Wilbur J. Mathias, FAA official, B-24 navigator

The Baltimore Sun

Wilbur J. Mathias, a retired Federal Aviation Administration official and World War II B-24 navigator who later flew in an atomic bomb test in the Pacific, died Dec. 11 of gall bladder cancer at a son's home in The Orchards neighborhood of North Baltimore. He was 87.

Mr. Mathias was born and raised in Altoona, Pa., where he graduated from high school. He later moved with his family to Dundalk and graduated from Strayer Business College.

In 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he was trained as a navigator.

Mr. Mathias was sent to the European Theater and participated in numerous missions over Germany.

"In those days of crude instrumentation, most flight routes were calculated and navigated in pencil with maps, compasses and slide rules," said a son, James D. Mathias, of The Orchards, a partner in DLA Piper US LLP, a Baltimore law firm.

On a 1,000-plane raid over Berlin on March 6, 1944, Mr. Mathias' plane was hit by enemy fire. The pilot was able to fly the heavily damaged plane to Sweden, where they landed. Its crew was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp for the rest of the war.

After the war, Mr. Mathias was selected to be a navigator with Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb testing that was performed at Bikini Atoll in 1946.

"His crew flew an unmanned, remote-controlled drone plane through the atomic cloud on to separate tests, and he witnessed the atomic blast from the air," his son said.

Mr. Mathias told his family that they were "close enough to look down and see millions of gallons of water rise from the lagoon when the bomb exploded. We also felt the shock wave."

During the Korean War, he was recalled to active duty and flew missions from Hawaii to Japan.

Mr. Mathias remained an active reservist until retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1971.

From 1947 to 1963, he worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, where he eventually became a branch chief. From 1963 until retiring in 1977, he was an official with the FAA.

Mr. Mathias lived in the Radiant Valley community in Prince George's County for many years before moving to the Charlestown retirement community.

He was an accomplished woodworker and enjoyed traveling to Hawaii, Alaska and Europe. Other interests include gardening, photography and working on home improvement projects.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, 715 Maiden Choice Lane in Catonsville.

Also surviving are his wife of 60 years, the former Bette Christenson; three other sons, John S. Mathias of Frederick, Robert J. Mathias of Ruxton and William T. Mathias of Stoneleigh; three daughters, Nancy M. Adair of Baltimore, Patricia M. "Patty" NaPier of Honolulu and Jeanne M. Clements of Gig Harbor, Wash.; two sisters, Dorothy Wills of Orangeville, Pa., and Betty Wilson of Upper Darby, Pa.; 15 grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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