John Sands (1936-2011)

by Shawna Lewis


John Sands got married in Ireland, got a job in Canada, then changed careers in Seattle before making it to Tulsa to work as an aeronautical engineer for American Airlines. But he started out in England, where a war caused his first relocation.

“My dad was born in London,” daughter Julie Sands said, “but when WWII started, and London was being bombed, my grandparents moved the family out to a little village called Chobham and rented a house there. My dad always had happy memories to share about living there. Being that young, of course, you don’t remember a war going on. He had many relatives nearby, so there was a lot of love around. My granddad kept going into London to work, of course, and when my dad was probably six, the war was over, and they moved back to London. It was all very practical.”

Sands studied degree in engineering at the University of London, and went on to graduate school at Cranfield University, in Yorkshire. To get through school, he got a side job clearing trays at a hospital, where he fell in love with an irritated superior.

“He was always late for work, and my mom was always yelling at him about it,” Julie said with a laugh. “So they started dating.” Because trains were so expensive, and Sands preferred adventure, their time together was often spent on his motorbike. “My mom is from Kilkenny, Ireland, so they would take trips to visit her family—which takes several hours and a ferry ride—but they would ride his motorbike even through the miserable Irish rain.”

When finding an engineering job in England proved difficult, Sands took a bridge-building position in Vancouver, working to update the historic Lions Gate Bridge. When Boeing offered him a dream job in aeronautical engineering, the Sands family moved to Seattle. The final move was the transition to Tulsa, to continue aeronautical work for American Airlines, where he stayed for more than 30 years.

“He essentially designed the interiors,” Julie said. “All of engineering for American Airlines is based in Tulsa, and it was his job to figure out the measurements, the seats, the flight attendant’s areas, all of that. He would do test flights, and he was involved with safety regulations, too.”

While Julie says the family grew to love Tulsa, it was a simple town compared to the adventurous cities they had lived in previously.

“I think at first my mom must have felt like, ‘Oh my gosh. Where have you brought me?’ But Tulsa has changed so much since back then.”

True to their adventurous spirit, the Sands family continued to travel. They took vacations—Hawaii, Colorado, Utah, Ireland—but they remained in Tulsa, where American Airlines is the No. 1 non-government employer in the city, employing 7,000 people.

When American went bankrupt last November, Julie said it was hard for the family to hear.

“We grew up an airline family,” she said. “I’m glad my dad wasn’t around to see that, because that would be tough for him. Of course, he knew that the smaller airlines like Southwest had a stronger business plan, and could explain why they sold more tickets, in his intelligent way. I guess airlines have struggled since 9/11, to cope with the new restrictions. I just hope they don’t have to lose many employees.”

The future of American Airlines is uncertain, but the memory of their former engineer is crystal clear.

“My dad had quite a personality. One time when he was working out of town, there was a snowstorm, and the hotel he was staying in had to turn people away because they were so full. He came across these two nuns who didn’t have a place to stay, and he gave them his room. When my mom tried calling him that night, a woman answered the phone, of course, and my mom was confused on quite a few different levels when the woman said her name was ‘Sister Margaret.’

“My mom loves that story, because she says she wasn’t suspicious. She knew what happened because it wasn’t the first time my dad had done something like that. Whenever she told that story, my dad would laugh and laugh. He loved the crazy places his life would take him.”