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Byron Dorgan, US Senator

Foreword: His Ideas Were Always Big

Written by Byron Dorgan, United States Senator

John Odegard and I first became friends in 1962 when we both worked summer jobs for the Boeing Company in Minot, North Dakota. If ever there was a round peg in a square hole it was John in his position that summer in the automated data processing department. Oh, he was good at his job. He just would rather have been flying! Imagine a rainbow forced to wear black and white.

John was born to fly airplanes, but to do that he needed money. Three years out of high school, he had already found two stints in college not to his liking. So he worked whatever jobs he found to pay for flying time and aviation fuel. Still, he was not your standard college drop-out. He was a charismatic young man full of ideas. A person with boundless energy, he always seemed breathless about things, constantly pushing ideas forward and building momentum for what he wanted to do. And he always wanted to do much more than what he was doing.

Almost from day one of our friendship I felt that beneath all the ideas and energy lay real substance. I sensed that John Odegard was actually going to do those things he talked and dreamed of doing. I like to think I provided some insurance for that happening because it just so happened that Diane, his future wife, also worked at Boeing that summer. I introduced her to him and the rest—largely because of Diane’s immovable faith in John—is the wonderful history laid out in these pages.

John Odegard visiting with astronaut 'Buzz' Aldrin John and I kicked around together in those days and often went flying in an old single-engine Mooney. Inspired by his example, I learned to fly years later. But there was no comparing us as pilots. John Odegard wore an airplane the way you wear a suit. A man of disarming self-confidence on the ground, he took to the air so naturally and with such pure delight that I’m certain the air itself came to think of him as family.

Once, in the early eighties while we were flying into Grand Forks, one of our wheels wouldn’t lock in the landing position. We flew around for awhile and had the tower check us as we went by. The tower said both wheels were down but in the cockpit a signal told us only one had locked. We really didn’t know for sure. So John came in and landed on one wheel. After he had babied it to a stop, we stopped we saw that the locking pin indeed hadn’t engaged in the suspect landing gear. It could have collapsed had we come in on both wheels. Through it all, John remained perfectly cool.

Flying takes a lot of patience and a lot of attention. John was always going a hundred miles an hour, his mind always moving. A dreamer, yes, but a realist as well. High in the air, he never lost sight of the ground.

We kept in touch over the years and when I got to a position in the United States Congress—first as a Representative and later as a Senator—where I could help John’s aerospace programs at the University of North Dakota, I did that.

It never surprised me that John hatched the grandiose idea of creating an aviation school on the prairie; that he combined computer sciences—in which he became quite proficient—with aviation and then created the Center for Aerospace Sciences. I’m not sure John had a master plan for the many facets of the marvelous aerospace campus that graces the land and skies of Grand Forks today. I just knew that with John you kept peeling away the layers to find what the central idea was.

The central idea, of course, was to build. With his boundless energy John was a man very much in step with the wisdom of philosopher Carl Jung who said keep stacking rocks until a wall develops.

Lots of people come into my Senate office with various ideas and approaches. But no one ever quite came in with the flourish John had. His ideas were always big. He sat in my office in Washington one day and said “We’ve got to change the way people move in this country by air. We put all these people in the middle of a big city and 70 per cent of them are going elsewhere. Why not airports out in the middle of areas where there’s no congestion?” He called them wayports, a whole new model of air transportation.

It was typical John, hatching a plan so very far above what you’d expect. Part of his technique was the “waterfalling” of ideas. Some were near and doable, others a little further upstream, building speed. If you were around him you got the impression that everything made a lot of sense and that his school was going to be successful and big. It was very easy to believe in John; he never gave you a reason to believe he wouldn’t be successful.

That is why I bought in very early to the notion that he was building something extraordinary. I was able to persuade the administrators of the Federal Aviation Administration to come out to Grand Forks and see for themselves. Out of that came the FAA’s designating The Center for Aerospace Sciences a Center of Excellence.

I did the same with Dan Golden, then the head of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. He was blown away by what he saw of the campus and at the end of his visit he said we need to do something out here. That’s how the Odegard School and the University of North Dakota got involved with NASA’s “Mission to Planet Earth,” in which the massive body of data collected during space missions and from satellites is put to use to help people here on earth.

