TUCSON, Ariz. — It may seem amazing to others that an 86-year-old man had the energy, reflexes and focus needed to land a pilot's license, but to Karl Klingelhofer, the octogenarian flyboy himself, the story is nothing extraordinary.
The way Klingelhofer sees it, he's always been meant to soar in the clouds — the event was just delayed for six decades or so.
In 1944, 68 years before Klingelhofer would redeem a lifelong dream by attaining his license, he was set to take to the skies in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning as an enlisted fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps in World War II.
But his chance never came. The war ended and Klingelhofer was discharged from what had become the U.S. Air Force before he was able to get his wings. He signed up with the Air Force Reserves, hoping to be recalled to continue in the cadet program, but the recall never came.
Klingelhofer's desire to fly never faded, but life intervened. He married Georgann and had two sons, then embarked on a career as an engineer.
Learning to fly "was not the most important thing in my life," said Klingelhofer, who now lives in SaddleBrooke. "I had a full-time job."
He lacked the funds and the time to pursue his pilot's license, but he kept the fire stoked.
"I still have my 1944 uniform that I am wearing in that picture," he said via email, explaining how much his close brush with nearly becoming a fighter pilot meant to him. "Needless to say, I can't get in it now."
When his wife of 60 years died in 2008, Klingelhofer placed his flight fancy at the top of his bucket list. Progress toward his goal was steady and slow, but he completed it Sept. 1, when he received his sport pilot license at San Manuel Airport northeast of Tucson.
According to flight instructor Parrish Traweek, Klingelhofer was a model student. Any concerns Traweek had about Klingelhofer's intensity, strength or reflexes vanished within minutes, although his student did have one problem — he tended to think his way into a corner.
"He tried to make it a lot more complicated than what it had to be," Traweek said. "He came every day with all these questions. He'd make all these lists. He made it a lot harder than it had to be on himself. I had to get him to simplify."
Klingelhofer, who modestly refers to himself as a "has-been engineer," says he's as vital as ever — "I'm healthy. I play tennis twice a week" — and that his biggest adjustment when learning to fly was "learning to land, and get in that learning mode, that studying mode."
These days, he rents planes to take flights out of San Manuel to Willcox and Benson.
Traweek said Klingelhofer's love of flight was apparent for all of his 82.5 hours of training.
"His age really wasn't a factor. He was an engineer. A very intelligent man," Traweek said, adding that Klingelhofer's check ride — in which a Federal Aviation Administration rep flies with a student, checking his knowledge and abilities — was as fast as he'd ever seen. Traweek said check flights can last more than two hours, but Klingelhofer's flight took 90 minutes.
Klingelhofer said that while it was tough to nail down the finer points of landing, now he's confident in all aspects of his skills. When he takes to an aircraft, he experiences a jubilance that he'd hoped for throughout his life.
"I love pushing the throttle and taking off down the runway," he said. "It's great."