Brien Wygle’s adventurous life was packed full of bold action and heroism. Fresh out of high school, he flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, then flew for the Israelis in their 1948 war of independence.
He joined Boeing as a test pilot, flew the first 737 flight in 1967 and co-piloted the first 747 jumbo jet flight in 1969.
He raced hydroplanes in the 1950s. He taught Howard Hughes how to fly jets. He scuba dived with his four daughters. Surrounded by his daughters, Wygle died Tuesday in Bellevue at 96, after contracting pneumonia last month.
Far from the Hollywood stereotype of a macho test pilot, though, Wygle had a quiet, gentlemanly presence and offered his time freely as a mentor to anyone passionate about aviation.
He sponsored engineering students of color at the University of Washington. He was an early champion of advancing women in previously all-male areas at Boeing.
“A bit of a paradox, Brien was a test pilot and unlimited hydroplane driver with an unassuming nature … with a kind yet extraordinary soul,” wrote Matt Hayes, chief executive at Seattle’s Museum of Flight
“He personified the old Boeing,” said his longtime friend and colleague Bob Bogash.
“He was amazing,” said Suzanna Darcy, whom he recruited in 1985 as the first woman test pilot at Boeing.
Wygle contracted pneumonia in mid-August and, surrounded by his daughters, died Tuesday in Bellevue at 96.
Flying to war
Brien Singleton Wygle was born in Seattle in 1924. His family moved to Canada three years later and he grew up during the Depression on a farm near Calgary, Alberta.
He saw his first plane at age 11 when a Tiger Moth biplane made an emergency landing near his home. “My brother and I peered in and it was marvelous. Astonishing,” he recalled for a 2014 story in Aloft, the magazine of the Museum of Flight.
In 1942, he graduated high school and at 18 enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He trained in England to fly C-47s, a military transport version of the iconic DC-3 passenger plane.
Deployed to South Asia, he ferried supplies of food, ammunition, fuel and troops between India, China and Burma for the fight against Japanese forces.
Wygle “flew the hump” in difficult missions over the Himalayas that were no less dangerous at their destination.
“We were camouflaged, flying at treetop level to avoid Japanese fighters, often through monsoons, dropping into primitive airfields with no beacons or navigation,” Wygle recalled in Aloft. “Nothing is more vulnerable than a C-47 with its flaps down. We lost three one day.”
By the time he turned 20, Wygle had flown more than 200 missions. Across the world, his older brother Hugh, flying as an observer on a Royal Canadian Air Force bombing mission into Germany, was shot down over the English Channel and killed.
In 1945, Brien Wygle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor. He left the Air Force and in 1947 married Norma Renton of Vancouver, B.C., the sister of his wartime C-47 navigator.
Using the Canadian GI Bill, he earned a mechanical engineering degree with aeronautics at the University of British Columbia in 1951.
While at college, he kept flying with the Air Force reserves and with Queen Charlotte Airlines. And in 1948, he flew bombing missions for Israel in the war that broke out when the Jewish state was formed and attacked by its Arab neighbors.
According to his daughter Kathleen, he volunteered for that war in part to earn money for his young family, in part to support the cause. A history buff all his life, he would often talk his children through intricate historical events, such as the genesis of the state of Israel.
After graduating college, Wygle joined Boeing in 1951 and spent 39 years at the company, including 28 as an active test pilot.
He later held management positions, including director of customer support and vice president of flight operations, but he gained fame as a test pilot in the days before computerized simulators reduced much of the risk.
Wygle first flew test flights on the B-47 bomber. “It was huge, stunning, intimidating, and made me anxious to fly it,” he told Aloft.
In 1953, Boeing sent him to train at the U.S. Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force base. Later, he flew test flights of the KC-135 tanker and various versions of the 707 and 727 passenger jets.
When Boeing was wooing 707 orders from TWA, he was assigned to teach TWA’s owner and legendary aviator, Howard Hughes, how to fly the jet.
Wygle took up unlimited hydroplane racing from 1957 to 1959, a time when the sport drew huge crowds to Lake Washington in the summer and was much riskier than it is today.
Bogash said Wygle told him Boeing wasn’t happy about the risk “and tried to get him to knock it off.”
After three years, he did. “I enjoyed it, but I’m glad I quit when I did,” he told Aloft. “I had a young family and it was very dangerous.”
In the 1960s, Wygle began test flying airliners that are still around today, from the 737 to the 767.
Two years after the 1967 first flight of the 737, Wygle flew the debut of the 747 and heard “a loud bang and a shudder” when the crew raised the jumbo jet’s flaps about an hour into the flight.
“We weren’t alarmed,” Wygle recalled in a 2009 interview. Still, he and pilot Jack Waddell cut short the flight.
“He was the last of the old test pilot corps that created the jet age,” said Bogash. “He survived to become the mentor of all the later test pilots.”
In 2003, after Bogash led restoration of the first 737 and donated it to the Museum of Flight, Wygle flew with him on its final flight from Moses Lake to Boeing Field.
A father and a mentor
From 1965, when Bogash worked directly with Wygle in designing and building the first 737, the two developed a lifelong friendship that went beyond flying.
“He was a real gentleman. When I had problems in my life, nothing to do with aviation, I’d go see him,” said Bogash. “He was like a second father.”
Wygle’s daughter Kathleen said her father gave his children a terrific work ethic. His job took him away traveling a lot when they were growing up, so he made sure to spend individual time with each of his four daughters, taking each one separately on special vacation trips.
Wygle retired from Boeing in 1990. In retirement, he worked on the board of the Museum of Flight. Hayes, the Museum CEO, called Wygle’s passing “an enormous loss for not only the Museum, but the aviation community as well.”
He also built a kit aerobatic plane, a Glasair II – RG, and used it to fly various adventurous trips. He flew from his home in Medina to the north coast of Alaska and to visit family in Calgary. He flew the plane regularly to visit his daughters, who had all settled in Sun Valley, Idaho.
He stopped flying at the age of 84.
Kathleen said her father nursed their mother through Alzheimer’s, keeping her at home until she died in 2003. “He was a wonderful husband and father,” she said.
Some years after Norma died, Wygle had a ten-year friendship with Nancy Colbert, until she too died in 2015. “We loved Nancy. She was wonderful for dad,” said Kathleen.
Wygle is survived by his four daughters, Kathleen (Barry Irwin), Janet (Barry Luboviski), Patsy (Keith Moore, deceased), and Gail, and one grandson, James Moore Wygle, of New York City.
A graveside service is set for 10:30 am Friday, at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Bellevue.