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Organic Herb Farmer, Pilot Tom Kuehn Dead at 69

Organic Herb Farmer, Pilot Tom Kuehn Dead at 69

A memorial will be held for family, friends and former flight school students at 6:30 p.m. on April 9 at the Albuquerque Press Club. Tom died peacefully at age 69 on March 19 at his South Valley home. He is survived by his wife, Corey, and their 10-year-old son, Robert, the most curious and energetic of children.

BY DAN VUKELICH

Thomas William Kuehn was a man who knew no limits but the sky.

In his 35 years as a certified flight instructor in Albuquerque, Tom became known for his professionalism, his insistence on safety first and his habit of going to war with the powers that be over needless red tape – be it the FAA, the City of Albuquerque, or the phone company.

Tom died peacefully at age 69 on March 19 at his South Valley home. He is survived by his wife, Corey, and their 10-year-old son, Robert, the most curious and energetic of children.

Tom began his career in flight instruction as a freelance teacher with no plane and no office. He and his students would hop the fence at the Albuquerque International Airport to gain access to rental planes owned by his past students.

Tom began his career in flight instruction as a freelance teacher with no plane and no office. He and his students would hop the fence at the Albuquerque International Airport to gain access to rental planes owned by his past students.

Tom’s early students practiced at Double Eagle II Airport on the West Side long before there were buildings there. On the day Tom deemed a student ready to solo, he would get out of the plane, propeller turning, sit on the infield grass by the runway, smoking a cigar, and watch as his fledgling pilots bounced their way to their first landing.

Tom taught a basic ground school and instrument ground school for the University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education program for several years. He also taught the basics of aviation at Albuquerque High School.

He eventually became founder and chief flight instructor at West Mesa Aviation, a flight school at Double Eagle that grew to become a full-service fixed-base operator that fueled, rented and serviced aircraft. At its peak, Tom oversaw a half dozen instructors and mechanics and a fleet of 15 single-engine and multiengine aircraft.

In his career, Tom instructed hundreds of private pilots, many of whom went on to become pilots for major airlines. In the 1990s, a national flying magazine sought out the U.S. flight instructor with the most hours in a Cessna 172, a basic training aircraft. The magazine’s editors found Tom and awarded him the prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to the Farnborough Air Show near London. He later scored a flight on a British Airways Concorde to London.

In the 1990s, a national flying magazine sought out the U.S. flight instructor with the most hours in a Cessna 172, a basic training aircraft. The magazine’s editors found Tom and awarded him the prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to the Farnborough Air Show near London. He later scored a flight on a British Airways Concorde to London.

ThomasWKuehnObit-18For many years, Tom performed charity work by flying ophthalmologists deep into the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, to perform cataract surgeries on the Tarahumara indigenous people.

Tom was known for his acerbic and often self-deprecating wit. While gruff on first appearance, people who came to know him found him a caring, unselfish man with an unending curiosity and a desire to learn. He was generous with his time and talents, most recently as a volunteer on the governing council at the International School at Mesa del Sol.

Tom was a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. He served most of his enlistment on the icebreaker Sebago, which was frequently stationed in the North Atlantic. He used his GI Bill benefits to learn to fly.

Early in his adult life, he worked as an Outward Bound instructor in Maine, as a carpenter, as a club hockey player, and as a New Mexico motorcycle safety instructor. He served as a mountain-climbing expedition logistician in the Andes. On one expedition, after a New Zealand climber fell thousands of feet to his death, Tom camped weeks near the ravine where the body lay, as required by Chilean law, waiting for relatives to arrive from New Zealand to identify and claim the body.

Tom met his wife, Corey, who worked at a convenience store near his farm. He would stop by frequently to invite her out for coffee. His weeks of persistence paid off, and they eventually married.  

Tom was a lifelong fan of whatever hockey team represented his home state of Minnesota. He enjoyed poker, golf, a good cigar, good whiskey and working the land on his South Valley farm. He loved fishing, especially with his son.

For the last decade, Tom owned and operated Bethany Farms, a certified organic farm in the South Valley that grew herbs, lettuce, and chile and tomato plants for the Montañita Co-Op stores. After he died, friends made sure his last crop made it to market.

Tom was preceded in death by his mother, Dorothy, and father, Robert, of Minneapolis, and by his brother, Bob, of Boston. Services will be private. A memorial will be held for family, friends and former flight school students at 6:30 p.m. on April 9 at the Albuquerque Press Club.

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Dan Vukelich is a writer and former editor of ABQ Free Press.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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