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Ross Saddlemire of Port Jefferson: Father and husband who forged a career in flight

Ross Saddlemire of Port Jefferson.

Ross Saddlemire of Port Jefferson.

Capt. Ross L. Saddlemire first thought he might pursue a legal career, then switched course to become a pilot with the U.S. Air Force and then American Airlines for three decades.

"He just loved flying," one of his five daughters said.

While at American, Saddlemire was the co-pilot in a crew that flew a hijacker — who commandeered two planes on a trans-Atlantic journey before surrendering — to Ireland, then back to the United States to face prosecution. 

He was a husband, a father actively engaged in his five daughters' lives, had a great sense of humor, loved sports — especially tennis — and maintained a wide circle of friends, said daughter Susan Saddlemire Powell of East Setauket. 

"We had a wonderful life," Powell said. "He put all of us through college and gave us wonderful, amazing travel experiences."

Powell said her father, who lived in Port Jefferson with his wife of 66 years, Evelyn, suffered a "slight stroke" in January and went to the Surge Rehabilitation and Nursing facility in Middle Island, where "he had made great progress."

By mid-April, though, Powell said her father was admitted to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson after falling ill with COVID-19-like symptoms. She said he tested positive, and that he died from complications of the coronavirus on April 26. He was 87.

"If not for the virus, he would've been home with us," Powell said. "There is no doubt in my mind.” She praised the care he received at the rehabilitation facility and the hospital.

Ross L. Saddlemire was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1932. The family later moved to New York, to a farm in upstate Sloansville. "This is a man that grew up with nothing, on a farm, with no money and made himself a success," Powell said.

Saddlemire earned a bachelor's degree from Union College in Schenectady in 1953. He served in the Air Force from 1954 to 1957, rising to lieutenant colonel. He was also a squadron commander of the National Air Guard, from which he was honorably discharged in 1975, his family said.

Saddlemire was a captain for American Airlines from 1959 through 1992. "His last flight was to London, and the five daughters and my mom took the last flight with him on a 48-hour trip. ... That was so memorable," Powell recalled.

He also was manager of operations for American out of LaGuardia and Kennedy airports for 33 years.

Saddlemire also worked for Pan Am International Flight Academy as an instructor and flight safety pilot; and for one season was a pilot for the Orlando Magic basketball team. And he eventually worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as a flight operations safety officer, retiring at age 85, according to his daughter.

On June 20, 1979, a Serbian nationalist and convicted bomber, Nikola Kavaja, hijacked an American Airlines Boeing 727 jet on a flight from New York to Chicago and threatened to blow it up, news accounts said. He forced the airliner to fly him back to New York, where a larger plane was procured for a flight to Shannon, Ireland, where Kavaja wanted to go. It was piloted by a three-man crew that included Saddlemire. Kavaja surrendered in Ireland, and the crew flew him back to the United States.

Powell, who was 15 at the time, said: "I remember my dad leaving for the airport." She recalled feeling relieved after learning her father was all right: "I remember my mom getting the phone call that he was OK. I remember seeing him walking off the airplane in Shannon, Ireland ... 'OK, Daddy’s OK.'"

Ross Saddlemire had previously lived in Nissequogue for 31 years.

At one time he was the mayor of Nissequogue and a volunteer firefighter. He served as deacon at the Smithtown Presbyterian church. 

Besides his wife and Powell, survivors include daughters Marcia Saddlemire of Selden; Terry Ullman of Highland, Maryland; Lori Stegeman of Damascus, Maryland; Sandra Ventre of Port Jefferson; and sons-in-law Stephen Ullman and Jim Stegeman; and several grandchildren. 

There was a private burial on May 1. A memorial service will be held at a later time. 

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