Taking flight: Family features five commercial pilots

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 28 2009 11:45 a.m. MST

Tom Wilkinson receives some good-natured teasing from his older brother, Mike, at their parents' home in Sandy.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

They like to say it all started with Grandma Wilkinson.

When she was a young girl living in Roosevelt, Gladys Lambert met a barnstormer who landed in their field and told her that if she would give him $5 for gas, he would take her for a ride. So, she did.

"Her parents thought it was a waste of money, but she always talked about it," says Mike Wilkinson, one of five members of the Wilkinson family who are commercial pilots. "Grandma was the first flying Wilkinson."

Her son, Don, was the next to feel the call of the skies. As a boy he heard stories of the barnstormer, but didn't think much about it. After high school, at age 17, Don joined the Utah Air National Guard. "I was 19 when they came in one day and said they needed pilots; did anyone want to be a pilot? I raised my hand. I thought it sounded like a fun thing to do."

Don was sent off to Texas for fighter pilot training. What he never told anyone until later was that on that first flight to the Air Force base, he got air sick. "I was afraid they'd wash me out."

But he soon became acclimated to the skies. "It was a good time to be flying," he says. The Korean conflict was over, and the Cold War was on, but "I never saw combat. I was mostly a transport pilot."

Eventually, Don left the National Guard and was hired on as a pilot with Western Airlines. When Western merged with Delta, he stayed on with Delta.

"I flew mostly around the U.S. I did get routes to Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico from time to time. I got to see a lot of places," he says. And every day was different. "Even if you are going to the same places, it is different because you have different people, a different crew, different weather.

Now retired, he looks back on it as a "neat job. I'd go to work, sign in and take out a $70 million airplane and do my job."

Only once did he run into any trouble. "On my second trip as a captain, I was taking off out of Las Vegas, and one of the engines came apart. Luckily, I was just out of training, so I did what I was trained to do."

He relied on the other engines and landed the plane without incident.

Don loved flying so much that he eventually built his own plane, an RV-8, and he still flies.

The appeal is hard to explain to those who don't fly, he says. "You see things that other people never see: the weather, things on the ground. You have the freedom to go almost anywhere."

Meanwhile, Don married his wife, Lorna, and they had 10 children — nine boys and one daughter: Paul, Michael, John, David, Joseph, Elizabeth, Daniel, Thomas, Stephen and Matthew.

Did he want them to all be pilots? Oh no, says Don. "I told them to be doctors or lawyers. Three of them listened to me. We have two lawyers and one son going to medical school."

But four of the boys followed him into the skies. Paul, Mike and Tom are currently pilots with Delta Air Lines, based in Salt Lake City; Joseph flies for NetJets, based in Oregon.

With varied schedules, it is often hard to get the family together, but all but Joseph made it for Matthew's wedding in January, when they spent some time reminiscing and bantering with each other.

"My earliest memories are of being at the airport waiting for Dad to come in," says Mike. "I'd hope I could go sit in the cockpit. That was in the days before all the security, and we could do that."

"I always wanted to be a pilot," adds Paul. "I remember Dad coming off a trip and smelling like an airplane. I still love that smell."

Tom, too, caught the bug early. "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to fly," he says.

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