A "feisty, big Irishman" with a knack for survival, Thomond O'Brien of Inver Grove Heights parlayed his experience flying with the Royal Air Force (RAF) during War II into a long career flying with Northwest Airlines.

O'Brien, who was also involved in the Irish national unity cause and anti-alcoholism efforts, died July 31 from complications triggered by an aortic aneurysm. He was 86.

"He had the most extraordinary life," said his daughter, Caragh Bartness of Inver Grove Heights. "One of the most amazing things about him is how many times he survived when he shouldn't have."

O'Brien was born in France and joined the RAF at age 16. On one raid, flying in formation under heavy fire, O'Brien was forced out of position by another pilot who was soon shot down while flying exactly where O'Brien should have been, Bartness said. While serving in Italy, O'Brien, informed that his unit was to be sent to England for Christmas, celebrated in a bar, where he got into a brawl. O'Brien's crew was held back as punishment in Italy, while the rest of his unit, flying back to England, crashed in the mountains.

"He was in trouble most of the time," Bartness said. "He pretty much worked his way down the ladder of success in the RAF. He was shocked to find himself alive at the end of the war."

O'Brien followed his Irish sweetheart, Demaris, to New York City in 1950, married her the next year and in 1952 took a job with Northwest Orient, an airline based in Minneapolis that he thought might have been a crop-dusting outfit, Bartness said. But in time he was captain on flights across the Pacific. He retired in 1984.

In 1970, on a family vacation to Hawaii, O'Brien broke his neck after being slammed to the ocean floor while body surfing. Told he would never regain use of his right arm and right leg, O'Brien recovered and went back to a Northwest cockpit two years later. He flew for more than 10 years after that.

During that time, O'Brien was involved with Irish Northern Aid, a group founded in the United States that raised money for the families of Irish Republican Army members imprisoned during years of conflict with British forces in Northern Ireland, his daughter said. He also turned away from his bar-fighting past, achieving sobriety in 1970 and helping others battle alcoholism, Bartness said.

"A lot of kids have their dads with them because my dad mentored them and helped them stay sober," Bartness added. "He has quite a legacy that way."

O'Brien is survived by his wife of 60 years, Demaris, as well as by Bartness, son Thomond, of St. Paul, and three grandchildren.

A mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Church of St. John Neumann, 4030 Pilot Knob Road, Eagan, followed by burial at St. Patrick's Cemetery. There will be a visitation at the church beginning at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, before mass.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646