Donald D. Engen has excelled in almost every aspect of the field of aviation. Born in 1924, he was fascinated with aviation as a youngster. In the fourth grade, he announced to his parents that he wanted to be a naval officer and go to sea. Engen entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program as a Seaman Second Class at age 18. Exactly one year later, he won his wings and a commission on 9 June 1943 at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. After Operational Dive Bomb Testing, he flew the Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver against the Japanese fleet from USS Lexington.
In October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he helped sink the carrier Zuikaku and the battleship Hyuga. For his actions, Engen was awarded the Navy Cross, that service's highest award for valor. After World War II he returned to civilian life. He flew briefly for United Airlines but soon realized he missed Navy life. He reapplied for a commission and returned to the Navy. In 1950 he took part in the first full deployment of Navy jet airplanes to the western Pacific aboard the USS Valley Forge. Engen attended the Empire Test Pilots School in the United Kingdom in 1953 and was then assigned to Air Development Squadron 3 (VX-3) at NAS Atlantic City, New Jersey.
His test work contributed directly to the introduction of jet aircraft and inflight refueling in naval aviation, and led to significant improvements in navigation and instrument flying. Engen went on to command Fighter Squadron 21, Carrier Air Group Eleven, USS Mount Katmai, USS America, and Carrier Division Four. In 1978, Vice-Admiral Engen, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command and U.S. Atlantic Fleet, retired after 36 years of active service. Following his retirement, he served as General Manager of the Piper Aircraft Corporation. In 1982, President Reagan appointed Engen to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Two years later, Reagan selected him to head the Federal Aviation Administration. After leaving the FAA, he held an executive position in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He is currently the Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Engen is a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and received that organization's Doolittle Award for Technical Management. The following year he was honored as the Elder Statesman of Aviation by the National Aeronautics Association. In 1992 he was awarded the Yuri Gagarin Gold Air and Space Medal by the Soviet Union for his lifetime work in aviation. Still an active pilot, in 54 years Engen has logged more than 7,500 hours in over 260 types of aircraft.
"It was love at first flight." That is how Engen describes his feelings for the North American FJ-3 Fury. He first flew the FJ-3 in 1954 while attached to VX-3, a naval test unit based in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He flew the aircraft again while serving as Executive Officer for VF-21 at NAS Oceana, Virginia. While in that unit he flew the FJ-3 on the shakedown cruise of the USS Forrestal. The men and aircraft of VF-21 played a critical role in developing launch, recovery, and handling procedures for the first of this new class of large aircraft carriers.