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After Washington brothers go missing, flying octogenarians undeterred

There are 1,500 members of the United Flying Octogenarians around the world. 87 of them are in Washington state. (Photo courtesy

Deep snow has made the search very difficult, after two brothers in their 80’s went missing last week somewhere near Yellowstone National Park.

Ward Zimmerman, 86, is a retired Boeing engineer from Seattle. His son told The Seattle Times that Ward had been flying all around the country with his 84-year-old brother, Jim, for the last few weeks.

Last Tuesday, the pair took off from Cody, Wyoming. It was a snowy day with poor visibility.

Search and rescue teams spotted their small single-engine aircraft crashed on a ravine near the Yellowstone National Park Monday. The condition of the brothers was not known as of Monday afternoon, when rescue teams were unable to reach the brothers due to an unstable snow pack.

Bill Webber, 90, is with the Washington state chapter of the “Unified Flying Octogenarians,” or UFOs. He said he doesn’t think the Zimmermans would have flown that day had they known just how bad the weather would be.

“The pilots that are Octogenarians, we are very uptight as far as gambling or doing crazy things. We’ve been there and done that. Now, we want to last,” said Webber.

There are about 1,500 members of the UFO all over the world. Eighty-seven of them here in Washington. They have regular meetings where they talk about everything from their flight plans to their health histories.

Those pilots who are still flying at 80 or better have regular physical exams and in-flight tests.

“Every two years you have to be with an instructor. You go up and make sure he knows you can fly the airplane,” Webber said. “But more than anything you have to know the rules of flying.”

Planes also have to be checked out regularly. Every year they go through an inspection.

“They practically take in apart and put it back together every year,” said Webber. “We do this with lots of confidence that as soon as an annual is done, we know we’re safe.”

The plane the Zimmerman brothers were flying was more than 50 years old. It was a 1963 Mooney M20C. Webber said he had a chance to fly a Mooney, and they’re not for beginners.

“They are a very fast small airplane. You can’t get an awful lot of stuff in them, but, boy, they move good. And they’re well engineered,” he said.

Webber has more than 4,000 hours of flying under his belt, including many hours with Angel Flight, a non-profit group that flies patients to and from hospitals for treatment.

Just like your grandparents who had to walk five miles up hill both ways in knee-deep snow to get to school, Webber has a lot of stories to share. Like the one about the 5-year-old Montana boy he flew to Spokane for cancer treatment.

“He picked out a little plastic lizard […] and on the way home he gave me his lizard,” said Webber. “That little plastic lizard is right in my airplane now.”

Webber’s doctor has told him he can’t fly on his own anymore. But his son is also a pilot and they already have flight plans together.

The UFO’s have a meeting at Paine Field on Wednesday, May 14. Webber said they always welcome new members to join them.

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