It's hard to tell if Al Palmer is really retiring from UND Aerospace and the North Dakota National Guard. Talking about his retirement, he kept referring to both organizations in terms of "us" and "we."

As in: "Once you get them here, we can sell them on our training program," where 'them" means the likes of China Airlines and "we" means the university.

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Palmer recently retired from UND as chief of flight operations, where he had worked hand in hand with the legendary founder of the aerospace program, John D. Odegard. He started out as a flight instructor.

Next month, Brig. Gen. Palmer is retiring as commander of the state's Air National Guard. He started out as a noncommissioned officer in charge of just the electronic warfare shop.

Despite retiring, it won't be goodbye and good luck for Palmer. He said he'll stay involved with UND and the Guard in some fashion as a consultant specializing in unmanned aircraft systems.

His plans include hooking helicopter-maker and unmanned aircraft-aspirant

Sikorsky up with local contacts at UND and Northland Community and Technical College and helping Northland set up its unmanned aircraft maintenance program.

'The best thing'

Palmer arrived at Grand Forks Air Force Base with his wife, Peggy, in 1975 from a previous assignment at U-Tapao air base in Thailand, just a 24-year-old without a college degree and any enthusiasm for prairie country.

"Grand Forks, N.D. -- who would want to come here?" he recalled his feeling at the time. "But it's the best thing in my life because that's where I met John Odegard, George Hammond, Dana Siewert and other people that were influences in my life."

Hammond is one of Palmer's predecessors as chief of flight operations and Siewert is director of aviation safety.

While enlisted in the Air Force as a B-52 electronics warfare officer, Palmer began finishing the college degree he left unfinished when he was drafted during the Vietnam War and left for Thailand. Odegard and Hammond were among his teachers.

After Palmer graduated, Hammond offered him a promotion from flight instructor to assistant chief flight instructor, but only if he would sign on with the National Guard. Palmer couldn't hold the job and be in the Air Force at the same time, but Hammond didn't want him to quit the military short of 20 years, which would qualify him for retirement benefits.

In this way, Hammond set the course of Palmer's professional life. Palmer began working for UND in 1978 and joined the Guard in 1981, and he never left.

Never say can't

Reminiscing about his career, Palmer spoke fondly of working with Odegard to start UND's now world-famous airline training program.

"If I said we're going teach you to fly tomorrow and, in 18 months, we want you to be an airline pilot, how do you get from knowing nothing about flying to becoming a qualified first officer?" he said of the challenge.

At the time, the U.S. airline industry foresaw a shortage of pilots because their main source of pilots, the Air Force, weren't training as many pilots. So UND had to have a flexible program that could take in students at varying experience levels.

Palmer said the university was the first to create such a customizable program.

"You never want to tell John you couldn't do something," he said of Odegard. "He just said, 'It can be done, you've just got to figure out how to make it happen.' "

"Joel Barker said this once -- he's a futurist -- he said, 'Vision with action can change the world,' " Palmer said. "And that's what John did. He had the vision, but he could pull a team of people together to actually bring it to fruition. That's what I truly liked about him and admired him."

When the failure of two airlines later in the decade made the pilot shortage go away, UND turned overseas, starting with China Airlines, and has been doing so ever since.

Later, Palmer would help expand UND's helicopter training program from a handful of students and two helicopters to dozens of students and, by this summer, 13 helicopters.

Asked what allowed the university to win over so many customers, Palmer said UND's reputation for quality has preceded it and the university encourages would-be customers to call current customers for reality checks. "Success breeds success. Once you get one, you get another."

Connections

An overview of Palmer's career shows that he's a man connecting many worlds.

Obviously, he connects the aviation world of the National Guard with the aviation world of UND. But he also bridges the gap between the world of the maintenance crew with the world of the pilot. He got his start in the Guard in maintenance but is also a civilian flight instructor.

Unlike many of the men he commands, he doesn't have military flight wings, he said, but that's OK because many of those men are UND graduates.

Now that the Guard's 119th Wing has switched from F-16 fighters to Predator unmanned aircraft, Palmer's connecting yet more worlds, the world of military drones with the world of the civilians that train their crews and build them.

Being able to do all that has had its advantages.

He speaks military and has helped persuade West Point to send its cadets to learn helicopter flying at UND. The Army is assured they'll experience the same regimen they would at the military academy.

And, he's sent his staff to leadership training with the National Guard to help them learn to work together better. Palmer said he saw first hand how Guard training allowed the army to work closely with air guardsmen despite the well-known unease between those who wear green dress uniforms and those who wear blue.

"That's the connectivity," he said, pointing to his camouflaged collar.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com.