TopVet: Bruce Whitman, FlightSafety International

Bruce Whitman

Editor's Note: We were saddened to hear the news on October 11, 2018 of the passing of Bruce Whitman, president and CEO of Flight Safety International, and Chairman Emeritus of the Medal of Honor Foundation. He was an Air Force veteran, and dear friend, and he is already sorely missed. We honored Bruce with our TopVet award in 2011. Learn more below about his inspiring story, which included his tireless efforts to “perpetuate the legacy of the Medal of Honor recipients.” 

As President & CEO of FlightSafety International, Air Force pilot and Veteran Bruce Whitman helps to ensure the safety of our skies each day.  Outside the office, he honors the spirit of service through his tireless work as Co-Chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

Whitman has been President & CEO of FlightSafety for nine of the fifty years he has spent with the company. The success and longevity he has experienced at FlightSafety demonstrate the loyalty and excellence that has made the company the global leader in its field, and for these attributes Whitman specifically thanks his military service. “You get more opportunities to demonstrate leadership in the military at a young age than you can possibly get anywhere else,” Whitman tells Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview. He identifies “leadership, character, discipline and perseverance” as the chief qualities military service taught him.

Today, FlightSafety International is the world’s leading aviation training company with over a billion dollars in annual revenues, a steep climb from the $600,000 when Whitman first came aboard. “At least you are getting in on the ground floor,” remarked Whitman's father when his son accepted the job offer in the summer of 1961. Nowadays, the company provides more than a million hours of training each year to over 75,000 pilots, technicians and other aviation professionals from 154 countries and independent territories. FlightSafety operates the world’s largest fleet of advanced full flight simulators at Learning Centers and training locations in Asia, Europe, North and South America, the Pacific Rim and South Africa.

Whitman also notes that trust, under the management of FlightSafety founder Al Ueltschi and now the legendary investor Warren Buffett, is a key quality in his success at the company. Whitman says that Buffett's management style “is to trust you and leave you alone to run the business the way you believe it ought to be run. He is the antithesis of a micromanager.” Whitman notes that he still has direct dialogue with Buffett whenever he needs it, and vice versa. “Because of Warren's high level of trust, I am very conscientious about taking care of Berkshire Hathaway’s money and reputation,” Whitman says.

Military leadership inspired Whitman from an early age. He grew up in Stamford, Connecticut. His father, who was the greatest influence in his life, served stateside during World War I and was fiercely patriotic. One of his uncles saw combat in World War II. When his father could not serve in the military during WWII because of age and his vision, he asked for and accepted a government job in Washington, DC. There, Whitman's fascination with the recognition of uniform grew, and he began his lifelong hobby of collecting insignias and military memorabilia. A proud Boy Scout, Whitman sought out service even as a young boy.

In 1951, Whitman graduated from Kent School, a distinguished boarding school in Kent, Connecticut. Whitman reflects on his years at Kent as formative ones. Today, he serves on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater.

After Kent, Whitman attended Trinity College, where he spent two summers as a seaman with the United States Merchant Marine. At eighteen years old, it was a bold move. Whitman had to overcome the initial distrust of colleagues—each more than twenty years his senior—who believed he was too young. However, a sense of camaraderie eventually brought him the rapport with his professional peers, and Whitman subsequently made comradeship his signature management style.

In 1955, Whitman graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Trinity and through the Air Force ROTC, was commissioned a Lieutenant. He earned ratings as a pilot, navigator and bombardier, and later served in the Strategic Air Command. In 1957, he was appointed Assistant to the Commander, Homestead Air Force Base. After active duty, Whitman attended George Washington University Law School for two years, leaving to join FlightSafety. During that time, he worked for the National Business Aviation Association, flew as a captain for East Coast Flying Service and as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve.

Today, Whitman is married and lives in Greenwich, CT. He is a devoted family man. Three of his sons also live in Greenwich, where they often spend time with their father fishing on Long Island Sound, a favorite activity. The Whitman Cup is awarded annually to the fisherman with the heaviest catch by The Belle Haven Club, where Whitman is a past Commodore.

Whitman has served as Co-Chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation for over a decade. His interview, which was conducted in a room full of Medal of Honor recipients, was an awe-inspiring moment for him, after which he humbly accepted the invitation to join the Foundation's Board.  “Our National Treasures,” Whitman calls these heroic Americans, who are honored through special video commemoratives distributed by the Foundation, and their outreach and community efforts.

In 2009, Whitman was instrumental in passing the national “Salute the Flag” legislation.  “Salute the Flag” allows all Veterans and Active Duty personnel to freely salute the flag, regardless of whether they are in uniform, whenever the National Anthem is played and/or the flag passes by. “There are a lot of Veterans who don't know they can now salute the flag,” Whitman says. He notes that to salute the flag is also to set an example for future generations, “so kids can know how many served in uniform to protect our freedom.”

Whitman's continuing efforts as Co-Chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation have drawn the praise of industry peers. In 2009, Whitman was honored with the “USO Distinguished Service Award” by the USO of Metropolitan New York, an award that recognizes meritorious leadership and exemplary service to the United States Government and Armed Forces.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation recently influenced Congress to instruct the United States Mint to strike gold and silver coins to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Medal of Honor. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of these coins will help the Foundation to “perpetuate the legacy of the Medal of Honor recipients,” says Whitman. There are currently only 84 living. To ensure the traditions are preserved for future generations, the Foundation is focused on teaching children the values and virtues embodied by Medal of Honor recipients. They, and members of the Foundation, go into schools to teach the principles of, as Whitman says, “others before self, ethics, and the importance of always doing what's right.”

Reflecting on these accomplishments, Whitman says with humility, “I think that all of us, who have been modestly successful, and are able to, have an obligation to give back.”

Image Credit: Bruce Whitman

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