June 3, 2005 (by Mike Burkett) - Twenty-five years ago last month, when Col. Lance Undhjem had completed his F-16 pilot training and was named the "top dog" in his class, he was called up on a graduation stage to receive his official certification.
As Undhjem strode to the podium to bask in the glory of this life-altering moment, he tripped and fell flat on his face.
"Well, folks," the presenting officer quipped, "we said he could fly planes. We never said anything about walking."
Whether or not Undhjem's walking skills have improved since that day is not certain. But there aren't many pilots who have surpassed this Litchfield Park resident's mastery of, or hours in, the cockpit of an F-16 aircraft.
(pronounced "un-jum") has been a part-time reservist with the Luke Air Force Base 302nd Fighter Squadron Base and 944th Fighter Wing for almost 16 years. In 1995, he became only the third Air Force pilot in history to reach 3,000 hours
flying the F-16. Since then, he's upped the number to 4,200 hours — the equivalent of traveling 1,470,000 miles, enough to circle the earth almost 60 times.
Today, there is only one other pilot in the world who has spent more time in an F-16.
And on April 22, the 48-year-old flyboy celebrated his 25th F-16 anniversary by adding a bit more time to his total, climbing out of his cockpit, walking (but not falling) into a cheering throng of loved ones and fellow pilots … and bidding a permanent farewell to his aircraft.
But it was not an emotional, heart-tugging goodbye.
"It'll just be the end of that chapter," Undhjem said two days before his final F-16 flight. "I've been with the plane so long, I really don't look at this with any negative feelings at all."
Flying fighter jets, he said, "is a young man's game and I'm not a young man anymore. The older you get, the more you think about how good you were rather than how good you are.
"I think fighter pilot years are a lot like dog years. I think I'm about 175 dog years old," he said with a laugh.
'A young man's game'
Born in Salt Lake City and raised in Twin Falls, Idaho, Undhjem went straight from high school into the Air Force Academy — a career move he planned at the age of 10, when he saw his first air show starring the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
"That was it. From then on, my mother tells me, I never talked about anything else but flying planes," said Undhjem — who not only made his dream a reality, but also spent 1986-1987 flying for none other than the Thunderbirds.
"We did 155 air shows all over the world in two years," he remembered. "We did one show in China, and a flyby during the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. It was great … but I think two years of being a Thunderbird was enough for me."
By that time, he'd been married for about five years to his wife, Debra (now a governing board member for the Litchfield Elementary School District and the mother of his two sons, Lane, 14, and Luke, 12). The couple came to Arizona in 1989, the same year Undhjem started his "day job" as a commercial pilot for Delta Airlines.
While he's hardly ready to retire from Delta, Undhjem is more than prepared to take on his new, fully grounded staff position with the Air Force Reserves.
The older an F-16 pilot gets, he said, "the more you lose focus; it just isn't as sharp as it is when you're younger. Also, you get slower; the G-loading [the accumulation of centrifugal gravitational forces] on the airplane hurts a little more when you get older.
"You can make up for those things by being crafty because you've got some experience and background. But in the end, it's a young man's game. I'd say when your average fighter pilot is 28, 29 or 30 years old, he's at the top of his game."
When Undhjem was at the top of his own game, what he loved most about piercing clouds in an F-16 was "simply the challenge of it," he said. "You can never do every single mission perfectly — but you can get close. You can always get better, you can always do it more precisely. That's the challenge."