Transportation 04

Captain Donald Earl Wright

June 4, 1939 ~ May 19, 2022 (age 82)

Obituary

Captain Donald Earl Wright died May 19, 2022 after battling cancer for several years. He was 82 years old and in good health until a few weeks before his passing. He was preceded in death by his loving wife, HIROKO and his parents; JAMES and INEZ Wright. He leaves a son, BRET, daughter, LORINDA, grandsons, JAMES and SCOTT, and first wife, ANGELA Wright.

Captain Wright attended Pendleton Oregon high school and joined the U.S. army soon after when faced with a choice between military service and reform school. While serving his country at Fort Bragg, NC and in post-war Korea he learned to fly and quickly accumulated enough flight hours to qualify for commercial and instrument pilot certificates. He graduated

Oregon State University in 1965 with degrees in general science and journalism. To help pay the bills, he also earned a flight instructor certificate and, with something like 400 total flight hours, began teaching people to fly. He was living proof of the adage “If you want to learn a subject teach it.”

After graduating college, Pan Am World Airways (Pan Am) hired him as a pilot/navigator flying Boeing 707s across the Pacific. There, he discovered an aptitude for staying awake all night and for plotting the aircraft’s position using a sextant and “dead reckoning.” He was 26 years old and frequently was the only one aboard the jet who knew where they were.

Two years after joining Pan Am he was promoted to first officer, a position that required him to stay awake all night and to navigate while peering at a tiny screen and plotting his position on a knee board. Looking to advance more quickly to the coveted left front seat of the 707, Don moved his family to the East Coast where they moved into a small house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and he began flying from JFK airport across the Atlantic Ocean.

Several years later he upgraded to copilot on the Boeing 747 where he was required to stay awake all night and navigate using a magical new electronic device called an “Inertial Navigation System” originally developed for submarines. 

In 1985 Don transferred to West Berlin flying new Airbus A-310s, again as a first officer, but at least most of the flying was during the daytime. Here he met his second wife, Hiroko while they were “deadheading” from Frankfurt to JFK. “She’s one of the best things to ever happen to me,” he frequently remarked. Sadly, Hiroko started showing signs of worsening dementia in 2015 and began living in an assisted living facility in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

A year after moving to West Berlin, Don finally checked out as captain on the Boeing 727. No more staying awake all night. European flying was a delight and life was good. It couldn’t last and it didn’t. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and Pan Am closed the base soon after. Back in New York he requalified on the “bus” just in time for Delta Air Lines to buy Pan Am’s routes across the Atlantic. It turned out to be a package deal with pilots, flight attendants and mechanics included in the transaction. Don switched uniforms to the Delta Widget and continued flying the A310 across the Atlantic. Sadly, he was again required to stay awake all night.

By 1996 he was getting tired of flying across the pond and started looking for a change. The Salt Lake City base was looking for Boeing 767 pilots who wanted to fly domestically. He bid and got the position. New airplane, new routes, lots of skiing and hiking. Life was good again. Hiroko and Don rented an apartment near the airport, and they started looking around for a place to retire.

Very shortly life started to be not so great. Long delays, crummy layovers in crummy cities and long nights spent looking at the moon from 37 thousand feet. Time for a change. Delta was trying to sell Airbuses to Air Jamaica and needed instructor pilots to train their pilots. Something new! He and Hiroko had recently bought a condo in Florida within easy commuting distance to Miami airport and a short hop to Kingston. The schedule was a week on and a week off with all expenses paid by Air Jamaica. Within a few months the Jamaica pilots were trained, and Don needed to make a choice: go to SLC or begin long haul flying on the Boeing 767 out of Kennedy. Don was by now a training captain on both the “bus” and the 767. Training captains are chiefly useful during takeoff and landing with occasional visits to the cockpit during cruise. For most of the flight they are expected to refrain from pestering the working pilots. This requires them to go back to first class where they can enjoy a meal and snooze.

Mandatory retirement at age sixty was looming, but with the check captain rating, he could pretty much choose his trips. He took Hiroko along on almost every trip and again life was good.

Retirement! June 4, 1999. His last trip was Athens-Kennedy with Hiroko in the cockpit. He got the water spray treatment from the JFK fire department followed by a nice party in the Chief Pilot’s office. He remarked cryptically that he was glad he had his sun glasses close at hand.

Retirement didn’t work out. He owned a small airplane and was doing a bit of skydiving, but he missed the smell of jet fuel in the morning. Mike Bailey, a skydiving buddy offered him a job flying Lear Jets out of Allentown, Pennsylvania and he quickly accepted. The pay was a fraction of what Delta paid, but, as he said, it was a lot better than puttering around the house in a bathrobe. The Lears were a delight to fly, and the layovers were long and exotic in places like Aspen and Greenbrier.

Don's “check engine” light came on in 2006 with a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. The FAA pulled his first class medical certificate, ending his second career in the Lears. He still had his old flight instructor certificate, and spent several years teaching people to fly little airplanes. Again, the pay wasn’t great, but it had its own satisfactions. “A first solo is almost as exciting for the instructor as it is for the student,” he said.

Don was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 2016 and started a course of hormone therapy. Although the cancer had spread to his bones, the treatments kept the disease in check for several years. Unfortunately androgen deprivation therapy is only effective for a few years or months, and the treatments get more and more exotic and expensive. With Hiroko burning through $10,000 per month in her nursing home, he made a decision to stop treating his cancer and seek palliative care. “It was a wonderful life,” he said. “I could never be so lucky again.”

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