Retired Vice Admiral Donald D. Engen, 75, a friend, a mentor and a founding member of this magazine’s advisory board, died on July 13. He was flying with his friend and longtime pilot William Ivans, soaring legend and former president of the Soaring Society of America, when their powered glider crashed near Minden, Nevada. Engen had been a pilot for 57 years and had flown more than 7,500 hours in all types of powered and unpowered aircraft, including his favorite aerial conveyance, the glider.
Don Engen died prematurely. At an age where many of us would be glad to sit in a rocking chair, he was still energetically striving for the long-range betterment of aviation and the growth of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, of which he was the director. He is survived by his wife, Mary, their four children and seven grandchildren.
Donald D. Engen was a big shot in aviation who didn’t act like a big shot. He was a soft-spoken man who had won his place in the world of aviation without having stepped on others to get there, a person who excelled, progressed, attained. He was too busy enjoying the flying of aircraft and encouraging others to do the same to play politics.
I first met Don Engen when I was an aviation newsletter editor representing the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and he was Federal Aviation Administration administrator, surely one of the more confrontational relationships imaginable. I had expected a pompous, unapproachable executive. Instead, he greeted me with a wide, crinkly-eyed grin and said in his soft voice: “Hi. Good to see you. What would you like to talk about?”
Don Engen turned out to be a true gentleman. During the many years since our first meeting, I have had frequent contact with him, worked with him and been honored when he accepted my invitation to be a founding member of the Aviation History advisory board–and the subject of our first personality article.
Engen retired from the Navy in 1978 after serving 36 years and fighting in three wars. He was awarded 29 Navy decorations and awards, including its highest honor, the Navy Cross, for his actions in World War II as a bomber pilot. He became general manager of the Vero Beach, Fla., division of Piper Aircraft Corp. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the National Transportation Safety Board in 1982, and just two years later he became the FAA administrator.
We later ended up under the same roof, after Engen left the FAA in 1987 and became president of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, where he instituted an incident tracking system aimed at preventing general aviation accidents. From there he would accept the Dewitt Ramsey chair for Naval Aviation History at the National Air and Space Museum. He was ideally placed, ready, willing and able to become the director of NASM in 1996.
Since then, he has strengthened the museum’s ties to the aviation community, brought popular exhibits to the public, initiated needed refurbishment of the facility and been the guiding light behind the museum’s new Dulles Center, scheduled to open in 2003. He brought great management skills to the museum but also, most important, his personal, lifetime passion for flying and space exploration. He was part of the solution for a museum that needed a dedicated guiding hand.
Thanks, Don, for proving by personal example that the good guys can, in fact, finish first and that personal excellence can, indeed, gain success. Farewell, and a safe trip “west.” You lived the life you chose, as the consummate aviator. I, and those many others who were fortunate to have known you for the leader–and man–you were, salute you and will always remember your crinkly smile and soft-spoken greeting.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History