Career pilot delivered wheelchairs around the world.
Phil VanderWilt ’63 may be among Central’s most globally traveled alumni but he’d rather talk about his Iowa roots, values learned at Central and the need for more care and compassion in today’s world.
He casually mentions having visited 125 countries, flying in and out of an estimated 80 percent of the world’s largest cities, yet talks animatedly about a driving trip on Election Day to the Pacific Coast from his long-time home in Vacaville, Calif.
The career pilot has met many heads of state and dignitaries throughout the world including the King of Spain and members of Jordan’s royal family, yet quickly diverts the conversation to Central legends who left an impression on him or fellow alumni who, in his view, have accomplished much more.
An economics and business graduate, VanderWilt describes his time at Central as non-traditional in that while a student he was already married to his Lynnville- Sully High School sweetheart, Carol. He entered the U.S. Air Force four years after graduation, training as a pilot and serving deployments for the next 20 years.
After his military retirement, VanderWilt flew domestic and international flights for American Airlines until the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age of 60. He then worked as flight manager for Intel Corporation, the company behind most of today’s computer chip power.
Through connections at Intel, VanderWilt became known to Ken Behring, the founder of the Wheelchair Foundation, as well as a successful real estate developer and former owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team. VanderWilt was hired as chief pilot to plan and fly the foundation’s missions to deliver wheelchairs to the disadvantaged throughout the world for the next 15 years.
“As chief pilot, I had a unique position among foundation representatives and was very involved in planning trips to more than 125 countries,” VanderWilt says. He and wife Carol—who was first a foundation volunteer and then employee—flew throughout Europe, Africa and China, often returning multiple times to familiar locations.
“I remember being in a Jordanian village helping disabled kids with wheelchairs when I saw a father with little kids. I asked if I could give them candy. He was skeptical at first of course but later invited me into his home for tea,” VanderWilt recalls. “That stood out for me because he had never met an American.”
During the VanderWilts’ 15-year association with the Wheelchair Foundation, the nonprofit distributed more than one million free wheelchairs, and although the foundation is less active now, VanderWilt still answers the occasional call to fly a mission.
“We did a lot of good in the past,” he recalls, “It was very rewarding to help poor people, in jungles and in a variety of conditions, all over the world.” VanderWilt relied heavily on management skills throughout his long aviation career, skills he says he learned at Central from the late professor of economics Don Butler, Hall of Honor athlete and coach Eldon Schulte ’58, and of course, the legendary coach Ron Schipper.
“Football was my sport,” says the 1962 winner of the Richard Mentink Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship. With tongue in cheek, he also says, “Coach Schipper came to Central when we were juniors. We trained him to be successful and were instrumental in his development.”
Today, VanderWilt loves to fly fish, play tennis and participate in church activities in Vacaville, located midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, where he first entered the Air Force and went wheels up in the late ‘60s.