Training Fleet at the University of North Dakota Since then I’ve worked to add more than $10 million in annual funding to the program. In the meantime NASA has loaned UND a DC-8 jet for various missions geared to collecting and analyzing space data that will aid programs here on earth.

The federal investment in The Odegard School is paying big dividends for the nation in other areas as well. I’ve been putting money into appropriations bills for years to support the Air Battle Captain program John started. It trains not only UND’s R.O.T.C. cadets as helicopter pilots, but also a contingent each summer of 40 or more cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

These freshly minted pilots go on to the Army’s main helicopter program at Fort Rucker, Alabama and immediately qualify for the advanced course. That they have repeatedly finished in the top levels of their classes is just another way of demonstrating that in North Dakota we have one of the most respected flying schools in the world. The Odegard School has even been called the Harvard of the skies.

The kinds of technological innovation John envisioned and worked toward helped convince me in 2002 to initiate a research corridor program along the Red River Valley. I wanted to find a way to develop a high-tech economy in North Dakota so our kids could find jobs close to home. A recent report, prepared by North Dakota State University researcher Dr. Larry Leistritz suggests the program is doing just that. He writes that The Research Corridor Initiative has generated $759 million in positive economic impact and added thousands of jobs to the regional economy while growing those cutting-edge high tech industries in our state.

The Odegard School is one example of how such industries have grown in North Dakota. Our Red River Valley Research Corridor Initiative has fostered the start of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering at NDSU, the Neurosciences Research Center at UND’s School of Medicine, the National Center for Hydrogen Energy Technology at UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, the National Energy Technology Training Center at Bismarck State College and the Center for Nanoscience Technology Training at NDSCS.

More recently we were able to draw directly on the expertise John helped establish at The Odegard School. We hosted a Red River Valley Research Corridor Action Summit in Grand Forks that brought together a variety of experts and policymakers to debate the future of Unmanned Aviation Systems.

The Odegard School, and its dean, Bruce Smith, has taken the lead in helping support a new mission for the Grand Forks Air Force base—built around the use and development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). Indeed, North Dakota is increasingly becoming a hub of UAV activity through the efforts of the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the 119th Fighter Squadron of the North Dakota Air National Guard—known by their nickname “The Happy Hooligans”—and the Center for Defense UAV Education at The Odegard School.

Clifford Hall, part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences complex at the University of North Dakota During most of his lifetime, John seldom received enough credit for his unique accomplishments. Where he saw great opportunity in the aviation industry and aerospace education, others resisted the change. But today he is properly viewed and hailed as a pioneer in these exciting, cutting-edge fields

While John never tired of promoting his ideas with a dynamic relentlessness you don’t see very often, labeling him a promoter—which so often seems to mean self-promoter—doesn’t do him justice. You would never see John call a press conference where you thought that he was promoting himself. The recognition he generated during his brief lifetime always connected to what he was building: aviation, computer science, the Center for Aerospace Sciences (renamed just before he died in 1998 The Odegard School for Aerospace Sciences), his relationship with Northwest Airlines, cloud seeding in Morocco, the training of China Airlines pilots and Russian air traffic controllers.

John’s persona became what his work was. That’s as it should be, rather than a function of someone trying to become something for themselves. He really was the genuine article. I talked to him many times about politics and told him he’d be a natural to be part of North Dakota’s leadership. He was accomplished, he was personally charming, he was smart. But John was always too busy to talk about those things.

Instead he continued reaching out to students, members of the local communities and national leaders. He was very persuasive and once he reached a critical mass of support, his school began moving on its own momentum.

The Odegard School is known today as one of the preeminent aviation schools in the world. When you’re from a state which has the word north in its name and makes national news because it’s 35 below zero, being known internationally for something that really matters, well, it makes one proud. For we North Dakotans see The Odegard School as something John built in our state.

We forget sometimes it was also his home state.

With his talent and energy he could have gone anywhere and commanded almost any job or salary. He chose instead to stay in North Dakota. For that and what he proved can be accomplished here, we owe him and his memory an unpayable debt.

Byron Dorgan
United States Senator
Grand Forks, North Dakota
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