Obituary of Jerry Foster
Jerry Foster “headed west,” as pilots say, on March 31, 2023. He was 82…and had adventures to fill several lifetimes.
Jerrold Pace Foster was born in Los Angeles, California on July 18, 1940. His mom, Norma, was a teenager. She and her only child sort of grew up together, moving around the West as her husband Bryan Pace Foster worked different jobs in mining and logging operations. Jerry joined the Marine Corps when he was 17. Two years later he was out and back home with his mother in Phoenix.
School never interested him as a kid, nor did several other lines of work he tried as an adult. Aviation, however, flipped an internal switch in him, just coming naturally. This became his world, the one place where Jerry Foster was truly home. By the time he was 25 Jerry was a commercial pilot and instructor. Once he learned how to fly helicopters, nothing would ever be the same.
Jerry was a civilian instructor for the Army at Fort Wolters in Texas, and worked for petroleum companies flying to oil well platforms out in the Gulf of Mexico. His compass finally brought him back to the Valley.
In 1969, while flying for Arizona Helicopters he was chief pilot for the AMES Project (Air Medical Evacuation Service). Working in shifts, there was always a helicopter, pilot and medic available 24/7 for emergency transfers from remote areas to trauma centers in Phoenix or Tucson. Arizona Helicopters provided aircraft and pilots and the state Highway Patrol (now DPS) provided patrol officers with specialized training as medics.
AMES launched new life-saving services around the country as well as DPS Air Rescue in Arizona. Jerry also had his first aerial pursuit of a driver that officers couldn’t stop… until Jerry dropped the helicopter in front of the speeding car. It stopped.
Still with Arizona Helicopters, Jerry was involved in a search for a missing family after their car broke down in the desert. It was August 1970. A woman and three children died from heat and exposure as they tried walking out. Jerry and a TV news reporter flying with him that day found the bodies. A documentary about the tragedy and how to stay alive in the desert aired days later on Channel 12. Jerry saw what helicopters and TV could do together, how that combination could make a difference.
Six months later, Jerry joined KOOL radio and TV (now KSAZ) giving traffic reports from a gyroplane, a sort of hybrid plane/helicopter. It wasn’t exactly reliable, and after some close calls the station bought a real helicopter, a Hughes 300. Jerry developed the skill of holding the cyclic with his knees as his hands held a video camera, shooting aerials from the Channel 10 chopper. He became a reporter, photographer and pilot catching spot news as well as catching the beauty of Arizona from the air. Jerry Foster was being noticed.
It was the lure of doing even more from a jet-powered Hughes 500 D and a few other perks that brought Jerry a few blocks northeast of Channel 10 to Channel 12. News Director Al Buch and Chief Engineer Leon Anglin had a plan to be the first with live coverage from the helicopter via microwave, and knew Jerry would be the one to pull it off. And in 1978, he did just that, and even more.
This was the dawn of Sky-12 which dominated the skies and airwaves over the Valley, as well as dominating the ratings. Jerry’s self-imposed rules of never being more than 20 minutes away from the helicopter and “Go big or go home” set up his lifestyle. He was available 24/7 to the newsroom, as well as to law enforcement agencies. It’s unknown just how many people Jerry rescued from hiking trails, floods and rivers. In one of those rescues DPS paramedic Clarence Forbey hung on the skid of Sky-12 and managed to pluck a young woman, nearly dead, out of a river. She made it. Not everyone did. Jerry Foster couldn’t save them all, but oh how he tried.
The bad moments were balanced out by the many young lives he touched in a positive way with school visits. Those started back in the Channel 10 days, where he’d bring the helicopter to the schools During his 10 years at Channel 12, Jerry averaged about 100 visits a year to schools all over the state, from the largest down to the one-room school in Hackberry. His message to the kids was always to stay in school, listen to their teachers and reach for those dreams.
In November and December, school visits were usually “Santa Drops” as his Sky-12 crew affectionately called them. Schools would arrange for Jerry to fly in Santa to a playground or school parking lot, much to the delight of the kids. The record was 13 schools in one day.
There were other special passengers he’d fly around the state, especially Senator Barry Goldwater. The Senator, a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve, was taught by Jerry how to fly a helicopter. A very close friendship developed between them, and Goldwater was instrumental in Jerry being awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan. The Harmon is the highest honor for excellence in civil aviation.
He had a full time crew, a photographer and a producer as they did daily stories, spot news, documentaries, and sometimes even the weather. They often worked seven days a week, and 60 hour weeks were the norm.
The high stress eventually caught up with him, and he felt that it was time to walk away. Jerry left Channel 12 in 1988. While he did some corporate aviation work and came back to television for three years at Channel 3 in the 1990s, it wasn’t same. Jerry Foster turned to anonymity.
It was the encouragement of his daughters, years later which led him to set up a profile on Facebook. At first he thought he wouldn’t have any followers. Gradually, more and more people, adults who remembered him from their childhood and his school visits were connecting with him on Facebook. He felt the love, and indeed that carried him as macular degeneration gradually robbed him of his sight.
Then came the stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in December 2022. Always in charge, Jerry Foster decided to forego chemo and surgery. He told family and close friends he only had months, and eventually went public with it. He was doing it his way. He was at peace, and loved all the calls, visits, and Facebook postings he was getting. Two last helicopter flights, one arranged by Hospice of the Valley, the other by long-time pilot friends Scott Urschel and Bruce Haffner took him back up to his special place in the sky.
Jerry Foster leaves behind his daughters, Kari Evans (Glenn); Andryea Foster (Chris Jeffries); Barry Meyn; his wife Linda Lee Smith; former wife Dianna Conklin; seven grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.
His family wants to thank Hospice of the Valley for the amazing work they do, and helping Jerry and his loved ones through the past four months.
A private burial is planned and Celebration of Life will be held at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 6 at Frontier Town, 6245 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Jerry Foster, please visit Tribute Store