Here’s Waldo

Feisty instructor still sought out at 88

By Dave Hirschman

“Where’s Waldo?” is more than just a children’s book and TV show. It’s a question Minnesota seaplane pilots earnestly ask, as do participants in Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Programs (BPPP) around the country. And the riddle can be surprisingly hard to answer because Ralph Waldo Anderson—the 88-year-old aviator they’re looking for—is a habitual rambler.

“I spend winters in Arizona and summers in Minnesota, but I like to stay busy and seldom stay in one place very long,” said Anderson, who was teaching at a BPPP clinic in Lakeland, Florida, the day I found him.

That morning, the impish former FAA designee, who administered checkrides in the Midwest for 47 years, was giving introductory seaplane rides to other flight instructors. At midday he provided an instrument proficiency check in a Baron, and that evening he gave more dual instruction for another Baron pilot headed to South Florida.

Anderson taught at the University of Minnesota’s aviation program for 37 years, and he’s sought out today because his practical lessons go far beyond academics.

“You don’t want to be in the midst of an actual engine failure the very first time you shut down an engine in a Baron or a Beech 18,” said Anderson, who learned to fly in a U.S. Air Force flying club in Salina, Kansas, in 1957.

“Every pilot should get to experience that during their checkout so that they know exactly what to expect if and when it ever happens for real. Once pilots see it and practice it, they realize they can handle engine failures just fine, and that makes the rest of their flying more enjoyable because they’re not stressed out about it.”

Anderson, an A&P mechanic, gets down on the ground to shake landing gear doors and sump fuel tanks during each Beechcraft preflight. He climbs surefootedly on slippery seaplane floats and wet docks without hesitation.

Flying with Anderson is a contact sport. If you’re not applying enough right rudder, he’ll slap or punch your right thigh as a hint. If he wants you to press a button, he’ll grab your hand and guide it to the button he wants pressed. His cockpit demeanor is casual, energetic, and sprinkled with a few F-bombs and lots of laughter.

He’s got encyclopedic knowledge of avionics ranging from the long-obsolete to the most modern, and he delights in quickly filing flight plans on his ever-present iPad.

“I don’t know how we ever flew airplanes for all those years without these things,” he said. “I know how to tell the iPad what I want, and once I’ve done that, I do exactly what it tells me to do. When you’re as old as me, you don’t waste your time arguing with the technology.”

Anderson was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it’s the middle name that stuck.

He lost part of his left pinky finger in a machine-shop accident long ago and says the emergency room doctor asked at the time whether he played the piano or a stringed instrument.

Anderson told him no, he flew airplanes.

The doctor looked relieved and tossed the severed portion of Anderson’s finger in the trash can.

“He told me I wouldn’t be needing that in my line or work, and he was right,” Anderson said. “I haven’t missed it a bit.”

Dave Hirschman

This article, which was originally featured in the May 2022 edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine, is reprinted with permission from Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA].