by John Hayes
The tragic January 18, 2016 accident that took the life of my good friends, Don Baker and his wife, Dawn Hunter, has shaken our community and everyone who flies a jet. For those of you who may not have known Don and his wife, I’d like to tell you a little more about them.
Don was a real estate developer who lived in Tucson and who specialized in developing and managing retail shopping malls. He and I first got to know each other in 2001 when he bought his first jet (a 1999 CJ, N711BX) and I bought his “old” plane, a 1996 TBM 700. During the process of the sale we flew all over the country together and our friendship quickly developed.
On one of our very first flights together in the TBM, we ended up in IMC at night, with serious P-static, scattered lightning, loss of communications and building ice. We handled it and ultimately diverted to Page in Northern Arizona where we spent the night to wait out the weather. It was to be the first of many flying adventures.
As soon as Don finished his checkout in the Citation, he stopped by my office to tell me how it went. He and his instructor were flying back at night out of Las Vegas after the type ride and his instructor borrowed the key to open up the plane while Don filed the flight plan. They departed and heard an odd flapping sound so they circled back and made a precautionary landing. Seeing nothing amiss, they departed again and made it to Tucson without any problems. It wasn’t until they were rolling the plane back into the hangar that Don’s instructor turned white as he pointed up to an obviously damaged left engine.
It was at that point that Don’s instructor first realized that he had left the key in the door after he had opened up the airplane. As they took off, a card on the key chain flapped in the wind just long enough to pull the key from the lock where it could then get sucked through the engine. Don didn’t want to make an insurance claim so he just called to have it repaired.
I visited the hangar while Williams had everything pulled apart. Don picked up the damaged fan disk and put it in my hands saying, “What would you rather have, this or a brand new Lexus? That’s $82,000!” He looked a bit pained, but he took it in stride. I think the whole thing set him back a bit over $100k. That was my first experience with the way Don handled almost everything. He stayed friends with the instructor, paid the bill, and moved on.
Don loved life, and he loved living large. Sometimes he’d show up at the airport with an entourage headed out to look at property in another city. He’d have someone with a legal pad taking notes, his lawyer would be there, along with a couple of investors, but he always took the flying part very seriously. Don owned some of the finest retail properties in Tucson and he was very proud of what he had accomplished. One time, we were driving through town and he suddenly announced, “I own this intersection!” When he spotted my baffled look, he smiled and slowly pointed to each corner and said, “That center is mine, that one across the street is mine, the one on the other corner is mine, and the one we just passed is mine.” He was the only guy I ever knew who could claim to own an entire intersection!
He once owned an 85-foot yacht with his own captain, he had a sprawling spectacular foothills home that he never stopped remodeling, he drove crazy expensive cars, and he loved big (really big) ugly dogs. Yet, Don always carried a full complement of tools in the trunk of his Mercedes just in case a tenant might call and need a quick repair. He’d fix doors, plumbing, or just about anything else if he couldn’t get a worker to the site fast enough. He pulled crab grass in his back yard and he’d put on his old jeans to meet me at our hangar to wash airplanes and help out with “clean up day.” One time, we went to a meeting and had to share a hotel room (it was packed.) He quickly produced a coin and flipped to see who got the bed and he never once grumbled about sleeping on the floor that night.
We had a million adventures together. One of them happened after Don’s divorce many years ago. My kids and I were staying with him on his boat, which was anchored in Avalon bay on Catalina Island. He and I went to a jazz concert in the Casino and that was the night that he met Dawn. Don wasn’t particularly shy but his captain was always on the lookout for ways to help introduce Don to available single women on those outings. Dawn Hunter was striking and sweet and it wasn’t long after the introduction before Don and Dawn were dancing the night away. Before the night was over, I could see stars in his eyes–he was smitten. Don was the master of romantic dating, which included a lot flowers, helicopter rides, limos, concerts, and other fun events.
It must have worked, because they were married on Catalina on 11/11/11. Dawn had a wonderfully warm personality and she was always kind and very down to earth. My wife, Jane, and I liked her right away. Dawn didn’t come from an especially privileged background so she had to adjust a bit to Don’s “over the top” lifestyle. She continued to run her jewelry business even after they were married, and sometimes that meant periods away from home doing trade shows on the road.
A few years ago Don confessed that he wanted to go back to school to get a graduate degree. He mumbled something silly about how his partner and good friend having advanced degrees made him feel like he wanted to “catch up.” Don was very accomplished but I admired his drive to take it to another level.
And, he didn’t do it the easy way – oh no. The University of Arizona had a brand new Masters of Real Estate management program so he signed up for the full two-year ride and they put him through the ringer. I can’t count how many times he turned down flying or dinner because he had a paper due or some exam to study for. Late in the program, he had to do an internship for some company in town. I almost died laughing thinking about Don showing up as an intern at some company where he owned the building! He wound up at a solar energy company and wow, did they ever get a deal. Don fell in love with solar and decided to put it on all his new parking structures all over town.
As I recall, the program was so hard that only Don and a few other students graduated from that first class. I was extremely impressed and proud of him. He didn’t have to do any of that hard work. He did it for the joy of learning and in the end I could sense a real change in the way he viewed the world and his business. Don “V 2.0” sold his big black Mercedes sedan and bought what he told me was a “Jeep.” It turned out to be a G-Class Mercedes SUV, which at least, looks a bit more “Jeep-like” even if it isn’t nearly quite as earthy as the real thing.
Don loved aviation and he was very proud of the fact that he had been to FSI more than 32 times to train in the CJ. He did it because he knew from experience that sometimes things go wrong. He once threw a rod in his C210 out over northern Arizona and he successfully made a dead-stick landing on a nearby runway in the middle of nowhere with a windshield covered in oil. Another time, while flying with his former father-in-law (the founder of Payless shoes) they lost an engine in a piston twin while IMC. His father-in-law lost control of the plane and they wound up nearly upside down; Don helped him recover, and they managed to get things back under control before making an uneventful landing short of their destination.
The only thing I couldn’t get Don to do was aerobatics or upset training. He lasted through one single roll in my Extra before he announced, “That’s enough of that!” Still, I always saw him approach aviation with great respect and care. His CJ was maintained with an open checkbook and he was always thinking about his next plane (he loved the CJ2+.) Heck, he even kept his paint looking better than mine… and my plane was nine years younger!
Don was smart, but he was also the most honest, generous, and caring person anywhere. His tenants respected him, his employees adored him, and his friends and family loved him. I have a million fond memories of all the many adventures we had together and I already miss him dearly. We confided in each other, and shared a lot of good times.
I am very proud to have been his friend. Don and Dawn were both wonderful people, and their loss is a loss for all of us.