Kenneth Widhalm: Pilot & Prospector
By Bob Tagert
Pilot & Prospector
During the NFL playoff games this past month, I was at one of my favorite watering holes, Stoney’s Kingfisher on Solomons Island, Maryland. Watching the action was a gentleman in a Denver Bronco jacket. My business partner here at the Crier is an avid Broncos fan so I struck up a conversation. That conversation has led to this article.
Kenneth Widhalm is a striking man who moves like a 70-year old man whose body has seen some rough days in his youth as well as later in his life. Reserved, yet willing to talk, I learned of his journey through life starting in his native Colorado and ending up in Solomons, Maryland.
Widhalm was born in Monte Vista, Colorado and grew up in the high altitude of the San Luis Valley at the headwaters of the Rio Grande in south central Colorado and the Taos Plateau of northern New Mexico. He later attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where he earned a degree in math. From here he attended the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California. In his senior year he received his draft notice.
With the draft looming over him, Widhalm enlisted with the U.S. Navy and began his flight training in Pensacola, Florida. From there he went to Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas, where he earned his wings in 1971. His first deployment was to Hawaii, with future deployments taking him to Iwakuni, Japan, Cubi Point, Philippines and Naha, Okinawa. Future detachments took him all through Vietnam from 1971 to 1974 then to Diego Garcia an atoll just south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean. From there he was sent to Bandar Abbas, Iran and then to his favorite, Utapao, Thailand. “I would go back there in a second,” he tells me, “a beautiful place.”
During his deployments, Widhalm flew with the Fifth Wing in the Lockheed P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft. The aircraft is easily distinguished by its distinctive tail stinger or “MAD boom” used for the magnetic detection of submarines.
From 1974 to 76 Widhalm returned state side to become an instructor in Replacement Air Group at Moffett Field in San Jose, California. This is a unit of the United States Navy and Marine Corps that trains Naval Aviators and Naval Flight Officers on the specific frontline aircraft they have been assigned to fly.
From 1976 to 78 Widhalm was the operation officer at the Naval facility in Guam. Here he was with SOSUS, and acronym for sound surveillance system, a chain of underwater listening posts located around the world. Basically they were looking for submarines using passive radar. In 1978 Widhalm returned to Naval Post Graduate School where he earned his masters in engineering, then back to Jacksonville, Florida for advanced flight training.
Widhalm was then stationed in Brunswick, Maine during the Cold War, where he was attached to VP26 an organization whose job it was to track Russian submarines.
In 1982 he was deployed to Keflavik, Iceland to search for and track Soviet subs. “It snows three to four feet here a winter and the temperature is usually between zero and ten degrees,” he tells me. “Sometime cars were parked on four feet of snow and we had this guy who would come out with his Caterpillar bulldozer and move the snow from around the car and then cut an incline where they could just drive the car down to the newly plowed road. He was good!”
In 1983 Widhalm was stationed in Italy where he continued his cold war observations and monitoring until he was sent back to the States in 1984. There he worked with Program Management Air and was in charge of production of their sonobuoy program. This is a relatively small buoy expendable sonar system that is dropped or ejected from aircraft or ships conducting anti-submarine warfare or underwater acoustic research. “It was nice,” he says,” my budget was $300,000,000 a year.”
After retiring in 1989 at the rank of Commander, Widhalm did some consulting work in the Aeronautical field for a few years. “After awhile I got bored, so I decided to go gold mining,” he laments. “This was one area that, in order to make a small fortune, you must start with a large one,” he says. “Three of us ponied up our money and bought the “Two Brothers Mine” in Idaho Springs, Idaho.” The miners spent 1.5 million dollars on a vibrating jig for sifting the gold from the rocks. Sifting through 100 tons of rock a day was not producing enough gold to meet their obligations. One partner left and with just two remaining they could not bring up enough rock to survive. “I paid my share of the debt and walked away.”
After the mining adventure, a long time friend, Larry Coar, was a program manager with the Navy in Key West, Florida, and asked Widhalm to help him. He signed on as a contract employee and began to settle into the life that Widhalm refers to as…the real Key West back in 1993. In 1998 he came north and took a position at Patuxent Naval Station working on acquiring replacement parts for the P-3 aircraft but eventually there were not enough parts to be found so the P-3 was decommissioned. The P-3 had been replaced with the newer P-8 Poseidon. Widhalm continued to work at Pax River until June of last year.
Today he is enjoys his home on Solomons Island and watching his Broncos play football. His family has had season tickets since 1964. Solomons is a long way from Utapao, Thiland…but it is still a pretty cool place!