Schenectady native and Air Force veteran to speak on job at GE Flight Test Center

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SCHENECTADY – Ken Haefner was a bit too young to take an active part in the Korean War in the early 1950s, and old enough to opt out of the Vietnam Conflict a decade or so later.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Schenectady native and former U.S. Air Force veteran didn’t have his share of tense moments while piloting his T-33 or F-86D along the Straits of Taiwan from 1957-1959.

“I was flying over Formosa and Okinawa when Mao Tse Tung was shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu,” remembered Haefner. “We were there as a preventative measure so it actually wasn’t combat. But it was during the height of the Cold War, and you never knew what Mao might do.”

A Union College graduate whose family spent some time in New London, Connecticut while he was in high school, Haefner studied electrical engineering and worked at General Electric in that field for a short time before joining the Air Force. After his gig in the service was over in three years, he returned to Schenectady and continued a long career at GE, finally retiring in 1997. He spent much of that time at the GE Flight Test Center at the Schenectady County Airport, and that’s where he’ll be Saturday morning from 8:30-10:30 to talk about his flying experience at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum for the group’s monthly Fly-In Breakfast.

While he will spend much of his presentation on his job at the GE Flight Test Center in the 1960s, Haefner will tell some stories about flying in the South Pacific, including one nearly tragic trip near Okinawa.

“I was flying an F-86D and I was doing an approach, about a half mile out, and the engine just quit on me,” remembered Haefner. “I had just enough air speed to make it to the end of the runway. That’s about as close as I ever came. A few times stuff like that happened. I figured it just meant my life wasn’t meant to be terminated at that point.”

Before he began flying on the other side of the world, Haefner got in a plane for the first time at the Schenectady County Airport.

“I checked out a few other colleges, and I also looked into joining the Coast Guard but everybody was doing that, so I ended up going to Union,” said Haefner. “My father was a professor there, so I went to Union and joined the ROTC. My first flying experience was in the back of a T-33 at ROTC summer camp. After that I got rides in a T-34, T-39, a few others. The T-33 was a jet so that was pretty exciting.”

After joining the Air Force and spending three years in the South Pacific, Haefner said he was ready to rejoin the real world and get a more 9-5 job.

“I did work at GE for a few months before I joined the Air Force, so when I got out I was able to get a job back there,” said Haefner. “I had been too young for Korea because things were kind of winding down when I got there. I could have stayed in the Air Force but by the early 1960s they were also starting things up in Vietnam. I saw that the future was going to be flying bombers in Vietnam and that really didn’t appeal to me at all. My GE job was more than adequate for me. It was a real challenge, and that was what I was trained to do. My degree was in electrical engineering. My whole educational experience was devoted to electrical engineering so going back to GE and working at the Flight Test Center was the thing to do.”

Haefner had an office in Building 28 in downtown Schenectady, but he spent most of his time out at the Flight Test Center on Route 50 in Glenville, where ESAM is now.

“When I got back from the Air Force, the Flight Test Center was the part of the company that was really growing,” said Haefner. “There were all kinds of airplances there, a lot of helicopter test work was going on, all that sort of stuff, and the thing I really got involved with was evaluating the auto pilot on the F-106.”

The F-106 Delta Dart was the primary all-weather fighter interceptor for the U.S. Air Force between 1960 and 1980 before being retired and replaced by the QF-106.

“It’s main purpose was to fly at high altitudes, up to 40,000 feet, and what we did was to design and build the auto-pilot controls,” said Haefner. “We wanted to make sure the pilot could maintain stable control of the jet throughout the whole flight process. I don’t remember the work we were doing being that secretive, but I suppose at that time it probably was.”

While Haefner looks back fondly on his GE days, he does worry about the company’s future. He is not a big fan of Jack Welch, the man who served as GE’s chairman and CEO from 1981 to 2001.

“When I joined GE there were 45,000 people working for the place all around the country,” remembered Haefner. “I think he put it in the grave. We were making aircraft engines, washing machines, plenty of other things, and now it’s all gone downhill. The place is a skeleton of its former self.”

A member of the 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron while in the service, when Haefner steps in the cockpit these days it’s as a member of the Condair Flyers, a local flying club based at the Albany International Airport, or as a flight instructor.

“I enjoy serving as a flight instructor, and I also sail a 40-foot Catalina sailboat out of Mystic, Connecticut,” said Haefner. “So I’m still pretty active. But I still love flying and I do it mostly now as a hobby. I think I’ll continue to do it as long as I think I’m capable and I can pass the FAA medical test.”

The ESAM museum is now open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It was created in 1984 by a number of flying enthusiasts and now includes over 20 airplanes, a simulated reality vehicle, various exhibits and interactive displays, and a research library. General admission to the museum is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and military members, $5 for ages 6-16 and free for anyone under 6.

‘ESAM Fly-In Breakfast’

WHAT: A presentation by former Air Force pilot and GE engineer Ken Haefner
WHERE: Empire State Aerosciences Museum, 250 Rudy Chase Drive, Glenville
WHEN: Saturday, 8:30-10:30 a.m.
HOW MUCH: $10 for ages 15 and up, $8 for ages 5-14; admission for presentation only is $5
MORE INFO: Visit or call (518) 377-2191

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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