John J. “Jack” O’Neill, a former Darien resident and the last pilot left in his Noroton Heights family known as “The Flying O’Neills,” died Thursday, April 12, at his home in Overland Park, Kan., from melanoma, after a brief illness. He was 88.
Mr. O’Neill, who in 1942 flew his first solo flight from Danbury Airport in a Piper Cub just months after graduating from Darien High School, over the next 70 years became something of a legend in his profession for the breadth and depth of his flying career. As recently as early this year, he could still be found behind the controls, making a living at a passion to which he was first drawn at 4 when his dad took him up in a single-engine Taylorcraft, his family said.
In his seven decades in the air, Mr. O’Neill’s pilot friends estimate he racked up 50,000 or more flight hours on as diverse a range of aircraft as any pilot of his era, from single-engine planes, to the P-51 Mustang Fighters on which he taught naval aviation cadets during World War II, to some of the world’s largest commercial jets he flew around the world in a 34-year career at American Airlines.
By the time Mr. O’Neill had is first solo flight, Noroton Height’s “Flying O’Neills” were already well known: his uncle, Walt O’Neill, was a flight instructor; his father, John O’Neill, an accomplished pilot; and his sister, Ollie, one of the few women in the country to have received flight certification under a federal program to boost the number of pilots as the country prepared to enter World War II. Their youngest brother, Bill. later joined their ranks, and like Jack eventually became an American Airlines captain.
In 1942, eight months after Pearl Harbor, Mr. O’Neill enlisted in the Naval Air Corps. Once again, the O’Neills were of like mind, and he was followed into the armed services by all his siblings: Ollie joined the Coast Guard, Walter Peter the Army Air Corps and Bill the Air Force.
After extensive training at several Naval stations around the U.S., Mr. O’Neill served as an instructor of countless naval aviation cadets sent into service during he war. A majority of the cadets he instructed — out of naval air stations at Pensacola, West Point, San Antonio, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — were British Royal Air Force flyers sent to the U.S. to be trained on a variety of combat aircraft. In 1943, he transferred from the Navy to the Army Air Corps, and was discharged in 1946.
After the war, Mr. O’Neill returned home to Noroton Heights, and worked in an array of area flying jobs, including management of a seaplane base then located at Cove Pond in Stamford. He landed a job with American Airlines in 1949, initially flying Douglas DC-3 twin-propeller airliners and later gaining experience flying most of the American’s larger aircraft, retiring as a captain in the company’s Boeing 747 fleet. At first flying out of New York, in 1966 he moved to southern California and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field became his base.
For five years after his retirement from American, Mr. O’Neill served as CEO of Optopics Laboratories, a family pharmaceutical manufacturing firm then based in Fairton, N.J. But in 1988 he gave up the desk job and returned to a more active flight schedule, moving to Overland Park, Kan. Over the next 24 years, he became a familiar face around Kansas City area airports, as he instructed numerous aspiring pilots and served as a member of private jet crews that worked out of the airfields.
Two years ago, Mr. O’Neill was interviewed by the Palm Springs, Calif., Air Museum as a part of its flying veterans project, archiving the recollections of surviving World War II flyers. In the interview, he said he felt extremely fortunate to have been able to spend a lifetime doing what he wanted to do since he was 4. He remembered earning the money as a caddy at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien to pay the $5 per hour fees for his first flight lessons in 1942: “Two dollars for the plane and $3 for the instructor,” he said.
Mr. O’Neill is survived by two daughters, Jon Caryl “Binky” Pickard of Cathedral City, Calif., and Kelly Valentine of Overland Park; a son, Michael O’Neill of Seattle, Wash.; two step-daughters, Paula Proud and Susan Parsons, both of Overland Park; a step-son, Mark Parsons of Eagle Rock, Ark.; a brother, Walter Peter O’Neill of Macau; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He was predeceased by his wife of 36 years, Martha, in 2007; his former wife of 24 years, Jean Fickett O’Neill, in 2007; his sister, Olive, in 2010; and his brother, Bill in 1965.
A funeral Mass for Mr. O’Neill was held Thursday, April 26, at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Olathe, Kan., followed by burial with military honors at Park Lawn Cemetery in Kansas City.
Memorial donations may be made to Angel Flight Central, 10 NW Richards Road, Kansas City, MO 64116 (AngelFlightcentral.org).