The Big Blue Sky of Possibility: Dean “Wilbur” Wright’s Path to Lead Pilot of the Patriots Jet Team

Wilbur was a seven year-old boy when he watched the USAF Thunderbirds perform at an air show in Austin for the first time. Seeing the pilots in their flights suits hop into their lightning-fast jets to take off into the sky seemed nothing short of heroic. It was a moment that changed his life.

Wilbur never even touched a plane until he turned 18 and applied for the Air Force Academy, eager to become a Thunderbird pilot. In 1983, he was accepted into the Academy and with no prior family military history, he “went into the complete unknown,” he said of his choice. He studied Human Factors Engineering, and said that the workload and the intensity of the academics and military activities were a constant challenge. In 1987 Wilbur prevailed, graduating from the Air Force Academy and embarking on a career that would take him around the world for the next 20 years.

The Air Force took him to Great Britain, where he flew the A-10 “Warthog” and he was deployed to Turkey and Northern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. From there, he went to Korea, again flying the A-10, and then Thailand, to teach Thai pilots the missions of Combat Search and Rescue and Close Air Support in their OV-10 Broncos. After his Far East tour of duty, Wilbur was then assigned back to Great Britain, but this time he wasn’t flying for the USAF. Wilbur was selected to fly with the Royal Air Force in its front-line fighter, the GR7 Harrier, commonly referred to as the Jump Jet for its unique vertical takeoff and landing characteristics. After this third overseas assignment, Wilbur returned Stateside to instruct Taiwanese fighter pilots in the art of Air Combat Tactics or “Dogfighting,” immediately followed by a move into the “black ops” world, flying the super-secret F-117 Stealth Fighter.

It was during a period in 1996 when Wilbur dusted off his dreams of becoming a USAF Thunderbird and submitted his first application for this exclusive squadron of fighter pilots. He made considerable progress through the tests and interviews, but he did not make the cut this first time around. Upon his second try, he was eliminated almost immediately. Wilbur stated, “It was really discouraging and I think most people would have given up, but the dream was too important.”

At his third application, Wilbur knew it was his last chance to qualify. He went into it with a sense that whatever the outcome, he was giving it his all. He entered the interviews feeling optimally prepared, confident in his skills and his ability to work within a team. He was accepted into the Thunderbirds in 1998 and flew for them until 2001, with the 1999 and 2000 air show seasons allowing him to perform for millions of spectators, in hundreds of locations around the world. Wilbur got the chance to work with some of the finest pilots in the field. The talent and spirit of the Thunderbirds raised the bar of excellence in formation flying for him yet again. It is an experience that he is deeply proud of to this day.

After the Thunderbirds, Wilbur was required to put in “grounded” time as a staff officer. There had been some fatalities in the demonstration flight world and it was Wilbur’s job to reconstruct the program for improved safety. Wilbur’s contribution during this time was significant in strengthening the standards and procedures that would keep pilots and ground crews out of harm’s way. He developed a more articulate understanding of safety protocol that has stayed with him throughout his career.

While at the Reno Air Show in 1999, Wilbur noticed a beautiful Russian MiG-17, a rare and infamous jet, even in the demo world. He approached the pilot, who turned out to be Randy Howell, the future owner of the Patriots Jet Team. They struck up a conversation and realized they had a kindred passion for the art and science of aviation. They saw each other through the air show circuit over the years and formed a lasting bond. In 2004, Randy contacted him to ask if he would be interested in heading up a three jet aerobatic team. Almost 11 years later, that team has grown into what is now the Patriots Jet Team. The team flew its first air show with Wilbur as the leader in 2004, a position he has held since.

Many times in his adventurous career, the future appeared uncertain, but Wilbur always chose the unconventional path and took courageous risks. That strategy paid off for him, taking him all over the world doing the work that he loves. The Patriots Jet Team allows him to fly with a tremendously disciplined and talented aerobatic team. He is often called upon in his role as lead pilot to expose young people to the marvelous world of aviation, to relay what he learned about service to his country, the thrill of flying and the value of perseverance. Wilbur relishes the ongoing opportunity to light that spark for future pilots.

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