ARLINGTON — Ted Setzer almost became a dentist.
Instead, he ended up at Glasair Aviation, the innovative airplane maker in Arlington, where he helped revolutionize the light sport airplane market. He has helped design every one of the company’s planes since 1979. He helped bring the company back after it declared bankruptcy in 1999.
The 63-year-old has been named the first recipient of the Arlington Airport Person of the Year award.
“It’s really humbling to me and an honor,” Setzer said.
He was a University of Washington undergraduate headed for dental school when he met Tom Hamilton, another pre-dental student. One day, Setzer stopped to pick up Hamilton for a game of racquetball.
“He was at his kitchen table and had some drawings of an airplane in front of him,” he said. Hamilton told Setzer he was abandoning dental school to study airplane design.
“I thought he was crazy. I told him he was crazy,” Setzer said.
Setzer’s own plans went off track when he did not get into dental school. Instead, he fished for three seasons in Alaska, earning as much as his father, a senior engineer at the Boeing Co., and former Navy pilot.
After a few years in Alaska, Setzer left fishing behind, determined to get his pilot’s license. He started helping Hamilton, who was working on his second airplane prototype. They worked out of old barns at the long-gone Cedar Grove Airpark south of Seattle, which was commonly known as the Pig Farm.
In 1982, the two men flew their new airplane to the giant general aviation show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
They hoped to pull in a few orders and collect enough money to start producing the kit airplane. It was the only all-fiberglass-composite molded sport airplane.
It was fast, easy to maintain and could be assembled in a year. At the time, kits could take 10 or 15 years to complete, he said. “It was revolutionary.”
Private pilots were impressed and flooded the two with orders. “People were literally writing us deposit checks, stuffing them in our pockets and saying, ‘There’s my deposit, put me on the waiting list,’” he said. “We didn’t have a waiting list. We didn’t even have production facilities.”
That same year, the company moved to the Arlington Airport. Setzer helped Glasair Aviation, which was Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft at the time, take off.
However, by 1992, he realized his work was elbowing out the two most important aspects of his life: God and family.
He left the company, but stayed in contact and continued working on airplane development. In 2000, after the company filed for bankruptcy protection, he came back to help resurrect it.
Most recently, he helped develop the Merlin, Glasair Aviation’s first production airplane, meaning it is ready to fly away upon purchase, no assembly required.
Setzer, who lives in Granite Falls, retired in mid-October, but still works a couple days a week as a consultant at Glasair Aviation.
The airport’s person of the year award recognizes someone who has made a significant contribution to aviation innovation, bringing new business to the Arlington Airport, and enhancing its reputation, among other criteria.
Setzer surpasses “really, almost all of that,” said Dave Ryan, the airport director.
A committee made up of airport employees and aviation community members chose Setzer as the first recipient.
“Aviation is a close-knit community,” he said. “It’s important to recognize those people” who build the community.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; email@example.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.