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Remembering Fellow Writer, Pilot, Friend

Don Dwiggins’ life was flying. He had 8,000 hours as a pilot. He had written millions of words about fliers and flying. Every year he and his wife, Ollie, flew his Cessna 180 across the continent to summer on an island in the Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada. Dwig had built their summer house there with hand tools, except for a generator-powered saw to rip the plywood siding.

Last December Dwig was killed in an automobile accident on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, near their home. He was on the way to the beach to walk his dogs.

I hadn’t meant to write about Dwig. The Times obituary was excellent. But I have received some touching notes from Ollie about the man, and letters from his friends, and I have some memories of my own to tell.

Dwig was aviation writer for the old Daily News, downtown, when I worked there in the late 1940s, after the war. He was rather chunky, with a round, amiable face. His eyes twinkled, as if with some secret merriment. He walked with a kind of roll; self-assured but not quite arrogant.

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Dwig was the fastest man on a typewriter I ever saw. He would come in from a story in a black polo shirt he called his “1,000-miler,” slap down a can of beer in a paper sack beside his typewriter and start working like a jet taking off. Sometimes he would peel off his shirt and sit at his desk naked from the waist up. No one ever remarked about it.

One day when I had to catch a commercial plane at Burbank, Dwig offered to drive me to the airport. We arrived about 20 minutes early and Dwig said, “We’ve got time for a spin in my baby.”

His baby was a surplus trainer that he parked at Burbank. Worried about catching my plane, but not wanting to seem a coward, I walked with him to the trainer. He checked the fuel level and we got in--me in front.

He got clearance and we took off. About 3,000 feet over Van Nuys we went into a steep climb and I realized we were going over. We were looping the loop. Frightened and furious, I yelled over the intercom: “What if I hadn’t had my seat belt fastened!?” Dwig called back, amused but matter-of-fact: “Centrifugal force would hold you in.”

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We landed and he taxied me directly to my waiting plane. When I ran up the ramp--the last passenger aboard--of course everyone wondered who I was.

As much as I liked Dwig, as easy as he was to be with, there was something very private about him. Ollie says: “As the days went by (after his death) I began to realize how little I knew about the man I had lived with for 23 years. He spoke very little about himself. All I knew was the part of him that I witnessed during our marriage. That part of him was totally involved with airplanes and the men who designed and flew them.”

I never knew Dwig when he wasn’t working on a story or spinning one out. He wrote for many aviation magazines and for 20 years had been senior editor and columnist for Plane & Pilot. He knew every important person in aviation, from Amelia Earhart to Chuck Yeager.

Ollie says Dwig had been working for 35 years on a two-volume epic to be called “America Grows Wings.” “It was his lifelong dream to get it published,” she writes. “I received word a couple of weeks ago that Crown will do the book. I was both sad and happy for him.”

Three weeks before he was killed Dwig made a last entry in his log book. “Nov. 15. My last flight. SOLD.” He had sold his beloved 180. He was 75 that day.

“It was very hard for him to sell that plane,” Ollie says, “to know that his active flying days were over--that it was time to put the battered old leather helmet and flying goggles on the shelf. . . .”

There was no memorial service. “Don hated formalities of any kind.”

Tax-deductible donations payable to AWA Foundation Special Education Fund in Memory of Don Dwiggins may be sent to Philip Geddes, 2300 Hollyridge Drive, Los Angeles 90068.

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