Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America


John Zugschwert, US Army Aviator and Former VFS Executive Director
John Fred Zugschwert (aka “Col. Z” or “Mr. Z”), served as the fourth director of the Society — from October 1, 1981, to September 30, 1991. 

Zugschwert was born on March 27, 1933, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father passed away when Zugschwert was eight years old. To help the family, Zugschwert started delivering morning and evening newspapers, and setting bowling pins at the church bowling alley until he was 18. After graduating from Cretin High School, Zugschwert took an office clerk position at the Ford Motor Company.

Zugschwert was drafted into the Army in May 1953. In December 1954 (when his two-year mandatory term was coming to an end) was chosen to attend Officers Candidate School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he graduated as a second lieutenant. During his tenure, he took correspondence and night classes to earn a degree, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in business management, with a minor in sociology, from St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas. He also went to night school at an extension campus of the University of Southern California at the Pentagon, earning a master’s degree in Systems Management.

Over the course of his military career, Zugschwert accumulated over 3,000 fixed- and rotary-wing flight hours, had over 60 parachute jumps, qualified in numerous weapons delivery systems and was an instructor pilot and Master Aviator. Zugschwert was one of the first 50 pilots qualified to fly the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter. His military awards include the Legion of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses (earned during his tour of duty in Vietnam), two Bronze Star Medals, 13 Air Medals and numerous other awards and citations. He flew with the 269th Combat Aviation Battalion based in Cu Chi and operating in “War Zone D,” northeast of Saigon. Zugschwert moved over two-dozen times including tours of duty in Japan, Korea, Italy and Vietnam; he had three tours in the Pentagon addressing aircraft development and procurement. He retired in 1981 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Aviation.

Following his retirement, Zugschwert served as the AHS Executive Director, representing the Society and the vertical flight industry before Congress, the White House, national and international audiences, and was recognized for his efforts by then-President Ronald Reagan. He led the establishment of AHS chapters in Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore and several European countries. In 1991, he was the first recipient of the (now) Leonardo International Fellowship Award, given “for significant contributions to international vertical flight cooperation.”

The historic Old Town Alexandria headquarters building was purchased under Zugschwert’s tenure in October 1982, and the adjacent building was purchased five years later in October 1987. “John Z” served the Society for 10 years, building membership, expanding Vertiflite, and broadening the Society’s programs, leaving for an executive position in the Washington, DC, offices of Bell Helicopter Textron.

His final employment was as a principal corporate officer for Textron in Washington, DC, as Vice President of Government Marketing. There, he worked (among other things) to get the V-22 Osprey aircraft into production.

In June 1996, he purchased Heron’s Court Farm in Middleburg, Virginia. He retired and went from a highly technical career to raising cattle and horses. He was an active member in the community, serving on many boards and attending races, fundraisers and many social gatherings. His favorite pastime was mowing on his zero-turn riding mower and taking Sadie for walks.

Former Executive Director Mike Hirschberg fondly remembers visiting him at his farm, where he was regaled with souvenirs from Zugschwert’s accomplishments and world travels on behalf of advancing vertical flight.

John Fred Zugschwert passed away at his home on January. 23, 2024 after a fall. Zugschwert was 90 years old and enjoyed a long and successful life and career.

VFS Updates: Vertiflite, July/August 2024