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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) 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."

Retired pilot Don Wilkinson, second from left, and three of his sons, Paul, Tom and Mike, display their Delta pilot's hats. Another son, Joseph, not shown, flies for NetJets, based in Oregon.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Retired pilot Don Wilkinson, second from left, and three of his sons, Paul, Tom and Mike, display their Delta pilot's hats. Another son, Joseph, not shown, flies for NetJets, based in Oregon. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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."

Mike Wilkinson, a pilot for Delta, along with two brothers, had soloed by the time he got out of Jordan High School. He got his pilot's license in 1985, one week before he left to serve an LDS mission, and resumed flying after his return.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Mike Wilkinson, a pilot for Delta, along with two brothers, had soloed by the time he got out of Jordan High School. He got his pilot's license in 1985, one week before he left to serve an LDS mission, and resumed flying after his return. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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.

Even John, who is one of the lawyers, remembers sitting around and hearing his Dad tell "crazy stories about being in the Guard and flying. "It got us all excited about being pilots. It almost made me want to do it, too."

Learning to fly is one thing, of course, and becoming a commercial pilot another. It generally starts with a private pilot's license, but there are hours to log, experience to be gained.

Paul got his private license in 1988, went to Georgia for instrument and commercial training, moved to California and taught for a number of years before going to work with Scenic Airlines, in Page, Ariz., then to Sky West and finally to Delta.

When Mike was a student at Jordan High School, there was a tech program where he could take ground school and get high school credit, "so by the time I was out of high school, I had soloed. I got my license in 1985, one week before I left on my mission."

But maintaining a license is not cheap. "I could barely hang on until I finished college. But I knew I wanted to fly full time; flying was always my passion."

He followed his brother's advice and career path, also going from Scenic to Sky West to Delta. "Paul and I were the first brothers to be hired by Delta. They used to have a nepotism rule that prevented hiring other family members, but they did away with it just as we came along," says Mike.

Don taught Tom to fly. "I didn't really get serious about it until I had graduated from the University of Utah. Dad taught me in his plane, and Mike and Paul taught me about flying in clouds." But he, too, had to pay his dues, work his way up. "I lived in Dave's garage for two years while I built up experience."

"The first few years, you may have the ratings but you're not necessarily employable," explains Mike. "You have to serve your time as an indentured servant or apprentice."

But the family connection has proved to be a valuable one, the men say.

"Pilots are a tight-knit group," says Mike. And at Delta, his father was well-respected. "When I was first hired, all flights had a third guy in the cockpit, a flight engineer. They don't do that anymore. But on my first flights, I flew as a flight engineer with captains who had first flown as Dad's flight engineer. The respect and goodwill they have for Dad has really helped the rest of us."

"I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him," adds John.

Paul and Mike have flown mostly domestic routes; Tom, who joined Delta in December 2007, has "flown the wide-bodies to Europe and the Mideast," although he has now transferred to domestic routes. With NetJets, Joseph flies mostly business and private charters.

But they all love what they do. They love the variety, the chance for exploration, the travel benefits for family members, the great views. "We've never seen ourselves working in an office," says Paul. "My office is a cockpit. It's small, but it moves."

"I love my time off with my family," adds Mike, "but when I strap in, I'm happy, excited to be there. The sights, the smells; it's such a rush. There's always something to love."

Don is proud of all his sons. "They all became Eagle Scouts, and they all went on LDS missions — but most of the credit for that goes to my wife. I was gone a lot. I'm glad that some of them listened to me. I wanted them to do something that gave them more control over their time."

But mostly, like any parent, he wants them to be doing what makes them happy. And it is fun having so many pilots in the family, he says.

The job of any parents, it is said, is to give their children both roots and wings. That's true for all of the Wilkinsons — it's just that for some of them, the wings are more literal than for the others.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com

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