Flying into War

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 19, 2015 12:09 PM
Newfoundlander Bill Carr in the cockpit of a Spitfire at the Hamburg Airshow in 1986 (Courtesy of Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame, 2001.177.005)

As a young boy growing up in the 1930s in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, the sight of an armada of Italian airplanes flying over Bill Carr's outport community was enough to make the 10-year-old's imagination take flight.

"There was an Italian General Balbo coming back from the Chicago Fair, [he] flew over Grand Bank on his way to Clarenville before he flew back over the Atlantic,” remembers Bill, a retired lieutenant general of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “They flew right over our home.” Eight years later, just after graduating from university, Bill enlisted for duty as a pilot in the Second World War. Today, the 92-year-old is hailed as the “father of the modern Canadian Air Force.”

Bill was born in Grand Bank on March 17, 1923. Upon graduating high school he took off to New Brunswick to attend Mount Allison University, where he majored in Commerce. During the summers, Bill earned eight cents a day in the Canadian Officer Training Corps, “and all we did each summer was dig holes in the ground,” Bill says. “And I decided when I was old enough to join the military, I sure wouldn’t join the army because I didn’t want to dig a hole.” It “never entered my head” to join the navy.

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Air Marshal Billy Bishop presenting wings to Bill Carr in 1942 (Courtesy of Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame, 2001.177.014)

When he graduated at the age of 18, he enlisted. “There was a war on, of course, I had no choice but to join the military," says Bill. And just like that, Bill signed on with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

He didn’t have any problem signing up with the Canadians as a Newfoundlander in 1941. “People used to pull my leg about being a Newfie, but it didn’t bother me very much… And I know more Newfie jokes than any Newfie that I know.”

His status as Newfoundlander did come up once, though, while he was overseas. To attend university in New Brunswick, Bill had to get a student visa that had to be renewed each year. When he graduated, it was no longer an issue for him. But it was mistakenly an issue for some bureaucrat because “in the winter of 1943-44, I was in a tent in Italy, not very comfortable,” he recalls. “And the mail arrived. And in the mail was a warning from the Government of Canada that if I didn’t renew my student visa, I was in serious trouble. They told my they’d crucify me or something, so all I did was reply and said ‘please come and get me.’ And that’s the last I heard of it.”

During WWII, Bill flew a Spitfire PR Mk XI on reconnaissance missions - 142 of them, to be exact - into Nazi-controlled territory in Europe and North Africa. These unarmed planes were built for speed, not dogfights in the sky. The glass over the cockpit wasn’t even bullet proof.

“You gotta outfly them and outfox them and get away from them. It wasn’t just enemy airplanes. There’s anti-aircraft fire and all kinds of stuff,” he says, adding he had a few close calls. “It was scary. I was only what, 19-20 years old, you know. But we had to do our duty, it was as simple as that. And I was lucky, I survived.”

After the war

When the war ended, Bill didn’t retire from service as so many others did. “I didn’t intend to stay…I had planned to go back to the University of Toronto to take a degree in aeronautical engineering,” he says. But the university wouldn’t give him credits for courses he’d already taken. “So the air force came along and offered me a permanent commission. So I accepted it in a snit - I was mad at the University of Toronto. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Bill attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and earned a Masters degree in physics and chemistry. He then went on to use his new skills to help map Canada for the air force. 

In the 1970s, Bill found himself in a position that would lead to him being famously known as the “father of the modern Canadian air force.” In 1965, the air force and navy were disbanded and they were lumped in with the army under one chain of command, the Canadian Forces. In 1974, Bill was promoted to Deputy Chief of Defence Staff. “And it struck me, I had the opportunity to finally recreate the air force. And that’s what I did.”

Bill recalls, “Our air force had been shattered. There was no single authority and there were a bunch of little groups of people operating…but there was no single source, no single head.” Through his efforts, all of Canadian aviation came to be governed by one organization. Bill was named the first Commander of the Canadian Forces Air Command in 1975.

After spending 36 years in the military, Bill retired in 1978, but he didn’t stop working. “Canadair phoned me and asked me if I’d come to work for them.” Bill eventually became Bombardier’s vice-president of international sales and travelled the world, selling planes in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Bill continued to fly into his 70s and he clocked over 18,000 hours in the pilot seat.

Looking back on his achievements, Bill says the most memorable award is being inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame back in 2001. But “any success I had wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my family and my staff, and people I work with,” he insists.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do things and I was lucky enough to do them. That’s really what it boils down to. Some sadness, much joy and a lot of laughs.” - By Elizabeth Whitten