow.

"He was the greatest statesman ever," says Pretsch of Adenauer. "They called him the 'Sly Fox.' I personally know, from people who were sitting at the negotiation table, that Adenauer nearly got up and walked out on the Russians because of their negativity about releasing the prisoners of war. He stood up and said, 'OK, if that's how you want to play ball, you will never be friends with Germany.'

"That calmed the Russians down, and the final agreement was that they would release all of the prisoners. Within six months, they were all back home.

"Do you see that?" Pretsch asks, pointing to a framed letter and photograph on the wall of his home. "It's from Adenauer. He thought enough of me to sit down and write me a personal letter, thanking me for what I did for Germany. That was the greatest achievement of my career."

Although Pretsch retired from TWA in 1971, he did not stop flying private airplanes. In fact, he and his wife, Susan, first came to Payson in 1991 via an airplane, flown by Pretsch from Florida. And he remained airborne until two months ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder.

"It keeps spreading," he says of the disease. "They're having a hard time getting rid of it. But so far, it hasn't traveled up to any major organs, so I guess I'm lucky."

He last flew a plane shortly before his diagnosis.

"Now, well, my flying days are over. I'll never do it again. But I still get a thrill from flying. It's my life. It's my life.

"It's not bragging to say what I accomplished. I was a little boy who came to the States at 13 in short pants and holes in his stockings. I knew this was the land of dreams. And I made my dreams a reality.

"But it wasn't easy. I worked in the shipyards from eight at night to four in the morning, and then rode 10 or 12 miles on a bicycle to take flying lessons which cost $15 for the airplane and $5 for the instructor. Licensed carpenters back then were earning from $18 to $22 a week, nine hours a day.

"You can imagine how much determination I needed to live my dream."

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