Brien Wygle could easily be included in a conversation about celebrated Canadian test pilots, such as de Havilland Canada’s Russ Bannock, Avro’s Mike Cooper-Slipper, and Canadair’s Al Lilly. But Wygle isn’t well known to Canadian aviation historians, thanks to a twist of fate that led him across the border to a long and distinguished career with Boeing.
Wygle was born in 1924, in Seattle, Wash., to a Canadian father and an English mother. When he was only three years old, his family moved to his grandfather’s ranch outside of Crossfield, Alta., northeast of Calgary. A few years later, the whole family was renaturalized as Canadian citizens.
Then, in 1935, Wygle had his first experience with an airplane, when a flying doctor made a precautionary landing on their ranch. “I’d never seen an airplane up close,” Wygle recalled. “We were all fascinated. The pilot himself was a heroic figure, with his flying helmet and goggles. That started my older brother and me on an aviation career.” The pair discovered an aviation magazine called Bill Barnes Air Trails and ordered model airplanes from ads in the magazine, eventually taking some of the models they built to a meet in Calgary in 1939.
“We entered a gas-powered model, and a couple of rubber-powered models. But that day there was an airshow,” Wygle told Skies. “A flight of three [Hawker] Hurricanes came over, and they did a low-level fly over and those beautiful Merlins made that beautiful Merlin sound, and that captivated me! I didn’t know there was a war coming on, but from then on my objective was that I was going to be an Air Force pilot.” In 1942, at 18, he joined the RCAF, and was chosen to be a pilot. His older brother, Hugh, was disappointed to be selected as an observer, and didn’t survive the war. “He was shot down somewhere over the North Sea, in a Mitchell B-25 in 1943,” said Wygle.
Wygle trained in Brandon, Man., and went overseas as a combat cargo pilot in the Douglas C-47 Dakota. But, just prior to D-Day, he was transferred to India, flying with Canadian squadrons in Eastern India near the Burmese border. He stayed in England until mid-1946, flying Dakotas into Europe, then returned to Canada.
Taking advantage of post-war veterans’ assistance, Wygle attended the mechanical engineering program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While at UBC, Wygle joined a YVR-based RCAF Auxiliary Squadron, and flew Harvards, Mustangs, and the jet-powered de Havilland Vampire. Wygle said, “It was my first jet; it was also my first tricycle landing gear airplane. It was a remarkable little airplane, and a lot of fun to fly.”
After graduation, Wygle applied, without success, to be an experimental test pilot with Avro, de Havilland Canada, and Canadair. Then, thanks to a post-war law enacted in the U.S., repatriating Americans who had joined foreign air forces for the Second World War, Wygle was given U.S. citizenship. “I was a minor when I joined the RCAF, and although I had no intention of anything to do with American citizenship, the fact was that I was covered by that congressional law, by accident. To this day I have dual citizenship,” he explained.
That turn of events led him to write to American aviation companies, still without success. At his wit’s end, he called his father, asking if he had any friends in Seattle who might be able to connect him with Boeing. His father told him to visit his brother’s godfather, a Mr. Thwing, who was with the Seattle First National Bank.
After driving his “junkie” car to Seattle, he explained his plight to Mr. Thwing. “He said, ‘Well, Brien, I know the chief pilot. Would that help?’ Yes, Mr. Thwing,” said Wygle, laughing. “He picked up the phone, and called Boeing’s Elliott Merrill. He turned to me and asked ‘Do you have an engineering degree? Yes, Elliott, he has an engineering degree. Do you have jet time? Yes, Elliott, he has jet time.’ That was the golden key. But I didn’t tell him that I had my jet time in the Vampire, one of the smallest jets on the planet!”
Wygle had his interview that day, which heralded the beginning of his 40-year career with Boeing. He moved to Wichita, Kan., with his new wife and family, and immediately joined the B-47 Stratojet bomber program as a production co-pilot. He was quickly promoted to first pilot, and then to experimental test pilot.
“A production pilot does the testing of each airplane as it comes out of the factory before it’s delivered. Experimental test pilots do the first flight and all of the development and certification work and testing,” explained Wygle. “The podded engines on the B-47 were unique. It was a revolutionary airplane, and set the tone for all of Boeing’s subsequent airplanes,” he added.
After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in 1953, Wygle returned to Seattle, becoming the lead project pilot for the B-52 Stratofortress bomber. He moved to the commercial side in 1957 and did flight testing of the 707 airliner. He was named assistant director of flight test in 1966, flew the first flight and test program of the 737, and was co-pilot on the first flight of the 747 in 1969. He also flew the 727, 757, and 767, logging time in all of Boeing’s contemporary planes.
Wygle retired in 1990 as Boeing’s vice president of flight operations. But he didn’t stay on the ground for long. “I built a Glasair I RG with a couple of friends. I flew it a lot and I really enjoyed it in my retirement years. But I stopped flying when I was 84,” he said, wistfully.
And does he miss flying today, at age 91? “Oh, yeah. I do.”